How FP Stumbled Into a War With China — and Lost

Our intrepid reporters tried to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the East China Sea. They ended up igniting a war in Asia.

By Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

As dawn breaks over the sea that separates Japan and China, a group of renegade Japanese ultranationalists wade ashore on a barren islet they call Uotsuri-shima. It’s the largest of a cluster of uninhabited and uninhabitable rocks known as the Senkakus, or the Diaoyu in Chinese, the unlikely locus of a long-running territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. The activists plant the Japanese flag, declaring that the islands are inalienable Japanese territory; their YouTube video threatens the Chinese navy with destruction if it dares to seize the islands.

Caught off guard, Tokyo is slow to respond, but eventually disowns the ultranationalists and their stunt. By then, though, China has condemned the move as a hostile act and has dispatched armed coast guard and naval vessels to the relatively shallow waters around the Senkakus. Chinese marines arrest the 14 activists and vow to bring them back to China for prosecution.

The next day, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is dispatched to the area, accompanied by a squadron of Japanese F-15 fighters. China maintains its naval ships around the islands and insists that it will not withdraw from the area. As the two militaries appear headed on a collision course, Tokyo informs Washington that it is finally invoking the mutual defense treaty the two nations have had since 1951. Now the White House has a decision to make.

Luckily, this scenario is not playing out in the Situation Room but in the offices of the Rand Corp. think tank in Arlington, Virginia. Foreign Policy asked a war-game expert at Rand, David Shlapak, to lead FP reporters Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson through a simulated conflict in the East China Sea. Shlapak, who has a professorial, trimmed gray beard and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, has spent more than three decades organizing elaborate war games with maps and data-filled dossiers for U.S. military officers and diplomats in Washington. This is a much shorter version of those more formal affairs, with no government officials in the room and no maps on the tables. Instead, it’s just the three of us sitting around a conference table in an office only a few blocks from the Pentagon, talking through a hypothetical crisis.

Keep this in mind: We aren’t warmongers. We entered into the scenario looking for offramps. We went out of our way to choose the least aggressive options and to try to exercise restraint — even when we played the part of China as well as the United States at different stages of the game. But just as Shlapak warned us, events quickly got out of hand, and we found ourselves in a nightmarish escalatory cycle of war fueled by nationalist sentiment in both Japan and China. And the scenario depicted here is not far-fetched fiction. Just this week there was more brinkmanship, as Tokyo warned Beijing that if its naval ships sailed near the islands and lingered, Japan would send in patrol vessels to see them off. China responded with a stern warning of its own, saying that if Japan takes provocative actions, it “will have to accept responsibility for everything that happens.”

All of that is in the real world. In the artificial one constructed by Shlapak, those rhetorical volleys were replaced by open combat. This is the story of what happened next: a war we didn’t seek, didn’t want to fight — and that ended very badly.

Senkakus Incident — Day 2

For us, playing as the “blue team,” the United States, upholding our treaty commitments is paramount. It’s not just about Japan or even Asia. Russia, Iran, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others are watching how America responds when one of its closest and oldest allies calls for help. But the last thing in the world we want is to start a shooting war with the world’s only other superpower over a bunch of worthless rocks.

With that in mind, we offer to protect Japan’s home islands with U.S. naval and air forces, but refuse to take any offensive action against Chinese forces. We order the aircraft carrier George Washington out of its home port in Yokosuka, Japan, and set it cruising in the Western Pacific. That’s to ensure that it is still available if needed — and that it isn’t a sitting duck at port for a possible attack by a Chinese military that has spent years developing a so-called “carrier-killer” missile capable of destroying the massive ship. Meanwhile, elements of the 3rd Fleet in California steam toward the north central Pacific to be ready for any contingencies. We also let the Chinese know that U.S. attack submarines are deployed near the disputed islands and will support our ally if needed.

Then we’re confronted with another huge decision: Japan wants to move its destroyers toward the Senkakus to cover its task force. Tokyo asks us to fill in the gap for the Japanese home islands by sending a pair of our own destroyers to the Sea of Japan. Knowing the ships will be extremely vulnerable if things go pear-shaped, we agree to Japan’s request, concluding that it’s our duty to help protect the home islands from attack.

Senkakus Incident — Day 3

The crisis takes an ugly turn after a military-grade Chinese coast guard cutter rams and sinks one of the Japanese fishing boats encircling the islands. Japanese surface forces respond, employing water cannons and electronic jamming devices against the Chinese, while fighter jets buzz low over Chinese ships. One Chinese frigate unloads at the planes with its 30 mm close-defense guns; Japanese forces, in response, open fire on the Chinese ship. That prompts a devastating and unexpected counterattack from Chinese aircraft and anti-ship missiles. Two Japanese ships are sunk in a matter of minutes, killing about 500 sailors.

