Consider the scenario. A Great Power who has dominated world affairs is in relative decline. Production and wealth are expanding at much slower rates than other rising nations. Some of those nations feel their own expanding strength; they aspire to find a "place in the sun." So they try to carve out larger spheres of influence, challenge weaker partners of the dominant power, issue bellicose statements where diplomacy would work better.
A follower of current affairs will immediately recognize this as a description of China's effort to evolve from a regional into a world power. Students of history will recognize the German Empire under the Kaiser. His personal ambitions and insecurities vis-a-vis his British royal family relatives fused with the rising nationalism of the age. The Kaiser was no evil nihilist like Hitler, but by following his own logical path he helped bring on a war that revolutionized Europe and destroyed his family's position. Both are right. The behavior of 21st century China mimics that of the Germans from exactly a century ago. And one need not be an expert to know how that turned out.
At this moment, Vice President Biden is in the Far East. He first visited Japan and is now in China. Biden's immediate goal is to personally reaffirm the United States' inflexibility on the issue of China's self-declared air defense zone. In a not so subtle move last week, the U. S. Air Force flew several gigantic and loud B 52 strategic bombers over the defense zone. China scrambled fighters, but offered no additional aggressive moves. Xinhua News published the statement that "several combat aircraft were scrambled to verify the identities" of the US and Japanese aircraft.
Biden yesterday issued a special challenge to young Chinese to "challenge the government" to force change in a system they oppose. He reminded the students applying for visas that in America, opposing the system is admired.
China proclaimed the air defense zone over a broad swath of the South China Sea that happens to include islands governed by Japan. It also mostly covers international waters. Most likely they announced it as a test of Obama's resolve. Fortunately, Obama did strongly defend American and Japanese rights in the region. But this is the latest in a long series of provocations. China has forcefully argued claims against Vietnamese and Filipino territory and even claimed suzerainty over thousands of shipwreck sites.
A hundred years ago the Kaiser provoked two near war crises over Morocco, his navy shelled Venezuelan barrier islands, among other belligerent bullying actions. His government believed that a hyper-aggressive stance everywhere from the Sahara to Samoa would win Germany respect in the world, especially from Britain. This reversed the balancing act of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 1800s. He sought to minimize risky conflicts while cultivating good personal relations with American leaders like Ulysses S. Grant.
The United States faces some of the same concerns as Britain a century ago. Both the current US and the former British Empire had retooled their militaries to project power against disorganized and mostly non national opposition. Both nations retained the means to project power (Royal Navy, US Air Force and Navy), but the armies emphasized small war concepts. This meant smaller forces relying on high levels of skill, technology, and experience. The armies were also smaller in terms of ratio to population than potential adversaries.
Britain's pre-World War I army was annihilated within 18 months of the beginning of World War I. It simply could not handle mass conventional warfare. Our current military does not have the resources to be ready for both a mass conventional and unconventional war at the same time. Perhaps if less went to bureaucrats and more to actual fighting preparedness, this could be achieved. The US, however, has often started major wars in a near skeleton state, ramping up to full mobilization fairly quickly. Then again, it has never faced an adversary with the population and territorial size of China.
China is likely not determined to start a war. This would cut it off from its largest market and automatically void America's massive debt. The German Empire likewise did not want a continental war as it entered 1914. Things can happen and events can move quickly, however.
If China, like 1941 Japan, saw war with the United States as inevitable, the time to strike would be 2015. Obama has more chance of seeing a fully Republican Congress than one that stands behind him. Striking before the 2014 election could give Obama an outside shot at a Democratic Congress. He certainly would not hesitate to use a war as an excuse to push for one.
In 2015, the full effects of Obamacare will put the nation in economic and social turmoil. Despite Obama's show of resolve over the defense zone, he remains a weak president with little political backing or ability. Since a war would almost certainly result in a Republican hawk (Chris Christie comes to mind) winning the presidency in 2016, a China determined to strike would want as much lame duck Obama as they could get.
China has expanded their blue water naval capabilities, collected a number of bases far from their homeland, and has carefully built up a conventional first strike capability.
Where are some of the potential starting points?
World War I did not start because Germany attacked France and Britain. Germany's ally Austria-Hungary suffered a terror attack encouraged by Russia's ally Serbia. A long standing regional grievance flared into a European, then a World War. How committed would China be in backing a foolish and unapproved move by North Korea. This state is less an obedient client of China and more of the obnoxious loud cousin.
2.) Direct Strike on US and/or Japanese regional military assets
Chinese anti ship missiles are built to sink ships in one shot. That being said, these missiles are crafted by the same country that has an epidemic of poorly built buildings falling over on their sides. They should be feared, but they likely will have a low success rate. But they are first strike weapons, make no mistake.
Because of the close alliance and Japan's post World War II constitution, an attack on Japan is tantamount to an attack on the United States itself. But China might realistically question Obama's willingness to fully commit to a war to protect Japan.
The two countries have fought over a few barren strips of territory in the past. India also has natural sympathy for the Tibetan Buddhists who continually oppose Chinese rule. The recent pact could satisfy both sides or be a temporary fix. Both are nuclear powers and China gets along better with Indian rival Pakistan.
Border disputes over islands, just like with Japan and the Philippines. The difference is that China once ruled Vietnam as a vassal. Vietnam never forgot and still regards China with suspicion. In a post Cold War world, the United States actually has a better chance at good relations with Vietnam than China.
This is not to say that war will happen, or that it is even likely. Then again, a far East conflagration is also firmly within the realm of possibility.
5.) Russia (highly unlikely in short term)
Russia and China have grown closer in this century, focusing on their mutual distrust of American influence. Territorial issues still divide them. The Maritime Province, or Primorskya Oblast, was once Chinese territory seized under the Czars. It contains the major Russian port and naval base Vladivostok. China regards this land as it once did Hong Kong, territory that will inevitably revert to Beijing's rule. Russia disagrees. Not a bone of contention now, but certainly potentially a problem in the future.
China, as a former imperial power and a regime currently bullying its neighbors, has a long list of potential adversaries should a general war break out. Almost certainly the United States and Japan would form the core of the effort. North Korea (perhaps China's closest bordering friend) involvement brings in the modern and well-trained military of South Korea.
Taiwan has every reason to fear Chinese hegemony in the Far East, but could convince itself that non belligerency could save it if China won the war. It would not, but humanity has enormous powers of self-deception.
Definite maybes include Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. Britain's shrunken role as a Great Power has not deterred it from assisting the United States in opposing aggression. It remembers well the inability of Neville Chamberlain's goodwill in heading off Hitler. Because Japan and the US would shoulder most of the load, the three British Commonwealth countries would.
Vietnam and the Philippines also have every reason to fear Chinese aggrandizement. The former US colony sits right in the path of China's oceanic power play. A Chinese victory would almost certainly reduce them to satellite status. Both countries also have difficult geographical features and long traditions of guerrilla warfare that would cost China resources and benefit it very little. Still, a Far Eastern general war would likely mean American use of the Philippines as a major base, something China would want to prevent. The Philippines would very likely join. Vietnam only if they felt menaced during the war or by the possible outcome.
India looms as possibly the next great English speaking democratic power. It remains an X factor because the United States has done very little to cultivate good relations with this potential powerhouse. Currently some in India have asked that the United States lift natural gas export restrictions. Purchasing from the United States, from their point of view, is both less expensive and better for their security concerns.
China, however, has a strong relationship with Iran. Iran aggression coordinated with China could pose major problems for a Western alliance.
As the president has embarked on the 23 days of Obamacare and everyone follows along, it does not hurt to remind ourselves that foreign dangers lurk as well.