“The US and China are on an inevitable path towards conflict.” (LBP Commended 2022)

By Stanley G.

“Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.” — Napoleon, 1817

Predictions on the likelihood of conflict between the US and China must operate within the prism of relative decline; that is to say, the awareness of the likelihood of US decline relative to Chinese growth. This decline can typically be seen in strictly material terms: McDonald and Parent’s Twilight of the Titans refers to relative power and decline accordingly, that “a great power suffers a decline in relative power that decreases its ordinal rank among the great powers”. The threat of one hegemonic power, as the US is often described, losing position relative to an ascendant and challenging power can be argued to lead to a threat of conflict. Seeking either to maintain their position, the incumbent power, in this case the US, may seek to strike while they still maintain the upper hand. However, it is not the case that war is the only option: retrenchment is a viable, and indeed perhaps superior strategy compared to aggression.

The likelihood of US and Chinese conflict will largely depend on the extent of relative decline, the costs-benefit analysis of conflict to each nation, and indeed, the shared spheres of influence that the US and China might compete over. Here the analysis is mixed: ideas of ‘inevitability’ are largely ahistorical and deterministic, and indeed the history of great power transitions shows as many examples of ‘retrenchment’ as of conflict. Nonetheless, US attempts at bolstering its position in South-East Asia with the new AUKUS alliance, and its stalwart defence of Taiwanese and Japanese interests in the South China Seas do increase the probability of flashpoints and tensions between two superpowers.

Graham T. Allison’s The Thucydides Trap argued that that “major wars are typically initiated by dominant military powers that fear significant decline”. Similarly, Copeland argued “states in decline fear the future”. For Copeland, major conflicts such as the Peloponnesian Wars and the Punic Wars can be explained by fears over ascendant neighbouring states. A state might do this if they could judge the future rates of decline and hence initiate conflict before their position deteriorates further. The question, therefore, is the extent to which the US has reason to fear Chinese growth.

While the US has a larger GDP by approximately $6 trillion, it is growing at a much slower rate and is soon to be overtaken by China in what is known as the crossover period, predicted to happen in 2028. In a CEBR report it is predicted that China will grow by 5.7% annually until 2025 and 4.5% annually from 2026-2030, whereas the US economy is tipped to grow 1.9% annually 2022-2024 and then slow to 1.6% in the years following. This economic power is important: it signifies the ability to maintain a superior standing army, and prosecute wars at length — as well as the ability to invest in new military and economic technology. For the moment, however, the US has a much larger military budget of $766.58 billion (2020), compared to China’s $252.3 billion. Despite this stark difference, China’s budget is growing much faster. According to the SIPRI, China has increased its expenditure by almost 800% since 1992. Indeed, their 2022 budget has risen by 7.1% from 2021. In a forecast done by IMF, SIPRI and The Economist, China is set to overtake the US in military spending in 2035.

China’s growing economic strength is also translating itself geopolitically, forming the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 to spread its influence. In short, this was an attempt to “develop an expanded, interdependent market for China’s economic and political power, and create the right conditions for China to build a high technology economy”. Many believe that the main motivation behind making the BRI is China’s rivalry with the US. This initiative is treated with suspicion by the US and its major allies as it has been characterized in terms such as ‘debt trap diplomacy’. An example of this is the Hambantota Port development in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government was unable to service the Chinese loans which funded the project, and therefore the port was handed to the Chinese on a lease in 2017. The port now provides the Chinese with a major new piece of infrastructure and a strategic base in the Indian ocean. This spreading of Chinese geo-political power into countries traditionally seen as within the US’s sphere of influence undoubtedly creates the chance for conflict in the future — and indeed, the crossover in GDP and military spending might signify that it is in the interests of the US to engage in conflict before it is no longer on their terms.

