VLADIVOSTOCK — If the next world war is to happen, it will most likely be in Asia and feature a clash between the incumbent hegemon, the United States, and the principal challenger, China. The good news is China does not want war now and in the foreseeable future, primarily because Beijing knows too well that the odds are not on its side. But if we look ahead 20 years from now, 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’s military still significantly lags behind the U.S.’ It will take China 15 to 20 years to attain parity or near-parity with the U.S.-Japan allied forces in the East Asian littoral.
Second, for all the talk of mutual interdependence, China depends on America much more than the other way round. China is still critically reliant on the U.S and its allies, the EU and Japan, as its principal export markets and sources of advanced technologies and know-how. Overall, China’s dependence on international markets is very high, with the trade to GDP ratio standing at 53 percent. 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 be mounted by the U.S. in case of a major conflict. Both for economic and strategic reasons, the Chinese government pursues policies to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign markets, trying to shift from an export-oriented model to domestic sources of growth. It is also making efforts to secure raw materials in the countries and regions contiguous to China, like Central Asia, Russia or Burma, so as to reduce dependence on sea-born shipments. However, at least for the next 15 to 20 years China’s dependency on the West-dominated global economic system is going to stay very significant.
Third, China would have to confront not the U.S. alone but also America’s Asian allies, including Japan, Australia and perhaps India. Thus China needs at least one major power ally and some lesser allies. Whether China dares to pose a serious challenge to the U.S. will, to a large extent, hinge upon Beijing and Moscow forming a Eurasian geopolitical bloc. This is already happening now, but it is going to take some more time.
The bottom line: over the next 15 to 20 years a major war in 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 quickly routed by the preponderant American force. However, around 2030 the balance is bound to undergo considerable changes, if China is successful in: 1) closing military gap with the U.S.; 2) making its economy less reliant on the Western markets 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. World War III erupting in Asia may not be the most probable one, yet it is not the most implausible, either.
Let’s imagine this scenario for 2034.
China — which four years ago completed its reunification with Taiwan — is increasingly worried by the growth of India’s comprehensive power. In 2030, India overtook China to become the world’s most populous country. Even more significant, India, with its much younger population and dynamic economy, has already been growing faster than China. India is vigorously modernizing its armed forces, which in a few years may present a serious challenge to China. With India-China rivalry for primacy in Asia reaching new highs, Beijing resolves to strike first — before New Delhi has a chance to close the power gap. This is similar to how, in 1914, German concerns over the steady rise in Russia’s strategic capabilities contributed to Berlin’s decision in favor of war in the wake of the Sarajevo crisis. There was a belief among the German leadership that, by 1917 Russia would complete its military modernization programs and the window of opportunity would close.
Citing Indian meddling in Tibet and incursions across the disputed Himalayan frontier, Chinese forces go on the offensive in the border areas and hit Indian naval and air bases. The attack on India means war with Japan, as Tokyo and New Delhi have concluded a mutual defense treaty in 2031 — exactly to insure against a probable Chinese assault. Simultaneously with the attack on India, the PLA Navy seizes the Senkakus and tries to capture the Ryukyu 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 newly isolationist mode, would not intervene on Japan’s side. Yet, after some hesitation, the U.S. enters war against China. This might be a replay of the July 1914 events, when Berlin calculated, wrongly that London would stay on the sidelines if Germany went to war against France and Russia.
Two of America’s Pacific allies, Australia and the Philippines, 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 the Eurasian Treaty — a collective defense pact which became a political-military arm of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Mongolia was forced to join the pact in 2033.
Russia secures China from the north, provides it with raw materials and military hardware, as well as dispatches a small number of military personnel, such as fighter pilots and drone operators to fight in the PLA units. Apart from that, Russian direct involvement in the Indo-Pacific theater is minimal. Moscow is mostly preoccupied with Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, where pro-Western forces supported by the EU and NATO have attempted to regain control over eastern and southern Ukraine which, before war in Asia broke out, had been Russia’s zone of influence. Russia and the EU/NATO, while not formally in hostilities, are embroiled in a proxy war in Ukraine.
Korea, which since 2027 has been a confederation of North and South, stays non-aligned. Southeast Asian countries (except for the Philippines) also declare their neutrality, as do African, Latin American and Middle Eastern states.
In terms of warfare, World War III will be vastly different from the major conflicts of the 20th century. For one thing, the major combatants will be nuclear powers. Being aware that the actual use of atomic weapons will result in mutual extermination, the warring sides will refrain from resorting to them. That will not be unlike World War II, when the belligerents held large stockpiles of chemical weapons but did not use them for fear of retaliation.
Nukes are also likely to have a moderating effect on the conduct of conventional hostilities. A state is likely to employ nuclear weapons as the last resort, in particular, if its heartland areas are invaded or its major cities are bombarded. Understanding this, the other side may prefer not to drive the opponent into a corner. This could involve deliberately confining the main combat zones to peripheral areas, away from the most populated and industrialized regions. Furthermore, military strategists will likely remember the past lessons that a big offensive land war on the Asian continent is almost always a lost affair. All these considerations will leave the sea, the air and barren mountainous areas, as well as outer space and cyber, the principal battlegrounds for the Third World War.
Another peculiarity of WWIII may be the continued functioning of diplomacy and international bodies, serving as effective channels of communications between the adversaries. Many decades of international institution-building will have proved not to be entirely in vain. Having failed to prevent war, international institutions will at least help limit its scope and temper its effects. Even trade and financial transactions between the enemies may survive to some degree, being rerouted via the neutrals like Korea, Singapore or Turkey. This will be the ultimate proof that economic interdependence and war do not necessarily exclude each other.
Perhaps what we may witness could be termed a “world war-lite.” As such, it may not require total mobilization of human and material resources. In this regard, WWIII could be more similar to the Spanish Succession or Seven Years’ Wars of the 18th century than the “total” world wars of the past century. The fact that the war will involve comparatively limited level of casualties and not necessitate complete mobilization 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 few years because resources got rapidly exhausted. If a war does not strain societies to unbearable degrees, they may learn to live with it. Thus could the Third World War become another Thirty or even Fifty Years’ War?
That said, there will always be a risk that, at some point the “humane” low-intensity warfare with designated no-combat zones and codes of conduct could degenerate into a more traditional bloodshed with heavy casualties and no restraining rules. Escalation to nuclear warfare cannot be excluded, either. Whatever its outcome, this war will certainly end the world as we know it.
Artyom Lukin is Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia)