Imagining World War III --In 2034
VLADIVOSTOCK -- If the next world war is to happen, it willmost likely be in Asia and feature a clash between the incumbent hegemon, theUnited States, and the principal challenger, China. The good news is China doesnot want war now and in the foreseeable future, primarily because Beijing knowstoo well that the odds are not on its side. But if we look ahead 20 years fromnow, in 2034, the circumstances will have shifted significantly.
There are three reasons war is unlikely anytime soon.
First, despite the double-digit annual growth in its defense budgets, China'smilitary still significantly lags behind the U.S.' It will take China 15 to 20years to attain parity or near-parity with the U.S.-Japan allied forces in theEast Asian littoral.
Second, for all the talk of mutual interdependence, China depends on America much more thanthe other way round. China is still critically reliant on the U.S and itsallies, the EU and Japan, as its principal export markets and sources ofadvanced technologies and know-how. Overall, China's dependence oninternational markets is very high, with the trade to GDP ratio standing at 53percent. China imports many vital raw materials, such as oil and iron ore.
As most of its commodity imports are shipped by the sea,China would be extremely vulnerable to a naval blockade, which is likely to bemounted by the U.S. in case of a major conflict. Both for economic andstrategic reasons, the Chinese government pursues policies to reduce thecountry's reliance on foreign markets, trying to shift from an export-orientedmodel to domestic sources of growth. It is also making efforts to secure rawmaterials in the countries and regions contiguous to China, like Central Asia,Russia or Burma, so as to reduce dependence on sea-born shipments. However, atleast for the next 15 to 20 years China's dependency on the West-dominatedglobal economic system is going to stay very significant.
Third, China would have to confront not the U.S. alone but also America'sAsian allies, including Japan, Australia and perhaps India. Thus China needs atleast one major power ally and some lesser allies. Whether China dares to posea serious challenge to the U.S. will, to a large extent, hinge upon Beijing andMoscow forming a Eurasian geopolitical bloc. This is already happening now, butit is going to take some more time.
The bottom line: over the next 15 to 20 years a major warin Asia is highly unlikely because Beijing will be playing a cautious game.Even if a military clash does occur, it will be short, with China being quicklyrouted by the preponderant American force. However, around 2030 the balance isbound to undergo considerable changes, if China is successful in: 1) closingmilitary gap with the U.S.; 2) making its economy less reliant on the Westernmarkets and overseas raw resources; and 3) forming its own alliance structure.
2034:INDO-PACIFIC COALITION VS. EURASIAN ALLIANCE
There is an infinite number of alternative futures. WorldWar III erupting in Asia may not be the most probable one, yet it is not themost implausible, either.
Let's imagine this scenario for 2034.
China -- which four years ago completed its reunificationwith Taiwan -- is increasingly worried by the growth of India's comprehensivepower. In 2030, India overtook China to become the world's most populouscountry. Even more significant, India, with its much younger population anddynamic economy, has already been growing faster than China. India isvigorously modernizing its armed forces, which in a few years may present aserious challenge to China. With India-China rivalry for primacy in Asiareaching kanshijie new highs, Beijing resolves to strike first -- before New Delhi has achance to close the power gap. This is similar to how, in 1914, German concernsover the steady rise in Russia's strategic capabilities contributed to Berlin'sdecision in favor of war in the wake of the Sarajevo crisis. There was a beliefamong the German leadership that, by 1917 Russia would complete its militarymodernization programs and the window of opportunity would close.
Citing Indian meddling in Tibet and incursions across thedisputed Himalayan frontier, Chinese forces go on the offensive in the borderareas and hit Indian naval and air bases. The attack on India means war withJapan, as Tokyo and New Delhi have concluded a mutual defense treaty in 2031 --exactly to insure against a probable Chinese assault. Simultaneously with theattack on India, the PLA Navy seizes the Senkakus and tries to capture theRyukyu Islands.
