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The perfect storm: "China is preparing for a war and especially one with the United States. Now is a time of maximum danger with Xi Jinping's China"

"Few understand the importance of Taiwan in the U.S.-China clash for leadership in the 21st century. Yet this island despite itself could spark World War III: the perfect storm has its eye of the storm here. Are we heading for escalation on a planetary scale?" How could this happen?

by Nicola and Gabriele Iuvinale

Let's examine the current situation from three perspective angles.

The first on historical precedent, the second on military-strategic precedent, and the third on China's current economic situation.

Regarding the historical precedents, recently Professor Graham Allison, in a recent editorial in The National Interest wrote: "On the broader canvas of history, when a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to replace a dominant great power, the rivalry more often than not ends in war."

Proximate causes of conflict have also included accidents, mistakes and unintended consequences of unavoidable choices in which one of the protagonists accepted greater risks, hoping the other would back down.

But beneath these, there were structural factors that Thucydides highlighted in explaining how the two major city-states of classical Greece destroyed each other in the Peloponnesian War: "It was the rise of Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable."

Thucydides' trap is the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to replace the dominant one.

In the past five hundred years this has happened 16 times; in twelve of these, the result was war.

Today, the United States and China are engaged in the greatest rivalry of all time.

Daily in the Taiwan Strait in the South China Sea, there are skirmishes between Chinese forces and those of the United States, Philippines, Taiwan, Canada, etc.

As gasoline is to a match, these accelerating elements (which Carl Von Clausewitz called the “fog of war”) can turn an accidental collision between rival ships or aircraft or a third-party provocation into a conflict.

Extending Thucydides' insight into war as "a matter of possibility," Clausewitz observed that "war is, therefore, the realm of uncertainty."

The United States has long sought the establishment of a hotline between American and Chinese militaries to avoid strategic miscalculations. However, Xi knows how much history the current US administration has forgotten today: all past military telephone lines with Beijing have proven useless. In the bombing crisis of the 1999 Belgrade embassy and in the 2001 incident involving a collision between a US EP-3 aircraft and a Chinese interceptor, Beijing's military leaders simply refused to answer Washington's phone calls. Even if Xi Jinping, at the last summit in San Francisco, agreed to set up a hotline with the Americans, the chances that his generals will respond in times of crisis are most likely zero.

We can make the second evaluation on a military-strategic level.

An exhaustive recent analysis by Hal Brands, assistant to Henry Kissinger, and professor at Johns Hopkins University, explains how Xi's army has at least five possible strategies to squeeze and perhaps subdue Taiwan. It goes from what is already happening today – systematic coercion, without war and seamlessly-to an all-out invasion, with options including blockade, bombardment and small conquests of Taiwanese territory in between.

None of China's five options is ideal because an attempt to conquer Taiwan carries risks ranging from military defeat to World War III.

However, Xi may not be willing to live indefinitely with the status quo in Taiwan that he considers unfair, even insulting, to a China that he believes is regaining its rightful place at the top of Asia and the world. "What its actual intentions are I cannot say, but China is preparing for a war and particularly one with the United States," U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall recently said.

It is a mistake to think that Xi would never try something so shocking. China has a long tradition of starting its wars with surprise attacks, as American forces discovered in Korea in 1950 and the Vietnamese in 1979.
Chinese military doctrine favors swift and overwhelming assaults.

Such a decision could have ominous consequences for China and the world.

Finally, the third assessment concerns China's current economic situation.

For many years, China's seemingly inexorable rise has worried U.S. strategists. Today, the country's economic stumbles and slowdown raise new concerns.

Michael Beckley, professor at Tufts, argues that China is a "leading power" undergoing economic slowdown and that, historically, such powers are often economically and militarily aggressive.

Beckley writes, "They are actually the most dangerous type of country because they have both the means and the motivation to shake the international order. In most cases, they develop military power projection forces and deploy them along major trade routes, fueling great power competition. In some cases, it has triggered major wars. Now is a time of maximum danger with Xi Jinping's China."

In a recent new study in International Security, again Beckley analyzed, for the past 150 years, all instances in which a rapidly growing great power has experienced a prolonged economic slowdown.

None of these "peak powers" has softened.

Instead, most suppressed dissent at home while expanding abroad to secure an economic lifeline, fend off rivals and gain territory; the rulers of the leading powers strengthen their grip on power at home while trying to forge empires abroad.

Indeed, with its financial, military, geopolitical rise and now economic slowdown,

China already seems to be following this historical pattern.

Speech delivered by Dr. Nicola Iuvinale on the occasion of the presentation of Claudio Pagliara's book "The perfect storm", journalist and RAI correspondent from the United States, at the Senate of the Italian Republic on 21 November 2023.

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