How Likely Is a U.S.-China War?

October 21, 2023 Topic: China Region: East Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S.-China RelationsTaiwanWarXi Jinping

How Likely Is a U.S.-China War?

Xi doesn’t need a hot war right now, but quietly, a nonmilitary war is taking place.

Based on current Chinese politics and his family’s longevity pattern, President Xi Jinping will probably be in power for a while. It’s likely Xi or any Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader will wait until China becomes the real hegemon when everything can be solved by absolute power, which Leninist authoritarians believe. By then, the CCP will be emboldened and more likely to start a war.

The reason the CCP’s approach has been patiently “hide and bide” isn’t just internal balance or restraint from interdependence. Global trade and China’s structural competitive advantage (which includes more than subsidies and currency devaluation) have made China’s industrial and technological upgrade quick and massive, encroaching on the core of U.S. industries like auto and semiconductors. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) estimates the global share of China’s high-tech industrial output is nearly 40 percent, up from single digits twenty years ago and more than the G7 combined. Market power and dependency already made key European allies navigate between two great powers carefully. Chinese companies that gain an advantage aren’t only dominating merchandise production but also services and infrastructure. TikTok and CATL are two examples. 

From a cost-benefit perspective, Xi doesn’t need a hot war now. Quietly, a nonmilitary war is ongoing. Political goals are always at the forefront of great power wars, whether gaining concessions from others or replacing the current order. Conversely, a war now would trigger hard decoupling like Europe did to Russia. It won’t just damage China’s image and slow down the progress of economic domination. But it will also lose the ability to deindustralize others, increase others’ dependency, and weaken others’ domestic society as a result of the disruptive effect of trade. Xi surely fears any uncertainties by war can threaten his regime’s stability. However, as the United States and its allies become less industrialized and technologically advanced, wars can be won more easily, and in fact, even a single threat can make adversaries back off. 

The status quo of the Taiwan Strait has been maintained for over half a century, and Xi can wait. Domestic pressure doesn’t exist for him. With the trend continuing, the entire Chinese elite still believes time is on their side. Nobody can predict what will happen in twenty years. Nevertheless, if the trend continues, CCP leaders are certainly more likely to embrace a war to achieve political goals. 

George Yean is a PhD candidate studying international security, international political economy, and Chinese politics in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Before that, he spent years working on R&D at Cisco Systems, among other high-tech firms.

Image: Creative Commons.