Thinking about the world at large, one of my biggest fears is that China will have a military conflict with another country. Over the past few years the territorial issues of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the various disputes in the South China Sea have come to (small) blows more than once. During the tense periods, I have always hoped that cooler heads will prevail. David Wolf draws attention to a report from the Brookings Institution which suggests that China is not prepared for a short, sharp war with Japan, which is slightly encouraging. However, even assuming that the Brookings Institution is correct in it’s analysis, I am suspect that even objectively unprepared military does not necessarily imply that no wars or conflicts will occur. I am reminded of the human tendency to not act rationally, which seems to be a major flaw in the assumption in which one side in any conflict will not attack.
Having people like Chang Wanquan (Minister of Defense and State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China and a general in the People’s Liberation Army) in charge makes me quake in my boots. From what little I know of him, he seems like a hardliner, because he said “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands,” and that China would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty. The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” I certainly hope that this is a message meant as a moral-boosting message for his own troops, because if the Minister of Defense really does believe that his army is invincible, that spells trouble.
Another possibility for conflict (and potentially war) to occur is due to lack of a strong chain of command. Even if the commanding generals of the PLA are fully believe that war would not be beneficial to China, it is perfectly possible that a lower-ranking officer could start a conflict. I was just reading the Wikipedia page on the first Peloponnesian War, and a particular passage concerning the Battle of Sybota jumped out at me. Athenians were aiding their ally Corcyra in defense against Corinth. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, so it was a fairly sensitive situation, and the Athenians were apparently aware that fighting against Corinth could easily lead to a war with Sparta. Therefore,
the Athenians were instructed not to intervene in the battle unless it was clear that Corinth was going to press onward to invade Corcyra. However, the Athenian warships participated in the battle nevertheless. [emphasis mine]
One doesn’t really need examples from classical Greece to support the idea that commanding officers don’t always have full command. Even people outside of the military structure could start small conflicts. A few years ago there was a Chinese fishing boat that rammed a Japanese Coast Guard boast, creating a bit of a furor, and there were also some Vietnamese fishermen killed by Chinese Naval Police.
Of course, even if the people running the Chinese military don’t believe that war would be beneficial and all of the officers in the military are perfectly calm-headed and obey their orders, a passage from one of my recent favorite books is a good reason to be cautious:
Statesmen are not seers and their actions are taken in contemporary context with no view over the hill. The working out of a crisis takes place in stages without history’s advantage of seeing the event whole and its aftermath too.
It is all too easy to make mistakes, even when you are surrounded by expertise and you have access to excellent information. I vaguely recall hearing in a lecture on Greek civilization that the Athenians thought the Spartans would never fight, since it would be to economically costly. (I’m sure at least one of my readers can give me better details on that)
One final thought is that China might not be the instigator of war. Last time I met with a classmate of mine we disused the potential of environmental issues to cause conflict in Asia. We specifically spoke about water access in India, but I know that there are many other issues in which China’s use of resources causes a shortage of resources in neighboring countries. It might very well turn out that India (with a coalition of Southeast Asian allies) ends up attacking China in order to protect water resources originating high in the Himalayas. Keeping this in mind, perhaps I should build up my expertise on Southeast Asia to prepare for coming conflicts between China and it’s southern neighbors within the next few decades.