Lengthy piece from James Holmes in the National Interest, which I started yesterday and only got around to finishing this morning — and it was worth the time. As your faithful blogger, I was able to strip it down to its essence for you:
Here’s the rub: Clausewitz prophesies that each contender, mindful that it could be outdone, will apply more force than the bare minimum to avoid surrendering the first-mover advantage to the adversary. Leaders fear letting the opponent get the drop on them. Doing more, sooner, helps a protagonist stay ahead of the competition and bolster its prospects of victory. An escalatory dynamic takes hold if everyone does more than simple cost-benefit logic dictates. Washington and Tokyo should acknowledge this in their internal and joint deliberations.
Clausewitzian fatalism represents the beginning of strategic wisdom. It’s safe to assume the contestants will all strive to achieve their goals through minimal force — preferably without fighting at all. No one relishes the hazards of war. It’s equally safe to assume that they see yielding territory, status, or maritime freedoms as even worse than war.
A fight over seemingly minor stakes, then, could mushroom into a major conflagration arraying China against the US-Japan alliance. How much passion would an East China Sea imbroglio rouse among the combatants? China and Japan would be all in.
It nearly goes without saying that China is a nuclear power — and Holmes has me wondering how much longer before Japan becomes one.
The real kicker in a protracted (and therefore presumably non-nuclear) conflict is Japan’s or our ability to draw in third players like South Korea or Vietnam, and China’s ability to bring in the Russians. At that point, what we’d have is more or less a Third World War, begun over a small set of uninhabited rocks in the ocean.
The First World War started over an unloved archduke.