Diplomatic communication between Tokyo and Beijing, including a new “hotline” mechanism between the two countries’ armed forces, break down as passions soar. Outnumbered, and fearful of losing more ships, Tokyo calls on Washington to provide more help. Pleading crowds surround the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo; irate crowds chant outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. U.S. cable news channels froth at the mouth and ask when America will come to Japan’s aid; lawmakers bray for blood on the Senate floor.

War Game Timeline

  • Day 1: Japanese ultranationalists plant a flag on an islet in the East China Sea. Beijing sends in naval ships. Chinese marines “arrest” the activists.
  • Day 2: Japan deploys ships and fighter jets to the islands. Tokyo invokes its mutual defense treaty with the United States. The United States offers to help Japan defend its homeland and deploys submarines near the Japanese coast.
  • Day 3: After a confrontation, Chinese naval forces sink two Japanese ships. A U.S. submarine then strikes and sinks two Chinese destroyers. Both sides suffer hundreds of casualties.
  • Day 4: China launches cyber attacks on power grids in California and on the NASDAQ. Chinese missiles inflict serious damage on Japanese forces.
  • Day 5: Chinese attacks wipe out 20 percent of Japanese maritime forces and target economic hubs in Japan. The U.S. rejects Toyko’s request to strike more Chinese ships. Instead, it covers the retreat of Japanese forces. China declares victory.

Back at the White House, pressure to take action is overwhelming. Our war-game master lays out a range of options. We could hold our fire, do nothing, and avoid a war — but sacrifice U.S. credibility and watch the Japanese navy disintegrate. We could send a signal to China by carrying out a cyberattack, but still avoid a direct military assault. A third response would be a tit-for-tat move, using U.S. submarines to take out a Chinese surface ship at no risk to the American crew on the sub. An extreme response would be massive escalation, including strikes on the Chinese homeland or its key military facilities, in order to send an unequivocal message that Beijing is messing with history’s greatest power. As former Yankees manager Billy Martin used to say: “I never threw the first punch; I threw the second four.”

Mindful of the need to keep Japan’s small but able navy in the fight, and feeling pressure from all sides, we opt to help level the playing field for our ally — and send Beijing a message of our resolve — by torpedoing a pair of Chinese guided-missile destroyers, killing several hundred people.

“You have now drawn Chinese blood. You have now started a U.S.-China war by your actions,” Shlapak says.

Senkakus Incident — Day 4

The leadership in Beijing is stunned. It had made clear that this was a fight between China and Japan and that the fight didn’t concern the United States. But times have changed. Just as the Chinese military is much stronger than in decades past, Chinese society is different. This isn’t 1979, when Chinese forces suffered huge losses in Vietnam, yet could withdraw with no domestic political backlash. Now, hundreds of millions of Chinese netizens are livid, clamoring for revenge for the sunken ships.

Shlapak invites us to play now as the “red team,” China. The options are: ignore the sunken ships — and Chinese nationalists — to steer clear of a fight; seek a proportional response by sinking U.S. Navy vessels, like the vulnerable destroyers near Japan; or respond very sharply, such as with a missile assault on U.S. air bases on Okinawa.

We opt for something different. Braving nationalist backlash, we choose a very restrained approach, seeking to inflict pain on the United States but stopping short of drawing blood. While keeping up military attacks on Japanese forces, we unleash China’s asymmetric capabilities against the Americans, especially in cyber- and financial warfare. We activate malware already embedded in the U.S. electricity grid and plunge Los Angeles and San Francisco into darkness. We manipulate data for automatic trading on the NASDAQ stock exchange and erase tens of billions of dollars of wealth, a panic that quickly spreads to other financial markets. We also hint at unloading a portion of our holdings of U.S. government debt, sending the U.S. dollar plummeting.

Senkakus Incident — Day 5

Meanwhile, Chinese forces continue to hammer Japanese surface vessels near the Senkakus. In less than 24 hours, one-fifth of the Japanese navy is knocked out of action and hundreds are dead. To drive home its point, China also initiates attacks on the Japanese economy, knocking out the vulnerable power grid and blasting a crucial jet-fuel refinery.

Facing massive disruption at home and the destruction of its navy, Japan again pleads for help. Tokyo makes three concrete requests: It wants the American aircraft-carrier group that it has hosted for so many years sent into the fight to help protect Japanese ships; it wants more attacks on Chinese ships; and it seeks targeted strikes on the sites used for anti-ship missiles on the Chinese mainland.

