Whether or not we have slid into a “new Cold War,” as claimed by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the Munich Security Conference on February 13, we certainly have entered a period of escalating provocations, with China, Russia, the United States, and other major powers testing one another’s resolve through a series of military feints. While usually contained below the level of armed combat, these actions—deployment of bombers or warships in or near a rival’s territory, construction of new military bases in menacing locations, aggressive military maneuvers, and so on—naturally invite countermeasures of an increasingly belligerent sort and so increase the risk of war.
These provocations are occurring on multiple fronts simultaneously. In Asia, the United States, China, Japan, and other powers are engaged in an escalating contest of wills over control of disputed islands in both the East and South China seas. In Europe, Russia is seeking to extend its sway over eastern Ukraine, while the United States and its NATO allies are bolstering their forces on Russia’s periphery. In the Middle East, numerous countries, including the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, are jockeying for geopolitical advantage amid the bloody ruins of Syria. (The “cessation of hostilities” agreement recently negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, may dampen this competition, but the other parties involved show no inclination to temper their own involvement.)
Each of these countries has its own reasons for conducting such activities. China, a rising power, seeks to reclaim its historic status as the regional hegemon—which involves testing America’s determination to retain its status as the current hegemon. Russia, a former superpower, seeks to reverse the encroachment of Western powers on its periphery and restore its sway over areas once incorporated into the Soviet Union—a drive that inevitably entails clashes with NATO and its new members in Eastern Europe. The United States, still the world’s sole superpower but weakened by the bruising wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeks to repel any further challenges to its global paramountcy. Washington’s dilemma is further complicated by the 2016 presidential election, with all the Republican candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton calling on President Obama to act more assertively in addressing these challenges. While none of these actors, at home or abroad, wish to provoke an actual shooting war, all seek to demonstrate “resolve” and “toughness” (words we’re hearing a lot in the campaign) by engaging in military actions short of war.
This jousting for political and psychological advantage takes various forms. In the East China Sea, China has declared an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) over a group of uninhabited islands (called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan) and threatened military action against planes that enter the area without identifying themselves to Chinese air-control authorities. In response, the United States has sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into the ADIZ without informing Chinese authorities. Chinese and Japanese warships also engage in near-daily show-of-force encounters—coming close to each other and readying (though not, as yet, firing) their guns—in the waters surrounding the islands.