The global power game is decided by three parameters: 1) VITAL interests, 2) WILLINGNESS to go to war, and 3) CAPABILITY to mount a credible threat. History can be useful to interpret how they interact.
At the beginning of the 20th century the British Empire faced challenges from France, Russia, Germany, and in the longer run the U.S.
The Fashoda incident (1898) in Eastern Africa where the French drive for an east-west axis across Northern Africa collided with the British effort to establish a north-south corridor revealed that the two imperial powers had conflicting interests, but not of vital character.
Russia constituted a threat during the 19th century to India and what is now Pakistan plus and not the least British de facto dominance of Afghanistan and Persia. There were Russian plans to invade India through Afghanistan and the two powers schemed full throttle against each other in Persia. India was the jewel in the British Empire and any Russian credible threat would automatically be a casus belli for war. Russia was over the 19th century willing to invade India, but not capable to start an enterprise of such dimensions as the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) unmasked.
Germany built a navy far beyond defense exigencies, which left only one clue to the conundrum of its putative purpose: Potentially cutting off Britain's sea lanes, unquestionable a threat to vital interests. The size of its navy, its quality, the Royal Navy's commitments outside the North Sea theatre, and the 'privilege' of choosing when and where meant that Germany was capable to launch such an attack. That made it irrelevant whether Germany was willing to do so - the British Empire could not run the risk.
The U.S. at that stage did not pose a threat to the British Empire. The American opposition to colonialism emerging during World War II did not exist in those days. Britain had largely left Latin America as an American sphere of interest maybe deliberately avoiding any conflicts. As in the case of France capability and willingness did not even enter the equation.
Hence, coming August 1914 Britain chose to side with France and Russia against Germany instead of the other way round.
In the late 1930s British politics was divided with Prime Minister Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax for appeasement and Winston Churchill outside the government against. Chamberlain and Halifax reasoned that Nazi-Germany did not constitute a vital threat to the British Empire. Suffice to recall Prime Minister Chamberlain's words in 1938 about Czechoslovakia: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing". Furthermore they concluded that Britain might win a war against Nazi-Germany, but colossal losses of human lives and money would undermine the grip on the empire. It had not escaped Chamberlain's attention that Britain during World War I turned from international creditor to debtor. And they probably did not reckon that Nazi-Germany would attack the British Empire - in fact Hitler spoke positively about it and as far as can be judged meant it - nor had Nazi-Germany the capability to do so. Churchill's insight was that a cool and rational calculation was not applicable when faced with a regime of such evil depth and ruthlessness that ultimately all kinds of agreements and understanding would be broken in its insatiable lust for power and socio-engineering - all of it diametrically opposed to what Britain stood for. Irrespective of logic Hitler and Nazi-Germany constituted a vital threat. (Speech in the House of Commons 18 June 1940 ....but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for (italics mine) will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science). Turning to the world of today and focusing first on the power game among China, India, and Japan a threat to one another's vital interests seems quixotic. Capability is far from close to what is required to fight a major war. Geography speaks against military actions. China and India is separated by the Himalayas. Due to the Malaccan Peninsula undertaking naval actions simultaneously in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and farther away the Pacific Ocean is almost impossible. Japan is an island requiring logistics beyond imagination to be invaded - as the U.S. realized in 1945 - and the same is the case for landing Japanese troops on the Asian mainland under wartime conditions. Nor is willingness apparent. There is some bellicose talk, but domestic problems override benefits from foreign policy adventures. The idea of rallying people behind a nationalistic course may be visible, but far from it of a dimension giving credence to theories that such measures can or will be used as convenient diversion from impotence to solve domestic problems.
Only two scenarios pop up as vital threats. The first one is China taking steps to divert water from the Tibetan plateau to flow into China instead of India. If so India would face strangulation leaving no other option than war. Despite Chinese talks about its water problem where this idea come up from time to time it doesn't seem to have much tailwind inside the leadership fully aware of consequences. The second one is a Chinese naval blockade of Japan who depend almost totally on imported energy and resources. China's navy is not anywhere close to have the capability. It is still primarily a navy built to defend the Chinese coastline as the talk about the first island chain demonstrates. The type of navy performing this job is completely different from the type of navy needed to blockade Japan. Add to this that such a step would bring in the U.S. and the gap in capability between Chinese offensive measures and Japanese defensive measures effectively rules it out.
The wild card is a coup in Pakistan with extremist forces taking power and control over nuclear weapons. But such a course of events would be more likely to bring China, India, and Japan -- plus the U.S. -- closer together, intercepting, if possible, the risk of such a trajectory.
