As more commentators warn of a coming military conflict between the United States and China, it is easy to believe that war is inevitable. But while history suggests that rising powers will often clash with incumbent ones, there are important exceptions and unique present circumstances to consider.
BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – In the year 2034, the United States and China become embroiled in a series of military conflicts that escalate into a devastating tactical nuclear war. Other countries – including Russia, Iran, and India – get involved. Suddenly, the world is on the verge of World War III.
This is the scenario described in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, an engrossing work of speculative fiction by NATO’s former supreme commander, Admiral James Stavridis, and Elliot Ackerman. The book is part of a growing chorus now warning that a clash between the world’s current rising power and the incumbent one is almost unavoidable. Graham Allison of Harvard University has dubbed this phenomenon the Thucydides Trap, recalling the ancient Greek historian’s observation that, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
True, throughout history, when a rising power has challenged a ruling one, war has often been the result. But there are notable exceptions. A war between the US and China today is no more inevitable than was war between the rising US and the declining United Kingdom a century ago. And in today’s context, there are four compelling reasons to believe that war between the US and China can be avoided.
First and foremost, any military conflict between the two would quickly turn nuclear. The US thus finds itself in the same situation that it was in vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Taiwan could easily become this century’s tripwire, just as the “Fulda Gap” in Germany was during the Cold War. But the same dynamic of “mutual assured destruction” that limited US-Soviet conflict applies to the US and China. And the international community would do everything in its power to ensure that a potential nuclear conflict did not materialize, given that the consequences would be fundamentally transnational and – unlike climate change – immediate.
A US-China conflict would almost certainly take the form of a proxy war, rather than a major-power confrontation. Each superpower might take a different side in a domestic conflict in a country such as Pakistan, Venezuela, Iran, or North Korea, and deploy some combination of economic, cyber, and diplomatic instruments. We have seen this type of conflict many times before: from Vietnam to Bosnia, the US faced surrogates rather than its principal foe.
Second, it is important to remember that, historically, China plays a long game. Although Chinese military power has grown dramatically, it still lags behind the US on almost every measure that matters. And while China is investing heavily in asymmetric equalizers (long-range anti-ship and hypersonic missiles, military applications of cyber, and more), it will not match the US in conventional means such as aircraft and large ships for decades, if ever.
A head-to-head conflict with the US would thus be too dangerous for China to countenance at its current stage of development. If such a conflict did occur, China would have few options but to let the nuclear genie out of the bottle. In thinking about baseline scenarios, therefore, we should give less weight to any scenario in which the Chinese consciously precipitate a military confrontation with America. The US military, however, tends to plan for worst-case scenarios and is currently focused on a potential direct conflict with China – a fixation with overtones of the US-Soviet dynamic.
This raises the risk of being blindsided by other threats. Time and again since the Korean War, asymmetric threats have proven the most problematic to national security. Building a force that can handle the worst-case scenario does not guarantee success across the spectrum of warfare.
The third reason to think that a Sino-American conflict can be avoided is that China is already chalking up victories in the global soft-power war. Notwithstanding accusations that COVID-19 escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, China has emerged from the pandemic looking much better than the US. And with its Belt and Road Initiative to finance infrastructure development around the world, it has aggressively stepped into the void left by US retrenchment during Donald Trump’s four-year presidency. China’s leaders may very well look at the current status quo and conclude that they are on the right strategic path.
Finally, China and the US are deeply intertwined economically. Despite Trump’s trade war, Sino-American bilateral trade in 2020 was around $650 billion, and China was America’s largest trade partner. The two countries’ supply-chain linkages are vast, and China holds more than $1 trillion in US Treasuries, most of which it cannot easily unload, lest it reduce their value and incur massive losses.
To be sure, logic can be undermined by a single act and its unintended consequences. Something as simple as a miscommunication can escalate a proxy war into an interstate conflagration. And as the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq show, America’s track record in war-torn countries is not encouraging. China, meanwhile, has dramatically stepped up its foreign interventions. Between its expansionist mentality, its growing foreign-aid program, and rising nationalism at home, China could all too easily launch a foreign intervention that might threaten US interests.
Cyber mischief, in particular, could undercut conventional military command-and-control systems, forcing leaders into bad decisions if more traditional options are no longer on the table. And Sino-American economic ties may come to matter less than they used to, especially as China moves from an export-led growth model to one based on domestic consumption, and as two-way investment flows decline amid escalating bilateral tensions.
A “mistake” on the part of either country is always possible. That is why diplomacy is essential. Each country needs to determine its vital national interests vis-à-vis the other, and both need to consider the same question from the other’s perspective. For example, it may be hard to accept (and unpopular to say), but civil rights within China might not be a vital US national interest. By the same token, China should understand that the US does indeed have vital interests in Taiwan.
The US and China are destined to clash in many ways. But a direct, interstate war need not be one of them.
Charles C. Krulak: Retired four-star general, is a former commandant of the US Marine Corps and former president of Birmingham-Southern College.
Alex Friedman: Co-founder of Jackson Hole Economics. Alex served as CEO and CIO for a number of publicly listed financial services companies and also as the Chief Financial Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation