Global Structural Imbalances and the South China Sea: The Likelihood of Great Power War

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Comparative Strategy


This article examines the roles of nationalism, the historical case of World War One, and the Cult of the Offensive in explaining the growing conflict in the South China Sea. The article pays greatest attention to China and the United States in their respective roles as rising great power and hegemon. The article posits that nationalism may be dangerously out of control in China today. It critically examines those arguments claiming the World War One analogy is inappropriate, and concludes the “Great War” holds both applicable and inapplicable lessons. Finally, the article examines the Cult of the Offensive and argues this lens is particularly helpful in understanding the drive to conflict in the South China Sea.

This article examines the slow motion crisis in the South China Sea (SCS). China's policies in the SCS are alternatively viewed as a rightful reassertion of historical claims, the beginning of a systemic challenge to the global order put in place by the United States in the wake of World War Two, or something in between these two extremes, exacerbated by misperception on each side. It is beyond the scope of any short article to reach conclusions on causes and solutions for great power differences in the SCS. Instead, this article examines three issues: the role of nationalism in China, particularly with regard to the SCS; the similarities between the run up to World War One and today in the SCS (and how this has paralyzed US decision makers); and the cult of the offensive and its impact on behavior in the SCS. The article reaches tentative conclusions on these important issues, and then closes with a short examination of alternative explanations for Chinese behavior.





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