For Washington, there are only bad options on the table. “Those treaty obligations looked more important a few days ago,” Keith says.

Our gut reaction is to stop the spiral before the carnage — and the risks — expand. The first option is to tell the Japanese that the United States is not ready to stage attacks on the Chinese homeland or join Tokyo in offensive operations. Sending in the aircraft carrier, which could be hit or sunk by Chinese missiles, is also ruled out. We offer Tokyo to send U.S. submarines and aircraft into the battle zone to cover the withdrawal of its naval forces. That way, the United States can avoid an all-out war with China and stop the fighting before Japan’s naval forces are utterly decimated or its economy strangled.

That decision is “operationally sensible,” Shlapak says, but China emerges as the tactical victor. Beijing took on both the United States and Japan and won. China is now in possession of the Senkakus. Longer term, though, China may have won itself a Pyrrhic victory: Japan and other nations in Asia will likely redouble spending on defense and bandwagon against China both militarily and economically.

In any scenario, Shlapak says, “nobody comes out of it better off.”

What would have happened if we had acceded to Japanese requests? Here’s how that played out:

The United States sends humanitarian aid and disaster-response teams to Japan to bolster its homeland defense and dispatches the carrier at a safe distance in flight range of the Senkakus. It also launches targeted, precision strikes on a handful of Chinese missile sites on the coast, clearly explaining to Chinese leadership the limited nature of the measures.

Long story short, plunging deeper into the fight did not make matters easier for any of the three countries.

U.S. missiles rain down on the Chinese homeland; Japanese commercial freighters explode on the high seas; China’s shiny new navy is quickly shrinking under relentless undersea attacks. In reprisal, Chinese forces obliterate Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and take a potshot with a carrier-killer missile at the George Washington, damaging it and forcing it out of the area. The casualty toll is appalling on all sides, with thousands dead.

“You probably see where this is going,” Shlapak tells us.

The U.S. military could keep punching, hitting key Chinese naval bases, targeting China’s sole aircraft carrier, or even implementing a blockade in the South China Sea to try to strangle the Chinese economy. Nothing, though, preserves Japan’s navy or helps defend its islands. The Chinese can inflict unlimited damage on Japan.

Years of gaming such scenarios have convinced Shlapak of the importance of understanding the inherent risks in wars between great powers, rather than in the one-sided affairs that have dominated U.S. military adventures in recent decades.

“It’s like an avalanche. All you know is that it will end eventually, but you don’t know how, or why, or what the cost will be,” he says, pounding the table for emphasis. Wading into a Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkakus is particularly fraught for the United States and doesn’t allow for any attractive outcomes.

“To get into this fight is a strategic failure of the first magnitude,” Shlapak says.

Our takeaways:

Chastened at the results, we came away with several conclusions after our quick-and-dirty foray into the East China Sea.

First, alliances can be dangerous things, as the ancient Athenians learned more than 2,000 years ago when their allies in Corcyra sucked them into the Peloponnesian War.

Second, it’s hard to put a lot of defense into the mutual defense treaty with Japan. Its ships, aircraft, and home islands are all vulnerable, even if any attacking force would suffer huge casualties. Missile defense, in particular, is exceptionally difficult — if not impossible — given China’s vast and lethal missile arsenal.

Third, China’s military advances have totally changed the game for all sides. A decade ago, Japan could have fended off any challenge in the Senkakus all by itself. Now, China has a modern navy, a vast array of ballistic and cruise missiles, an effective air force, and increasingly sophisticated drones.

Fourth, America’s super aircraft carriers are a bit of an albatross. They are vulnerable as never before to long-range strikes, especially from Chinese anti-ship missiles. But the steps needed to safely bring carriers into the fight either escalate matters (striking at Chinese missile sites) or reduce the ships’ effectiveness (by having to operate at a safe distance.) Conversely, American stealthy attack submarines are very useful operationally — but perhaps lead to more trouble at the strategic level. Ordering a submarine strike is a tempting option, perhaps too tempting; as we saw, a submarine’s risk-free ability to inflict punishment drew us into a state of war with China.

And finally, for all three countries in our scenario, nationalism is hugely powerful and potentially deadly. It sparked the initial spat, fueled each successive escalatory step, and severely constrained each nation’s available responses as the crisis escalated.

That’s why Shlapak suggested that the best way to manage a crisis in a place like the Senkakus, which can’t support any inhabitants anyway, may be to simply ignore it.

Photo credit: JMSDF

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP