A Century Later: Not the Guns of August, But Perhaps September

The world could stumble into war, as it did 100 years ago.  Whoever hired the snipers of Maidan Square have a lot to answer for, including making China’s planned war in Asia more difficult for the US and its allies. 

As a quid pro quo for China supporting it over Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, Russia is in the process of selling China six battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems with a range of 400 km.  Each battalion consists of a command post, radar and eight launcher trucks with four missiles each.  The missiles have a maximum velocity of 4.8 km per second.  The six battalions amount to 192 missiles, not including reloads.  Operating practice is to fire two missiles at one target to increase the hit probability.  So these systems put 96 US and allied aircraft at extreme risk at up to 400 km from the Chinese coast or their island bases. 

A year ago, the commanding officer of the US Marines in Japan said that retaking the Senkaku Islands from China would be relatively easy and that he didn’t need the US Army’s help in the matter.  The Senkakus are 300 km from the Chinese mainland and retaking them now will be somewhat more difficult thanks to the S-400 systems.

The pace of the base building in the Spratly Islands indicates China is operating under a self-imposed tight timeline.  The scale of the base building suggests that China will be using its network of Spratly bases to enforce its nine-dash claim to the South China Sea, which means war.  So what might be setting the timetable?  China’s President, Xi Jinping, will be attending the May Day parade in Moscow on 9th May.  In 2014 the National People’s Congress of China voted to designate 3rd September as “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”  President Putin will be attending the military parade in Beijing on that date, the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan.  So the war is unlikely to start prior to 3rd September. 

There is an important date soon after.  This is 18th September: National Humiliation Day in China.  This commemorates the Mudken Incident of that date in 1931 in which Japanese troops used a staged incident as an excuse to invade Manchuria.  This year it is immediately followed by National Defense Education Day, which is the third Saturday of September.  This is very convenient for China in that civil preparations for National Defense Education Day can partly mask preparations for war.  A war starting on the night of Friday 18th September 2015 would be at the start of the Western weekend at least for forces in Asia.  It will be late Friday morning on the US east coast. 

Entrance to the September 18 Historical Museum in Shenyang

We can expect President Xi’s rhetoric to ratchet up as the year progresses.  Apart from what is said at the parade on 3rd September, 7th July is the anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, now seen as marking the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45.  In 2014, President Xi was the first Chinese president to attend an official ceremony commemorating the start of the Sino-Japanese war.  No effort is being spared in promoting China’s chosen trauma.

My advice is to have your affairs in order by 18th September.  China’s war would involve half the world’s population.  These sorts of things tend to not go as planned by the instigator.  China is planning a quick war, and like Germany’s World War 1 experience, it is unlikely to go as they wish it to. 

How can we be so sure that a war is coming?  Last year in Washington I was privileged to meet a retired US general who had attended the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936.  He saw the scale of the German preparations and realised that a war was coming so he returned to the US and enrolled at West Point.  These photographs will give you an idea of the scale of what China is doing in the Spratly Islands.  Base-building on that scale has no purpose other than prosecuting a war. 

What can be done?  Nothing can stop China from having the war that it wants but we can make it easier for ourselves. 

Firstly, a number of Western leaders have snubbed President Putin’s invitation to attend the May Day parade in Moscow on 9th May.  This is a mistake.  The more isolated Russia is, setting aside its behavior for the moment, the more it is driven into China’s embrace.  China will be trying to get Russia to tie down US forces in Europe.  The message that should be carried to President Putin is that the more successful China is in conducting its war in the East and South China Seas, the sooner it will turn its attention to seizing Siberia from Russia.  It might seem like a lost cause, but a small investment in diplomatic activity on Russia’s big day may save tens of thousands of lives later in the year.  It is well worth the effort.

Secondly, we are very likely to win this war.  Starting in the 1920s, it was realised that Japan would one day attack US interests in the Pacific.  War Plan Orange to defeat Japan was formally adopted by the Joint Army and Navy Board in 1924.  It was a good plan and was successfully executed in World War 2.  Nearly one hundred years later, Air Sea Battle was adopted as the plan for defeating China.  Earlier this year that name was changed to Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, to make it more inclusive.  It is also likely to be a good plan.  We can tell that some of the holes are being filled in by things such as the basing choices in the Philippines.  Technological development has aided the defense, and that is what we will be doing.  The forts that China is building in the Spratly Islands will soak up a lot of ordnance but for their ships and planes, the South China Sea is a natural kill box.  There will be a lot of surprises in this war but we will prevail.

David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (

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