WW III in the West Philippine Sea

A novel dares ask how it might start and end.

China, America, Philippines South China Sea ownership
ILLUSTRATION War Espejo

(SPOT.ph) Britain’s brand-new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is undertaking its maiden deployment by, among other things, participating in a joint exercise with the navies of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. For its part, China has shrugged it off: but the British flotilla will sail through the South China Sea, and throughout its multi-month deployment, the British Navy will be undertaking exercises with the American, Indian, South Korean and French navies, and the Japanese Self-Defense force. The British effort ties into the familiar pattern of American “freedom of navigation” missions in which its ships sail through the South China Sea to pointedly dispute China’s claim that it is part of its own territorial waters.

It’s said that as Napoleon went into captivity he advised the British who’d defeated him, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” If you belong to a certain age group, like I do, you have witnessed the sleeping giant awaken and how China is now moving the world. Political and economic observers will tell you that the rapid rise in income in our part of the world is as much due to one thing (the decision of China, after it established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1972) as any other, as it meant the region sheltered under the American security umbrella and could focus its energies and resources on building up their economies; in our own country, the establishing of relations between Manila and Beijing after President Marcos followed the example of President Nixon, meant Chinese material support for the CPP-NPA basically stopped.

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The fall and rise of the Chinese military

When it comes to national stereotypes, China’s is fearsome in that like the Catholic Church, its leaders supposedly think in centuries. Thus the famous remark of the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai. Supposedly asked his opinion about the impact of the French Revolution (circa 1789), Zhou replied, “it’s too soon to tell.” More concretely, this ability to think long-term explains China’s military vision for itself and how it came about.

The story goes something like this. In the 1990s, tensions arose in the Taiwan Strait as Beijing angrily reacted to a visit to the U.S.A. by the President of Taiwan. From August 1995 to March 1996, China conducted live-fire exercises, ballistic missile tests, and war games. In response, America dispatched an aircraft carrier group and China found itself impotent in the face of the American fleet. So Beijing vowed it would never face such a humiliation again. The result of this “Third Taiwan Straits Crisis” was a crash course, with unlimited funding, to build up China’s missile, submarine, and aircraft capabilities, followed by a crash course involving buying a mothballed Russian aircraft carrier to study it and duplicate, then surpass it.

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The idea being that any American technological superiority could be swarmed to death with a barrage of land, sea, and air-launched missiles, and eventually with a carrier battlegroup (or two, or three) of its own by Beijing. In the two decades since, we’ve seen this come to pass, including Chinese construction on sandbars and atolls to create the Chinese version of what the Americans once did in Manila Bay: turning islands into, essentially, concrete battleshipsor today, concrete aircraft carriers or missile launcher bases—in the South China Sea to swarm any hostile American fleet.

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In a sense, this would echo the idea of the British military historian Richard Overy who said the Allies won World War II not because they produced the best weapons, but rather, the most weapons. The Germans, for example (he argued) had a history of craftsmanship and so they took time and pride to fuss over infinite varities of amazing tanks while the Americans just produced a pretty primitive tank, the Sherman, but in quantities that swamped the infinitely-better but much fewer German panzers. And the Russians did the same in terms of machine guns and their own tanks. America may still have the finest equipment money can buy, but China now has the industrial might to produce dozens of rivals for every American plane, ship, or missile.

A Tom Clancy novel, a British general, and a Third World War 

This situation quietly came to pass during the decades of relative peace and quiet in Asia from the Nixon visit to Mao Zedong onwards. This meant that the possible war the world obsessed about was the potential for a Third World War that was considered most likely to begin in Europe, where the forces of NATO led by America, and the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union, had been in a face-off more or less continuously since the end of World War II. Most memorably, it was plotted out, and described, by Tom Clancy in one of his most intricate and thrilling novels, Red Storm Rising from 1986, which in its time gave birth to video and board games for war buffs. But Tom Clancy’s book could trace its origins in an experiment conducted by a retired British general nearly a decade before, in 1977.

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The general’s name was Sir John Hackett and what he did was get six of his friends (with naval, air force, diplomatic, and economic expertise) to discuss how World War III might break out, and how it might turn out. The general was essentially writing up a kriegspiel, or simply put, a war game. War games are an integral part of military thinking and planning. Civilians might less dramatically call it a passion for simulations, as soldiers try to test their war plans for potential weaknesses while undertaking a kind of psychological profile of their potential enemies. The general’s written-up war game came out as an influential best-seller titled The Third World War: August 1985.

In 2017 Hugh White came out with an essay any Filipino, and not just Australian or American, interested in the South China sea and our future, should read. Its provocative title was "Without America." He’d previously argued that America needed to share power with China in the Pacific. America, he argued, could no longer insist on being the supreme power in the region, a fact of life which had enabled the countries in Southeast Asia to focus on their own economic development since security was guaranteed by the American security umbrella from the end of World War II until the turn of the 21st Century. Instead, White argued in his 2017 paper, seeing how things had turned out, he now believed “America will lose, and China will win.” It is an intricate, utterly interesting exercise but for our purposes, what’s relevant here is something White describes: the result of not just one, but many, wargames conducted by the Americans, on a potential conflict in the South China Sea.

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What would America do?

In another article whose title says it all ("Let’s be clear: China would call America’s bluff in the South China Sea") White boiled down the situation in our part of the world to the following: “This brings us to the heart of America’s policy problem in the SCS. To understand that problem we have to be clear about nature of the contest there. Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia. It hopes to use the SCS dispute to do that by demonstrating there that America is no longer willing to risk a military confrontation with China to sustain its own leading position in the Asian strategic order, and thereby concede that leadership to China.”

