LONDON: Where do you think World War 3 (WW3) will start? Probably not in Europe, even though there are tensions in the Ukraine and on the borders of the Baltic states. President Vladimir Putin is using these areas to scratch away at NATO and in the case of Ukraine, to prevent the further expansion of this defence treaty, which will celebrate its 70th birthday in two-years’ time. Putin has nothing to gain from attacking the Baltic states and the Crimea will remain a permanent part of Russia. Provided the West recognises these facts and Kiev agrees to some form of federation within Ukraine, Putin will scale down his support for the rebels in the east, which will de-escalate tensions in the area. Nor will WW3 start in the troublesome Middle East, whose problems are likely to fester without a solution for years to come. Only if President Donald Trump cancels the Iranian nuclear deal, will tensions there rise even further. As Syria approaches the messy endgame in its civil war, Turkey, Iran and the Kurds are hovering over recaptured land from ISIS, like vultures over a carcase and will re-draw the ill-fated “line in the sand” created by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. Russia will be satisfied with an enlarged naval base in Tartus and a greatly expanded airbase in Latakia as a reward for supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, which will remain beholden to it. These bases will provide Putin with a useful counterbalance to NATO in its south-eastern flank, lost when the Soviet Union collapsed more than 25 years ago. Nor will WW3 break out over the crazy nuclear antics of North Korea. The recently increased sanctions by China give a useful clue to the seriousness with which they consider the threat of the nuclear build-up by Kim Jong-un. China could solve this problem at any time they wish, as the regime of Jong-un would collapse without its assistance. No, the most likely scenario for WW3 is over the sovereignty of the South China Sea (SCS).

Consider a few facts. Some $6 trillion of trade passes through the SCS every year. According to the US Energy Information Administration, there are $11 billion barrels of oil and $190 trillion cubic feet of gas in the SCS. At the present time, more than half of the tonnage of world crude oil transported by sea passes through the SCS, with thousands of merchant and fishing vessels using it every day. If you take a look at a geopolitical map of the region, you will see a number of overlapping areas of the SCS which show the various claims of sovereignty by six neighbouring countries. Dotted within these areas are numerous islands, reefs and banks, many of which are not only claimed, but also occupied by the awakened giant in the area, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the past few years, the PRC has dredged and reclaimed thousands of acres in the SCS, building artificial islands, on which they have constructed such infrastructure as runways, radar facilities, support buildings and loading piers. From these the PRC has the potential to boost their power projection over the entire area, well into the Bay of Bengal, by deploying aircraft, warships and offensive missiles. Recent satellite imagery of the Subi and Fiery Cross Reef of the Spratley Islands, which are also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, shows advanced Chinese military facilities which are now active.

In 2011, the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines, which would help to resolve the dispute over sovereignty of the SCS. This covered the normal maritime activity such as safety of navigation, communications and search and rescue, but left the issue of oil and natural gas exploration unresolved. The latter was tested by India when its state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) signed an agreement with PetroVietnam to carry out exploration in certain blocks of the SCS claimed by Vietnam. This was denounced by PRC in a statement which began “China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the SCS and islands”. This emphatic response was later backed up by the Chinese President Xi Jinping when he stated “We are strongly committed to safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and security, and defending our territorial integrity”, the latter referring to the newly created islands. In the northern SCS, often referred to as the East China Sea (ECS), lie the Diaoyu/Senkakus islands, over which China and Japan have been in dispute since the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. “Provocations against Japan’s sovereign sea and land are continuing, but they must not be tolerated”, said Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently, referring to these islands. The hard line approach by the PRC over much of both the SCS and ECS could trigger not only armed conflict with its neighbours, but also the United States, through the latter’s military alliances and commitments with its allies, Japan and the Philippines. In February this year, the US sailed a carrier group on what they called “routine operations” through the SCS, during which time they were tailed by Chinese vessels as they surveilled the “man-made” islands, ignoring Beijing’s warnings not to challenge its sovereignty in the strategic waterways. The Pentagon issued a statement that the US Navy had been doing these operations for many years and would continue to do so. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a staunch believer in President Trump’s “Peace through Strength” policy, is likely to abandon the previous administration’s policy of seeking to avoid upsetting China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also weighed in on the dispute, promising that the US would block China from further militarising the islands. This is a potentially explosive scenario, which could lead to conflict on a grand scale between an established world power and one which is rapidly developing into an equivalent world power.

Almost two and a half thousand years ago, a similar dilemma resulted in the Peloponnesian War of 411 BC, which devastated Greece. At the time, Sparta (read US) became fearful of a rising power Athens (read China), which made war inevitable. The Athenian historian, Thucydides, recounted this war which engulfed his homeland, the city-state of Athens, and since then it has been called Thucydides’ Trap, a phenomenon which has occurred no less than 16 times, according to some historians, when an established world power was challenged by a rising one and major miscalculations were made. In his 2015 essay in the Atlantic, the renowned historian Professor Graham Allison, argued that this historical metaphor provides the best lens available for illuminating relations between China and the US today. During their 2015 summit, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping discussed the Trap at length. Both being aware of the dangers, it was re-assuring that they concluded that “the two countries are capable of managing their disagreements”. However, since then a new player has arrived on the scene, one who is committed to “making America great again”. President Trump, having fired up populist nationalist support, could well dress himself in Spartan robes (particularly if they were made of gold) and see China as Athens. Unless the US and China can avoid conflict as effectively as did the US and the USSR during four decades of the Cold War, there is the possibility that Thucydides’ Trap could be enacted for the 17th time in the form of WW3. 

Although this scenario appears to be as unlikely as it would be unwise, we are currently commemorating the centenary of another example of the Trap, which resulted in the folly of the First World War. It is well to keep in mind the words of the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.

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