Miscalculation that could bite China
If China invaded Taiwan or launched military action in the South China Sea, would the United States be willing to go to war?
Maybe the answer wasn't so clear in the past, but according to China military specialist Oriana Skylar Mastro of Georgetown University, the answer now is a firm "yes" - and that creates a dangerous situation.
Dr Mastro is a senior China analyst to The Pentagon but she said her views should not be interpreted as representing official remarks from the US Defence Department. She spoke as part of a Lowy Institute panel in Sydney on Wednesday about China's challenge to America's military dominance in Asia.
Dr Mastro said there had been a shift to a more aggressive US policy toward China and there was now a broad consensus that China had shown itself to be a threat to US security as well as its allies and partners.
"China wants to dominate the Indo-Pacific and they want the US military out," she said.
"It used to be that everybody questioned whether the US had the resolve to fight these wars, now scholars, government officials, are all talking about the capabilities.
"We're all saying, 'of course we would fight those wars, but can we win?'."
While much attention has been focused on China's manoeuvring in the South China Sea, Dr Mastro said she did not think any future war would be about dominance over some "rocks" there but more about China challenging US regional dominance.
Dr Mastro believes the US is now trying to send the message to China that it will be staying in the region and it is willing to take the risks associated with doing this, including potential armed conflict between the two sides.
"I think the likelihood of limited conflict between China and the US is increasing," she said.
Professor Benjamin Schreer of Macquarie University said if the issue of whether or not the US had the resolve (to take on China) was addressed then the stakes were raised significantly.
"If China assumes the US is not fighting for Taiwan, is not fighting in the South China Sea, isn't fighting even for Japan, and that's wrong, then we will have that war," he said.
Prof Schreer said the possibility of a conflict erupting into war could be driven partly because Chinese leaders were worried the "window of opportunity" to act and achieve its strategic ambitions could be closing.
China may have only 10 to 15 years to act more assertively in the region because the US and its allies appear to be waking up to its ambitions. It also faces increasing domestic and economic problems.
Associate Professor Brendan Taylor of the Australian National University and the author of The Four Flashpoints: How Asia Goes to War, agreed the danger in Asia was coming to a head.
He said small international crises could occur over time and there were already some unfolding on the Korean peninsula, South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan.
"This dynamic could continue to unfold for a number of decades," he said.
What's more concerning is that small skirmishes could actually work in China's favour.
"There are some scenarios where China would prevail and that used to not be the case," Dr Mastro said.
'CHINA WANTS A QUICK WAR'
When many people think of war, they picture the Cold War-style confrontations that have happened in the past but Dr Mastro believes small skirmishes were more likely.
She said neither country wanted a major war so if the United States could ensure its aims and objectives were clear, for example, about maintaining its ability to operate in the South China Sea and not about overthrowing the Communist Party, there could be "limited conflicts".
Dr Mastro said China was used to fighting these shorter wars of perhaps 30 to 60 days and they could prove problematic for the US.
For example, if China was able to attack US bases in Taiwan or stop it from operating for a short time in Japan, this would prevent America from maintaining air control.
"China could launch an invasion of Taiwan, consolidate its position in Taiwan before the US was able to send in additional forces," she told news.com.au after the panel discussion.
It would take months for US troops to be ready to deploy and if China quickly declared peace in the country, the question would be whether the US would be willing to start a war if war had already ended?
"China wants a quick war, that's the only way they can win," she said.
Dr Mastro said she didn't think China had any ambitions beyond the Indo-Pacific because its main aim was to be a global superpower and it wasn't necessary to dominate every region in the world to achieve that.
"So China's decided by dominating the Indo-Pacific, that's all they need," she said.
Dr Mastro said her research focused on how to make sure any war that does break out is as limited in duration and violence as possible. For that reason, she does not approve of a confrontational approach towards China, including trying to exploit its domestic vulnerabilities.
"If the US is threatening the Chinese Communist party, that war's going to escalate very quickly," she said.
'WE SHOULDN'T UNDERMINE CHINA'
Dr Mastro said the US needed to make clear that its problem was not with China or its people but simply a fundamental conflict of interest.
China has defined its own national policy by saying it cannot be secure and rise successfully as long as it is surrounded by the US military.
Meanwhile, Dr Mastro said history had taught Americans rightly or wrongly, that a foreign military presence was required for the United States to be able to protect itself at home.
"I also think Chinese behaviour domestically and in the region, has not reassured anybody about how they would behave if there was no check on their power," Dr Mastro said.
"So if anything Americans (scholars and strategists) have become even more convinced of the need for the United States to stay in the region."
America's National Security Strategy released in December last year specifically identified China and Russia as competitors that have emerged to "challenge American power, influence and interests".
Since then, the US has ramped up rhetoric against China. This year US Vice President Mike Pence announced the US and Australia would share a naval base in the north end of Papua New Guinea on Manus Island.
"We will work with these two nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights in the Pacific Islands," he said.
Mr Pence quoted US President Donald Trump in his speech following Chinese President Xi Jinping: "We have great respect for President Xi and respect for China. But in the president's words, China's taken advantage of the United States for many, many years … and those days are over".
Dr Mastro said it was good Mr Trump had identified the US was now in a competitive relationship with China, but her view was "pursing every policy possible to ensure we lose in that competition".
"The policy shouldn't be to confront or undermine China," she said.
She said "competition" with China should mean that the US look at its relationships around the world and find ways to be a more attractive partner to countries like Australia.
"Instead this administration has decided to pursue policies that maybe weaken some of our alliance relationships," she said.
'ONE SIDE HAS MISCALCULATED'
Prof Schreer said if the US and its allies worked together, they could create difficult operational and military strategic challenges for China.
When talking about military capability, he said it was important to keep in mind that America had been building a world class military over 40, 50, 60 years and was supported by highly capable allies.
"China has been playing catch-up and 15 years is not a very long time," he said.
"We shouldn't underestimate what China is doing … but I also think we should not over-estimate China's progress."
In understanding why the US was only just waking up to China's ambitions, Dr Mastro said many people didn't realise how much progress had been made in the last 15 years or so.
"(Previously) Chinese pilots couldn't really fly over water or at night, the Navy was a glorified coast guard that couldn't leave the shore - they relied on shore-based air defence systems - and you had this huge army that had more tanks from the 1950/1960s style than modern tanks," she said.
But Dr Mastro believes China President Xi Jinping had miscalculated and become too assertive, too soon.
"The bottom line is, one side has miscalculated. I would like to believe it's China right now, but if some sort of skirmish happened, someone would realise very quickly that they're not as powerful as they thought they were," she said.
While she did not think it was useful to make any war an ideological battle between the two powers, one of America's strengths was its values.
"China's failed to present a vision of itself at the helm of the world that is beneficial for anyone but China," she said.
She acknowledged the US had not been perfect but said other countries had benefited from US leadership.
"An 'American First' strategy I think is the most Chinese strategy the US has pursued to date, and that's my only problem with it."