A full-blown U.S.-China war seems so stupid for both countries and the entire world as to be unthinkable. But it is thinkable because both countries may think they have something to gain from brinksmanship, and the Trump administration seems willing to take a lot of risks and to be unlikely to back down. Here is a scenario described in Foreign Policy:
Consider the testimony offered by Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 11, as he warned of a more confrontational South China Sea policy: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” There are only so many ways the Trump team can go about sending such signals given its vow to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which America’s allies had been hoping the United States would complete. By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions. That would probably mean an attempted military blockade against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea…
Trump’s demonstrated willingness to toss out the rulebook on the one-China policy, with his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, has already ratcheted up tensions with Beijing to a level not seen since 1996, when President Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait. The passage of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait at the end of December was largely interpreted as a stern indictment directed at Taipei and the incoming Trump administration. The carrier group then transited past Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan, into the South China Sea. A simultaneous op-ed appearing in China’s state-affiliate mouthpiece, the Global Times, warned, “If the fleet is able to enter areas where the US has core interests, the situation when the US unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change…”
Moving more U.S. naval assets into the Pacific will add to Beijing’s perceptions of U.S. containment while increasing the odds that a minor accident or hostile encounter could trigger armed conflict. One could imagine China deploying underwater submarine detection defenses in the South or East China Sea to monitor U.S. Navy movements. If Washington were to seek to destroy these assets to preempt Chinese primacy or look to extend American military superiority in the region, Beijing would feel compelled to retaliate. Trump’s team might then be tempted to think a shocking use of force could deter Beijing from escalating conflict. It’s not clear at what point Trump would decide the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits of winning such a clash.