The South China Sea is attracting media attention. There are certainly a lot of positioning, posturing and maneuvering compounding claims from several countries. The claimants are, however, mostly interested in the resources and less in sovereignty seen as an instrument to get hands on the resources. No one will willingly give up hope of at least a share of resources, but that isn't the same as stating that the issue is vital -- a casus belli for going to war or a threat to survival. The U.S. insists on freedom of navigation imperative to move its carrier groups around. Principles, however, are normally weighed against realities. The growing American oil and gas production translates into less dependence on the Middle East implying less focus on the South China Sea. Unless passage is literally blocked a vital interest will hardly be invoked. See what somebody is like will certainly take place, but that is a game having been played many times in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
At first glance the analysis of the passage of USS Lassen within 12 miles of the Chinese-built Subi Reef looks straightforward, but the picture may be more blurred. If the purpose is to counter distortion of international law, the U.S. needs to take similar actions elsewhere including in the South China Sea; otherwise the step is not to defend a principle, but to act against China. Allies and friends want China to be contained while pursuing their own policies in the South China Sea; that may turn out to be irreconcilable policies if the U.S. stands firm on the principle of freedom of navigation. Neither the U.S. nor its allies and friends in the Southeast Asia can have it both ways.
What does vital interest plus capability and willingness to challenge or defend supremacy tell us looking at the U.S. and China through today's periscope?
First of all they do not threaten each other's vital interest. They are safe. Geography makes an armed conflict impossible.
Militarily the U.S. enjoys a colossal geographic benefit ensconced in the Western Hemisphere with no enemies. Recalling the time it took and the drain on logistics to move half a million men into the Middle East to wage war in 1991 and 2003 a U.S. military attack on China falls in the category of not thinkable. China is surrounded by India, Russia, and Japan with a land border traditionally difficult to defend and the sea offering trade routes as well as invasion routes. China's military capability may be growing but recalling necessity to defend China's borders, the advantages geography offer to the U.S., and the starting positions for measuring relative military power any rational analysis concludes that no military threat to U.S. vital interests is thinkable. Comparing China today to Germany and the U.S. to Britain 100 years ago is fascinating, but not relevant. So far, if a comparison is sought, China is much more akin to Bismarck's Germany moving slowly and weighing every step fully aware of the balance of power not wishing to upset it even if striving to enhance its own role.
The Napoleonic wars, the run up to World War I, and the run up to World War II reveal that the established power and the rising power do not bump into each other with a bang in the revolving door. In all three cases a string of negotiations and attempts to find a modus vivendi dominated the picture.
The Napoleonic Wars included the Revolutionary Wars stretched from the beginning of the 1790s to 1815, but it was not one long war -- far from it. There were seven coalitions whereof five from 1803 when Britain entered the arena in earnest; periods of peace, admittedly unstable, interrupted war. The question was whether France and Britain could find out how to live with each other; only when that proved impossible was the war taken to a battle for supremacy with Britain as the winner.
Prior to 1914 the same pattern is visible. Numerous publications including Norman Angell's 'The Great illusion' from 1909 classified war as futile explaining that no advantages or benefits flowed from waging major wars in an era of strong trade and investment links. The book influenced British political thinking prior to 1914 and despite rising tensions with Germany successive governments tried to shape a mutually acceptable power balance. An example of this maneuvering was the British proposal in 1912 (the Haldane mission) for a moratorium on battleship building. It failed for various reasons, but underline that great powers actually diagnose confrontations and implement policies to prevent them from escalating.
The appeasement policy pursued by Prime Minister Chamberlain in the late 1930s illustrates the same behavior. He went a long way to see whether Britain could accommodate Nazi-Germany.
The by far most likely scenario for U.S.-China relationship over the next decades is continued negotiations to adjust and adapt to a new power balance. There may be skirmishes also of military character but with lightning speed diplomacy will be mobilized to contain such events. There may be armed conflicts using proxies to test each other but kept under control. In new areas such as cyber warfare and space 'rules of engagement' or 'conduct' - written or unwritten - will be formulated as nuclear weapons not only introduced MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), but also common understanding between the U.S. and the Soviet Union about how to manage the power game under such conditions. Cyber warfare and space may technologically be new, they do not, however, change the parameters of the power game: Measure capability and willingness of your 'enemy' to threaten vital interests.
It seems a fair bet to rule out major armed conflicts in Asia while a merciless rivalry about trade, investment, money and probably also societal model will rule the agenda.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School. Honorary Alumnus, University of Copenhagen.