Will Chinese assertiveness and nationalism lead to war with Japan and the United States, trumping the impact of globalization and growing interdependence? A recent Financial Times commentary by John Plender recently raised this prospect, a familiar theme in much of the Western media and among Washington foreign policy pundits.

Plender writes, “interdependence has done little to damp the nationalist instincts that have driven China’s new assertiveness and prompted nationalistic responses in Japan and elsewhere . . . . Modern wars are more often a product of tribalism and nationalism reinforced by deep insecurities and arms races. There is also the risk that the ruling elite [in China] will, quite rationally, put its own interests before those of the nation. Since its legitimacy derives primarily from high economic growth, its survival in an economic crisis may depend on whipping up nationalist sentiment to the point of using force against its neighbors. In that event, Japan’s US security guarantee will matter far more than economic links.”

No one can predict the future and no one can say war between China and Japan, and by extension, the United States is impossible. And certainly accidents can happen without the intent of letting a confrontation escalate to military conflict. That said, it is nevertheless highly unlikely that China would launch or provoke a war with Japan and the United States–or that China, Japan, or the United States would allow any minor military incident to escalate rather than quickly standing down and seeking a diplomatic solution.

Plender, like many, many other writers, looks to the outbreak of World War I as a precedent, noting that war erupted despite the high level of international trade. But Plender, like the others, ignores the fact that nuclear weapons did not exist in 1914. It is highly unlikely that military advisers in either China or the United States would guarantee their commander-in-chief that going to war with the other c would definitely not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union recognized the danger of nuclear escalation, which led to a myriad of arms control agreements and confidence building measures to mitigate the chances of conflict, especially accidental war. Mutual Assured Destruction –(MAD)was not a strategy but rather a predicted outcome of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange. That calculus has not changed. It cannot be guaranteed that if one country perceives its only option to avoid losing is to escalate to use of even limited nuclear strikes,  that it would for certain demure and accept defeat. And it does not require an extensive thought experiment to conclude that a nuclear war between the US and China would be catastrophic for China, Japan, and the United States and the rest of the world–a lose-lose-lose outcome. In short, could any possible “positive” outcome of a military conflict between China and the United States be viewed as worth the potential existential risk to both countries? Would even a 1 percent chance of assured destruction be enough of a deterrent? One would hope so – and the risk of nuclear exchange would likely be far greater. 

Plender nevertheless seems to think that nationalism could lead China into a war with Japan and the United States. He argues that China’s ruling elite “will, quite rationally, put its own interests before those of the nation,” and “since its legitimacy derives primarily from high economic growth, its survival in an economic crisis may depend on whipping up nationalist sentiment to the point of using force against its neighbors.” That argument seems compelling until one considers that a war with Japan and the United States, even if it does not escalate to nuclear destruction, is not likely to help China survive an economic crisis but rather deepen the crisis and thus that the “legitimacy” of the ruling elite would likely be undermined as the economy tanked, even if the Chinese Communist Party initially benefited from a patriotic upswing in support a government at war. 

Although major military conflict much less an all-out war between China and the United States is highly unlikely, both China and Japan have greatly aggravated the regional political/security situation with the recent spike in Sino-Japanese tension, military maneuvering, and game of “chicken” over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.  Beijing’s more vitriolic assertion of its maritime territorial claims and the bolstering of its regional military power and presence over the last several years in East and Southeast Asia has undermined two decades of Chinese diplomacy and cautious behavior aimed at convincing China’s neighbors and the world that Chinese leaders understood the history of rising powers clashing with established hegemons and were committed to avoiding such an outcome through a strategy of “peaceful rise.”  China has virtually no real friends (including the North Koreans, who despise the Chinese–a feeling happily reciprocated by their erstwhile “allies”) in the region and its strategic intentions are at best not understood and at worst deeply mistrusted. 

It is shortsighted for some Western analysts to place all the blame on China, however, which would be historically inaccurate and obfuscate understanding of current tensions. The Japanese and others also have stoked nationalism, most recently exemplified by Japanese Prime Minister Sinzo Abe’s statements questioning whether Japan “invaded” neighboring countries in World War II, his partial disavowal of apologies by previous Japanese prime ministers for Japan’s World War II aggression and war crimes, and his support for the visit of more than 100 Japanese politicians to the controversial Yakusuni Shrine that houses the remains of a number of Japanese war criminals.   

While a China-Japan war – precipitating a US-China military conflict – seems highly unlikely, the current escalating tension and mistrust is not in the long-term interest of any of the countries involved, including the United States. There seems to be no “adult supervision” of Chinese and Japanese bad behavior, however. No one seems to be asking Beijing or Tokyo what is the “end game” of the nationalistic genuflecting over some useless rocks? The United States has seemed to make only half-hearted attempts to talk sense into the antagonists and has failed to strongly condemn Abe’s provocative remarks. As one Washington colleague recently commented, what would be the US and world reaction if German Chancellor Merkel made similar comments denying Germany’s World War II aggression and crimes against humanity? 

More importantly, the US, China, and Japan need to rise above this current trend of deepening strategic mistrust and pursuit of strategies that lead nowhere to instead focus on the need to put common – and global – interests and responsibilities first and manage differences in that strategic context. 

Banning Garrett is the Strategic Foresight resident senior fellow for global trends and innovation.