The People’s Liberation Army of China recently made an official statement saying that, “‘A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.” Such a public statement was not made off the cuff by a reckless PLA official; this signals a deliberate warning from the Central Committee of China’s communist government.

The main source of tension between the U.S. and China is, of course, Taiwan, followed by several disputed island chains in the South China Sea. Chinese military forces have been annexing shoals and atolls off the coast in sovereign waters belonging to the Philippines, a fact confirmed by a legal ruling made at the Hague. The purpose of this military build-up is to secure maritime trade routes and provide China with strategic depth, accomplished using a strategy that America refers to as Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD).

Whether or not open war takes place in the South China Sea is contingent upon a number of factors. A miscalculation by China or the United States could easily spiral into each country making a series of decisions that they will be unable to reverse course from. For instance, if Chinese elites come to believe that they can capture Taiwan with military force without incurring significant costs from America’s military reaction, they may mount an invasion.

Likewise, an overly provocative America could unintentionally back China into a position in which they feel they must take military action in order to secure their national security objectives.

An additional factor of great concern is the concept of “shi,” and how it figures into Chinese strategy. Shi does not have a direct English translation, but it means something like “strategic inertia.” This means waiting to strike until there is an alignment of various forces, many of which you would not have control over.

Here is an Americanized example: If you are a Ranger and are charged with raiding an enemy camp, you could opt for a direct assault and suffer many casualties, or you could wait until the perfect conditions are set. A smart Ranger would wait for the right moment. It would be a nighttime raid in order to minimize the chances of the enemy seeing your approach. One would also wait for the night of a thunderstorm to prevent the enemy from hearing the Ranger force creep near the camp. Perhaps the smart Ranger would even watch the camp and wait for the enemy commander to leave for a meeting so that, when the attack takes place, the unit’s strongest leader will be absent, leaving the troops in disarray. Only when all three of these conditions are met would the Ranger strike the enemy camp in order to expend minimal resources while achieving maximum results.

On a geopolitical level, the shi is building in China’s favor. The Chinese continue to build their infrastructure and economy while solidifying their military positions in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, they are no doubt witnessing the current chaos in American politics. Whatever your political views, America has entered a highly emotional and volatile state, with protestors taking to the streets, the news media at war with the president, and much consternation surrounding Russian espionage activities.

U.S. warship in operation near disputed island in South China Sea

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From the Chinese perspective, the shi may very well be in their favor at this time. America is preoccupied domestically and involved in five or six conflicts in the Middle East. This is also a time that America’s role in world affairs is being questioned, not just by Russia or China, but by America itself. Secretary of Defense Mattis clearly understands that post-World War II global order is being challenged right now, and he deliberately made traveling to South Korea and Japan his first trips as secretary.

However, the Chinese may be seeing their window of opportunity. If Chinese elites convince themselves that China is strong enough at this moment, and America is currently too weak to respond, then it is not unreasonable to interpret the PLA’s signal of impending war as more than just a warning.

Featured image courtesy of International Financial Times