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.