U.S.-China relations are deteriorating by the day, and the bad news is that the two countries could end up fighting in the coming decade. The good news is that such a war won’t start by accident.
There is a venerable argument that states can stumble into a major conflict that neither truly desires, and it has been revived as tensions between the two great powers escalate. Nevertheless, history shows that big wars don’t just happen inadvertently.
The accidental war thesis was raised recently by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia. Noting the many flashpoints at which U.S. and Chinese interests collide, he argued that there is a growing danger of them “stumbling into conflict.” An accidental collision between ships or planes in the South China Sea, or several other plausible scenarios, could lead to crisis, escalation and war. Just as the great powers of the early 20th century “sleep-walked” into World War I, China and America could blunder their way to disaster today.
World War I is often considered the classic example of an unwanted war: a devastating conflict that none of the participants would have chosen had they known what was coming. During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers worried that crises over Berlin or Cuba could get out of control. There is a body of political science literature devoted to understanding how accidental war can occur.
Yet there is one big problem: It is hard to identify any major wars that came about even though no one wanted them. The trouble in July and August 1914, it turns out, was not that inflexible mobilization schedules and military plans thrust political leaders into conflict. It was that several powers, most notably but not solely Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany, insisted on pursuing aggressive policies that they knew risked a localized war at best and a continental war at worst. They nearly all believed, moreover, that if war had to come, better it should come sooner rather than later.
A generation after that, Franklin Roosevelt may not have foreseen that slapping an oil embargo on Japan would lead to the aerial assault on Pearl Harbor. But he certainly understood that war was a distinct possibility once the U.S. began strangling the economy of a country that was already pillaging Asia.
Likewise, the Six Day War of 1967 is sometimes treated as an inadvertent conflict. But again, Egyptian leaders were hardly blind to the danger of war when they mobilized forces in the Sinai Peninsula, blockaded Israel’s port on the Red Sea and took other belligerent steps.
The reality, as the historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown, is that countries tend to avoid war when neither really desires it. Yes, leaders do sometimes misjudge how wars will turn out and how destructive they will be. Tensions can gradually ratchet up in a way that makes de-escalation progressively harder.
Yet there is no more monumental decision than to initiate a major conflict. So when countries really do want to avert a showdown, they are generally willing to tack or retreat, even at the cost of some embarrassment.
During the Cold War, there was plenty of superpower brinkmanship, and some hair-raising incidents involving U.S. and Soviet military forces. There were several near misses in the Cuban Missile Crisis alone. But in that case and every other case, the crisis was defused and the superpowers drew back, precisely because they didn’t believe that the stakes merited a nuclear bloodbath.
Accidental war also seems unlikely today. There are plenty of circumstances in which the U.S. and China could find themselves in a crisis: a replay of the EP-3 incident of 2001, when a midair collision led to a diplomatic standoff; or an interaction between the Chinese and Japanese air forces in the East China Sea that unexpectedly turns deadly. But U.S. and Chinese policymakers know that a war could very well become an…
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