CSIS Security Forum: Is This How War with China Starts?

The call to the White House situation room at 3 o’clock in the morning reports that Chinese and Japanese boats have collided off a contested island in the South China Sea claimed by both nations. The new Japanese Prime Minister is on the line, asking the president for a strong demonstration of U.S. support in the crisis. The Japanese leader insists that the Chinese boats have invaded Japanese “sovereign territory,” a clear red-line that the he knows could trigger U.S. action under the mutual security treaty. Already Chinese warships are reportedly steaming for the island at the center of the crisis.

What does the President intend to do?

That was the question at the center of a “Simulated Crisis in East Asia” that culminated the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Security Forum 2013. In a scenario that mirrored the deliberations of a National Security Council principles’ meeting, former top U.S. officials tried to develop a response that would save face for both sides, and de-escalate a crisis that had the potential to bring U.S. and Chinese warships into direct conflict. A key takeaway from the simulation: the kind of crisis in Sino-American relations sparked by the downing of a U.S. P-3 surveillance plane by Chinese fighters in 2001 is just a few bad chess moves away.

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