There is a class of pundit that lives to talk about various war scenarios, almost always involving the United States. In the Cold War, this was a lucrative profession as most people thought war with Russia was an inevitability. Back then, the scenarios were all built around a chain of events that would lead to a nuclear exchange. The big set piece battles in Europe would give way to one side or the other deciding to launch their ICBM’s. In retrospect, the only way that was going to happen was though human error.
Today, the focus of the great game is usually on Asia, particularly China. That’s because the formerly dirt poor Chinese are suddenly rich and spending tons of money on their military. That means they have started to bully their neighbors, most notably Japan and Taiwan. As the patron of North Korea, they also can push the South Koreans around a bit too. The Chinese also have a strange way of being unnecessarily hostile to the US by letting it be known they are ready for a fight, just as soon as they can start one.
The assumption in the West is that China has plans to displace the US as the regional hegemon. That’s not an unreasonable assumption. A civilization with a billion people and 5,000 years of history should swing a big stick in its own neighborhood. The mistake is in thinking they are in a big hurry to confront the US in order to take control of the Pacific Rim. That’s a Western way of looking at things and it ignores a lot of history. China has always taken a long view. They don’t have to rush into anything. Instead, they can wait and let nature takes its course.
There’s also the fact that the Chinese have never been a naval power. They are not a naval power now and even at their current investment rate, they will not be a naval power anytime soon. There’s also the fact that the Japanese can become a naval power by next week if they wish to do it. There’s also the Russian fleet headquartered in Vladivostok and a big naval base in Avacha Bay on the Kamchatka Peninsula, with a major submarine base located at Vilyuchinsk in the same bay. The Russians are a serious naval power.
All of this means that the Chinese are a long way from dominating the region and even further away from confronting the US military on the high seas. Even if they launch a first strike against US naval assets in the Pacific, The US sub fleet is beyond their reach. That means a counter strike that eliminates Chinese naval assets and closes off Chinese sea traffic. It also means the remainder of the conflict happens on Chinese soil. That’s a high price to pay when waiting probably gets the same result.
An important thing about China that Western thinkers ignore is that the Chinese leadership worries far more about internal threats than external ones. The “iron rice bowl” has been a fact of life for a long time in China, despite efforts to break this cultural practice. Closing off sea traffic and access to world markets is the ultimate breaking of the iron rice bowl and no one knows what would happen. There’s also a lot of wealthy Chinese who would suffer if trade is disrupted. Pissed off rich people is always bad for the state.
The bigger threat is from North Korea. They combine the worst elements of a rogue state, a paranoid dictatorship and East Asian technical savvy. Most of the crazy regimes in the world rule over low-IQ populations incapable of sustaining modern economies and the technological products that result from it. The Arabs are a nuisance, but they cannot project power without Western help. The North Koreans are smart and they are building a serious ballistic missile program to go along with their nuclear program.
The best intelligence suggests the regime is fragile. Kim Jong Un is still consolidating power and that is always a dicey proposition in an authoritarian country. There’s always the threat that those who fear being purged will move against him first, but that just makes him more paranoid and more dangerous. It also means the people around him are not the best and brightest, just the least threatening. It’s also possible that Kim Jong Un is crazy, or at least on his way, so the set of plausible outcomes is very large.
Here’s where China and her zeal for stability probably keeps things under control. There are thousands of North Korean escapees in China. The Chinese government repatriates many of them, but not all. The numbers are small now, but any serious instability in North Korea means millions of starving Koreans heading north. That’s a big incentive for the ChiComs to keep a lid on the North Koreans. That means financing whoever promises to keep the place under control and not launch a nuke against the US.
There’s also another factor working against war in Asia. All of these countries are getting old and they have very weird demographic imbalances. Japan is the most well known example of low TFR, but China is undergoing a similar transformation. A very rich country like Japan can manage through this sort of demographic transformation. Relatively poor countries suddenly getting old is a different matter. Chinese per capita GDP is $6500, while Japan’s is $39000. That’s a huge challenge for China that will take priority over military adventurism, assuming any exists.