In 2032, the Americans withdraw their forces from Japan,expecting that the Japan-India pact and the fact that Japan had, in 2029,become a nuclear-weapon state would be sufficient to deter China. The Chinese,in their turn, have made a gamble that the U.S., appearing to be in a newlyisolationist mode, would not intervene on Japan's side. Yet, after somehesitation, the U.S. enters war against China. This might be a replay of theJuly 1914 events, when Berlin calculated, wrongly that London would stay on thesidelines if Germany went to war against France and Russia.
Two of America's Pacific allies, Australia and thePhilippines, as well as three NATO members -- Canada, Britain, and Poland,declare war on China. Thus the anti-China Indo-Pacific coalition of the U.S.,India, Japan and other allies emerges.
China is not lonely in this war. In 2025, China, Russia,Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan sign theEurasian Treaty -- a collective defense pact which became a political-militaryarm of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Mongolia was forced to join thepact in 2033.
Russia secures China from the north, provides it with rawmaterials and military hardware, as well as dispatches a small number ofmilitary personnel, such as fighter pilots and drone operators to fight in thePLA units. Apart from that, Russian direct involvement in the Indo-Pacifictheater is minimal. Moscow is mostly preoccupied with Eastern Europe,particularly Ukraine, where pro-Western forces supported by the EU and NATOhave attempted to regain control over eastern and southern Ukraine which,before war in Asia broke out, had been Russia's zone of influence. Russia andthe EU/NATO, while not formally in hostilities, are embroiled in a proxy war inUkraine.
Korea, which since 2027 has been a confederation of Northand South, stays non-aligned. Southeast Asian countries (except for thePhilippines) also declare their neutrality, as do African, Latin American andMiddle Eastern states.
In terms of warfare, World War III will be vastly different from the majorconflicts of the 20th century. For one thing, the major combatants will benuclear powers. Being aware that the actual use of atomic weapons will resultin mutual extermination, the warring sides will refrain from resorting to them.That will not be unlike World War II, when the belligerents held largestockpiles of chemical weapons but did not use them for fear of retaliation.
Nukes are also likely to have a moderating effect on theconduct of conventional hostilities. A state is likely to employ nuclearweapons as the last resort, in particular, if its heartland areas are invadedor its major cities are bombarded. Understanding this, the other side mayprefer not to drive the opponent into a corner. This could involve deliberatelyconfining the main combat zones to peripheral areas, away from the mostpopulated and industrialized regions. Furthermore, military strategists willlikely remember the past lessons that a big offensive land war on the Asiancontinent is almost always a lost affair. All these considerations will leavethe sea, the air and barren mountainous areas, as well as outer space andcyber, the principal battlegrounds for the Third World War.
Another peculiarity of WWIII may be the continuedfunctioning of diplomacy and international bodies, serving as effectivechannels of communications between the adversaries. Many decades ofinternational institution-building will have proved not to be entirely in vain.Having failed to prevent war, international institutions will at least helplimit its scope and temper its effects. Even trade and financial transactionsbetween the enemies may survive to some degree, being rerouted via the neutralslike Korea, Singapore or Turkey. This will be the ultimate proof that economicinterdependence and war do not necessarily exclude each other.
Perhaps what we may witness could be termed a "worldwar-lite." As such, it may not require total mobilization of human andmaterial resources. In this regard, WWIII could be more similar to the SpanishSuccession or Seven Years' Wars of the 18th century than the "total"world wars of the past century. The fact that the war will involvecomparatively limited level of casualties and not necessitate completemobilization of resources may have the unintended effect of extending it indefinitely,compared to the past wars of attrition which could only be fought for a fewyears because resources got rapidly exhausted. If a war does not strainsocieties to unbearable degrees, they may learn to live with it. Thus could theThird World War become another Thirty or even Fifty Years' War?
That said, there will always be a risk that, at some pointthe "humane" low-intensity warfare with designated no-combat zonesand codes of conduct could degenerate into a more traditional bloodshed withheavy casualties and no restraining rules. Escalation to nuclear warfare cannotbe excluded, either. Whatever its outcome, this war will certainly end theworld as we know it.