The following is a fictional treatment of how a world war could begin in the Pacific. It could be far easier than most believe, yet it might also be much harder to figure out exactly what happened to start it.
AFTER DEADLY NAVAL SKIRMISH IN PACIFIC, WORLD WONDERS IF WORLD WAR III HAS BEGUN
ISHIGAKI ISLAND, JAPAN – As the Hasagawa limps into harbor, the damage to the Japanese warship is about all that can be confirmed of the reported battle 250 miles offshore. The vessel’s shredded and pitted metal deck resembles the coral reefs over which China, Japan, and the United States seem poised to start a global conflict the likes of which has not been experienced in three generations.
A senior intelligence official with a U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region said all sides are using extensive information campaigns to shape perceptions of the incident, making it difficult to authenticate the details of the potential powder keg.
What is known is that the Hasagawa, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol vessel, had been monitoring fishing areas and reefs in contested waters. Japan and China have overlapping claims to the area, with an increasing number of “near miss” incidents during the past years between their forces at sea and in the air.
Two U.S. Navy sources explained that at some point during the mission, the Hasagawa and a Chinese fishing vessel collided. After the collision, the Hasagawa reportedly was fired on by other members of the Chinese flotilla. While technically civilian vessels, these ships have been said to be operating under control of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and have been used to push China’s maritime claims.
The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy, which had been conducting a freedom of navigation mission in the region, reportedly came to the aid of the Hasagawa. The Michael Murphy attempted to shield the damaged Japanese ship, and the incident escalated as Chinese naval vessels rushed to assist their compatriots.
While further details remain unconfirmed, online forums in China have posted images of the Michael Murphy smoking, her bow angling downward into the sea, potentially sinking. In turn, U.S. service members and their families have posted accounts on social media of further skirmishes between U.S., Japanese, and Chinese aircraft and warships in the East China Sea. In addition, an image of a wounded U.S. Air Force pilot being rescued at sea by a local fisherman was posted on Vietnamese social media, indicating activity in the South China Sea as well. But officials in Tokyo, Beijing, and Washington still have not commented on the reports.
A NEW HOMEFRONT?
Without confirmed reports from the region, the world’s eyes have turned to what information can be gleaned from thousands of miles away. While the White House has not issued any formal statement at this time, the U.S. president tweeted, “All HELL Will Break Lose [sic].”
The U.S. defense secretary quickly canceled his trip to New Delhi but did not speak with the reporters accompanying him on the flight back to the United States. The Pentagon referred all press inquiries to the White House. However, a senior administration official did say that the Defense Department is preparing multiple contingency plans, including a broad activation of the U.S. military’s reserve units, as well as a recall of the individual ready reserves, which is made up of former service members. This step would be a sign that the nation is going on major war footing.
The reaction from congressional leaders reflects the uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region and the growing political stakes at home. Amid the ongoing domestic crises, the Speaker of the House declined to endorse any administration action, including the activation of military reserves. Her statement online read, “We fully support the brave men and women in uniform, but this military crisis abroad must not be used as a political opportunity at home.”
Administration officials also declined to comment on reports of a series of cyberattacks on U.S. critical infrastructure. Cybersecurity forums have discussed massive spikes in network intrusion activity in the Southern California and Gulf Coast power grids, as well as in water and sewage systems for major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Think tank analysts warned, however, that attributing the attacks to a particular group or nation is difficult in real-time.
“The activity could be China showing that this conflict will reach into the U.S. homefront through cyber means. Or it could be a third party such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran, trying to muddy the waters for its own goals,” posted an analyst at the Center for Strategy and Policy Research. A major Silicon Valley chief executive claimed an emergency summit of tech sector leaders has been called for tomorrow, to discuss whether they should aid the U.S. government or remain neutral.
Information on China’s response has been similarly vague. Western wire services in China reported that immediately after the incident viewing and sharing reports of the confrontation online was prohibited. Attempts by Western reporters there to search for or post anything with the term “Murphy” or “Hasagawa” were automatically screened out on WeChat, an indicator that a “delete order” had been put into place within China by the Internet Security office.
Patriotic public outcry, however, has gone viral using workaround terms. Analysts warn that high levels of nationalism could make any compromise deeply unpopular. Regional observers also have remarked on the significance of official news outlet imagery of the Chinese president wearing a military uniform as he entered the headquarters building of the People’s Liberation Army. The Asia Horizon Strategy Institute, which monitors Chinese political and web trends, described the decision as perhaps indicating that the party leader has decided to “ride the tiger. The regime may well have concluded that the risks to its rule at home of not going to war are greater than the risks of war itself.”
WAIT AND WATCH
Japan, meanwhile, appears to be preparing for a dramatic escalation of hostilities with China. Japan Self-Defense Forces and civil defense authorities have all been activated, and the prime minister is expected to address the nation soon. An informal self-evacuation of potential target sites also has begun, with hundreds of thousands of Japanese fleeing major cities and any areas near Self-Defense Force and U.S. military bases.
Other regional nations, by contrast, appear to be waiting on the sidelines, including many traditional U.S. allies. Speaking from Canberra, Australia’s prime minister called for regional calm but also declined to comment on Australia’s defense treaty with the United States and whether it applies to this crisis. Parliamentarians raised concerns about the effect any action would have on an Australian economy deeply dependent on trade with China. As with all other global stock markets, trading on the Australian Stock Exchange has been suspended.
In Seoul, the South Korean government has made no official statement, but protesters have gathered outside U.S. military bases, demanding that forces there not be allowed to join the conflict to the south. The Philippine president posted online that he would remain committed to his nation’s recent position of neutrality.
In India, the prime minister declined to comment on either the crisis or commercial satellite photos showing that Chinese forces had withdrawn from the two nations’ disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control, and what effect that would have on his nation’s stance. Pakistani officials have issued no official statements, though local media reported the deployment of Pakistani military forces to several civilian port facilities, interpreted as a measure to deter potential strikes by U.S. naval forces on Chinese-owned interests in the nation.
Global reaction has taken on similar reticence regarding involvement. French and German leaders are reported to have initiated a coordinating call on EU policy, while in Brussels, the NATO secretary general has scheduled an emergency meeting of the alliance’s ambassadors. Observers expect a fierce internal debate to result from a split between the two organizations’ stances, which could lead to a crisis in NATO itself. A senior NATO official told reporters there does not seem to be a willingness among a majority of members to support the United States “in a non-European crisis, especially after the discord of the recent summit.”
However, Britain’s prime minister announced on Twitter that the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would move up its previously scheduled deployment to the Mediterranean by two weeks, to “ensure regional stability and British interests are respected.” Defense analysts believe this to be indirect aid to backfill any move of U.S. ships from the Middle East, in lieu of providing actual military support in the Pacific. They noted, however, that the deployment of the carrier would be largely symbolic, as her two escort ships are currently not equipped with any offensive antiship or defensive surface-to-air missiles.
Despite multiple recent defense and technical cooperation agreements signed between Russia and China, regional experts noted that there are no actual treaty obligations and do not expect direct Russian involvement in the Pacific crisis. Indeed, the Russian president appeared to be sending a message of calm and even contentment at the confrontation between two of Russia’s traditional rivals. Immediately after news of the incident broke, the Russian Foreign Ministry posted on its official social media account a picture of the president in swimming shorts, relaxing by a lake near his vacation dacha on the Russo-Finnish border.
[This article will be updated as further news is received]