However, it is important to note the weaknesses of the arguments behind the Thucydides Trap. The examples cited to help their case are largely pre-modern. The eponymous example was the Peloponnesian Wars, with the latest example being Anglo-French rivalry up to the early 19th century. However, it is potentially likely that the costs of war have increased over time, while the benefits of war have decreased. War, as a negative sum game, destroys economic power. In a world in which economic potential is held in the form of knowledge and skills rather than raw materials, it is likely that there is less benefit in going to war with the aim of annexing territory. Moreover, war, especially total war, has far higher costs for the state and its population, while alliance systems such as NATO are able to help shift the burdens of hegemony onto allies. Hence, compared to war, it is no longer so perilous to retrench. While “preventative war may have made sense in ancient Greece … it does not today,” as now, “nothing is more expensive than war.”
In 2020, the US department of Defence estimated that China had an operation stockpile of warheads in the numbers of low 200’s. This number is small compared the US arsenal of an estimated 5,800 warheads but according the Arms Control Association, China is accelerating its development of warheads to 700 by 2027. This number is easily enough to decimate any country and is therefore quite possibly preventing the US and China from going into a large -cale conflict.

Indeed, this argument is outlined conceptually in McDonald and Parent’s Twilight of the Titans, which challenges the conventional wisdom laid down before them by Allison and Thucydides. It argues that intimidation, provocation and preventative war are not the only options in response to the loss of relative power and prestige. Instead, the US may be more prone to graceful decline and retrenchment. Over the past years, many academic foreign policy realists argued for the US’s strategic retrenchment: a strategy designed to cut a country’s international and military costs and their commitments. This is done by cutting defence spending and withdrawing from certain alliance obligations, reducing deployments overseas and international expenditures. Big powers in the highest ranks are slower to embrace retrenchment because they have larger reserves of power and are not used to negative feedback. However, great powers that have access to capable allies, by contrast, will find it easier to retrench as they can shift the burdens and worry less about power shifts.

Admittedly, however, this retrenchment relies on the US being ideologically willing to do so, and indeed its ‘going gracefully’. The chance of ‘graceful’ decline is likely to depend on whether an incumbent power sees a challenging power as a threat: the UK’s graceful decline relative to US hegemony largely stems from a belief that the US did not prove an existential threat to UK’s metropolitan interests. An understanding of the importance of ideological frameworks in the discussion of international relations can be seen in the UK’s foreign policy vis-a-vis India: up until WW2, the preservation of the Indian Raj dominated all discussion of British foreign and colonial policy, regardless of whether its preservation made sense in of itself. Hence, if the US is wedded ideologically and, crucially, in terms of national self-identity to US hegemony, then it will find it tricky to retrench, and may instead seek to preserve its position in the South China Seas.

A particular example of this is the new AUKUS alliance. AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between Australia, United Kingdom and the US, announced on the 15th September 2021 for the Indo-Pacific region. Under the pact, the US and the UK will help Australia to acquire nuclear powered submarines. It also includes cooperation on ‘cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional underseas capabilities’. While coming under criticism by the Chinese government for representing a ‘Cold War Mentality’, and indeed by the French for being cut out, it represented a response to fears of China as an increasingly aggressive superpower. More importantly, it committed the US, and its ally the UK, to further military commitments in a region that China sees as rightfully theirs, hence leading to further chances of war.

To conclude, political scientists should steer away from deterministic ideas such as ‘inevitability’. Little is truly inevitable, least of all conflict between two superpowers that have everything to avoid from conflict and little to gain, at a time when military tensions are not particularly high. Whether or not there is conflict, however, will depend on the rate of Chinese economic and hence military growth, the extent to which the Chinese government is willing and able to extend their geopolitical influence in countries that the US sees as rightfully part of its sphere of influence, and indeed, the extent to which the US government is willing and able to maintain hold over them. If conflict does arise, it may operate in the form of proxies, for instance through a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, where the US, while not intervening directly, may decide to simply support Taiwan through a lend-lease scheme, as in Ukraine. Thus, conflict is hardly inevitable, but it has the potential to be likely.

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