White pointed out that “It [China] has done that with a series of overt military moves which directly challenge the interests of U.S. friends and allies, to which Washington has made no effective response. So far that has worked very well for Beijing, and that has reinforced their confidence in America’s loss of resolve.” For Filipinos, this might ring a bell: in recent weeks there’s been a debate about the standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships under the previous administration, in which Washington brokered an agreement for both sides to withdraw; the Filipinos did, the Chinese didn’t; the finger-pointing among Filipinos continues, with some Filipinos having no faith in America as a result.

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Anyone who takes the time to read White’s "Without America" will be shocked by the part in which he says repeated wargaming by the Americans, of a conflict erupting in the South China Sea, inevitably ends with America backing out of a fight. The reason for this is that however they game it, politically-speaking, no American president in the wargames, ends up deciding it is worth risking American lives over the future of the South China Sea. White goes on to elaborate why this is so, and his arguments make for troubling, if fairly, convincing, reading.

There is also, from the Filipino point of view (for those who bother to think these things through) of past history, such as America’s abandonment of the Philippines at the start of World War II, or more recently, in America’s refusal to give iron-clad guarantees to allies like the Philippines, out of the strategical calculation that declining to do so, keeps Filipinos and other allies from being too aggressive when it comes to China. On the other hand, allies like the Philippines can be frustrated by America’s indecisiveness about its level of commitment to the region, even as it continues “freedom of navigation” operations in our part of the world.

This is where the belief that Filipinos are being dragged into a potential war between America and China comes in. It’s an idea fostered by China itself whenever it denounces the freedom of navigation operations of the Americans. While most observers agree that neither America nor China really wants war, it would be imprudent for governments and their militaries not to consider the possibility of war breaking out. Accidents happen: as Kennedy famously said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the message.”

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A novel of the next world war

A recently-released, best-selling novel, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, asks the big “What If”: What if war were to break out, between America and China, in the South China Sea? How might it start and how would it play out? Who, if any, would win? In the tradition of General Hackett’s book, one of the authors is a retired senior officer, in this case, a retired U.S. Admiral; the co-author is a decorated combat veteran. The press release for the novel gives a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books summary of the plot: “On March 12, 2034, U.S. Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt is on the bridge of her flagship, the guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones, conducting a routine freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea when her ship detects an unflagged trawler in clear distress, smoke billowing from its bridge. On that same day, U.S. Marine aviator Major Chris ‘Wedge’ Mitchell is flying an F35E Lightning over the Strait of Hormuz, testing a new stealth technology as he flirts with Iranian airspace. By the end of that day, Wedge will be an Iranian prisoner, and Sarah Hunt’s destroyer will lie at the bottom of the sea, sunk by the Chinese Navy. Iran and China have clearly coordinated their moves, which involve the use of powerful new forms of cyber weaponry that render U.S. ships and planes defenseless. In a single day, America’s faith in its military’s strategic pre-eminence is in tatters. A new, terrifying era is at hand.”

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A scenario of this sort derives its spookiness from reality. Back in the late 1990s, during a State Department-Pentagon-sponsored tour for Asian journalists, one of the free books given us was by the U.S. National Defense University, reprinting, in turn, an article titled “Information War: A New Form of People’s War” written way back in 1996 by someone named Wei Jincheng from the Liberation Army Daily of the People’s Republic of China. It was a remarkable article then, at the start of the Internet era, and remains remarkable now. Reading 2034 made me consider how far China has come and the enormous discipline and dedication it took for the potential of China’s cyberwarfare to be credible enough for scenarios of this sort (consider the ongoing disruption in America due to a gas pipeline getting hacked by Russians just last week).

The plot of the novel takes all of the lessons and debates from the scenarios and incidents mentioned above: the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis, literature on Chinese planning and strategy, the development of the militaries in the region—and puts together a gripping tale with surprisingly sympathetic, or at least, interesting, characters. What will frustrate the Filipino reader conditioned to considering our country and its fate as of fair to large importance in the region, is the absence of Southeast Asians from the events that play out in the book. This is a book about the big playersChina, America, and on a secondarly level, Iran, Russia, and India—with we, the Filipinos and everyone else in ASEAN not even getting cameos in the grand production. But then this is a novel whose authors said they wrote it as much to sound an alarm among their own peopleAmericans—as it was to cash in on a hot zone for potential conflict.

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This isn’t a big, thick, Tom Clancy-style book; it’s a skinny volume, relatively speaking and makes for a quick read; it is truly a book of grand strategy disguised in an entertaining plot. You won’t be able to put it down, once you pick it up.


Additional readings:

Dr. Jeff Michaels, a Senior Lecturer in Defense Studies at the British Joint Services and Command Staff College, examined how Sir John Hackett went about scenario-building for his novel in this article: General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: Or, How to Think about a Future War with Russia Today.

Back in 1988, an American Lt. Col., LeRoy B. Outlaw, did an individual study project titled Red Storm Rising: A Primer for a Future Conventional War in Central Europe which still makes for interesting reading.

Hugh White’s essay, Without America: Australia in the New Asia, besides being available as an eBook, is also available as an audio book. You can read an extract from the essay here.

Wired Magazine has extend excerpts from 2038, by Elliot Ackerman and James G. Stavridis, published by Penguin Random House, in two parts: Part I is the opening of the book which introduces the main scenes of the action and the main characters; Part II gives a glimpse of the broad global canvas on which the rest of the novel unfolds. The Center for a New American Security posted on YouTube, an actual wargaming exercise, set in the South China Sea in 2030. It’s an interesting watch.

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