Until recently, many dismissed the view that the United States and China could go to war as outlandish. Many people pointed to the fact that the two countries maintain robust economic ties. Others contended that China would never be powerful enough to truly challenge America’s primacy. Still others argued that a great power war is simply unimaginable in the modern era of globalization.
I never subscribed to this view point.
While not completely without merit, the arguments put forward to dismiss the possibility of a war are not overly persuasive. For instance, while it is true that China and the United States have a strong economic relationship, Germany and Britain were each other's largest trading partners before World War I. Similarly, even if China grows old before it grows rich, that doesn’t mean it can’t challenge America militarily. In the run-up to both world wars, Germany was poorer than Great Britain (and roughly equal to France) yet it nearly conquered Europe on two separate occasions. This was in large part because Germany had a larger population than Britain and France, which translated into a larger economy. China has a population four times the size of the United States today, meaning its GDP can be twice the size of America’s even if it’s citizens are half as rich. And the idea that the human race has outgrown great power war was famously in vogue in the years prior to World War I for nearly identical reasons as one hears today.
In recent years, many observers have woken up to the fact that a war between the United States and China is not unthinkable. Although this is true, there are still strong pacifying forces. Two factors strike me as the most important.
The first, and most obvious one, is that both sides maintain secure nuclear arsenals. As Thomas Schelling and others have pointed out, nuclear weapons are not a game-changer simply because of their massive destructive capabilities. The speed and certainty of nuclear retaliation is just as important. These two characteristics simply aren’t present with conventional weapons. Leaders can delude themselves into thinking their conventional forces, however improbably, will end up victorious in battle. In any case, the consequences of being wrong are far in the future.
For instance, Imperial Japanese leaders knew it was a tremendous gamble to take on the United States. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral who planned Pearl Harbor, warned his civilian leadership beforehand: “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” After the American economic embargo, however, Japanese leaders were only faced with bad options: capitulating in the face of American pressure or fighting a more powerful enemy in a likely futile effort. In these circumstances, Tokyo decided to gamble. After all, it was conceivable that America would be so exhausted from fighting Nazi Germany in Europe that it would ultimately sue for peace in Asia, especially in the face of fierce Japanese resistance.
While the outcome of conventional wars hinges on a number of unknowable factors, nuclear retaliation is certain. And, unlike with conventional weapons—especially before airplanes and missiles—one doesn’t have to defeat the other side’s military to wreak havoc on its cities. Nuclear weapons can do so immediately. Moreover, as Robert Jervis points out, when two countries with secure, thermonuclear arsenals go to war, “the side that is ‘losing’ the war as judged by various measures of military capability can inflict as much destruction on the side that is ‘winning’ as the ‘winner’ can on the ‘loser.’” This changes the calculation of leaders, and makes it inconceivable that rational leaders would opt for total war. This is not foolproof of course— there is still the possibility that miscalculations, gradual escalation, or the “threats that leave something to chance” will produce an outcome neither side wanted— but it is a strong incentive for peace.
While it is widely recognized that nuclear weapons make a U.S.-China conflict less likely, the pacifying effect of geography is often overlooked. Geography works to attenuate tensions in two interrelated ways. First, both China and the United States are massive countries that would be extremely difficult to conquer and occupy. Second, both are separated by the largest ocean on earth, and it is extremely difficult to project power over large bodies of water. As John Mearsheimer has written: “When great powers are separated by large bodies of water, they usually do not have much offensive capability against each other, regardless of the relative size of their armies. Large bodies of water are formidable obstacles that cause significant power-projection problems for attacking armies.”
These two geographical factors reduce the intensity of the so-called security dilemma. Despite all their disputes over issues like Taiwan and the East and South China Seas, China and the United States generally do not have to fear that the other side will seek to invade and conquer them. This has usually not been the case for rising and ruling powers that went to war. In many of these instances, the rivals were located on the same continent or even shared a border, which generated significant insecurity and led to conflict. As Mearsheimer again explains, “Great powers located on the same landmass are in a much better position to attack and conquer each other. That is especially true of states that share a common border. Therefore, great powers separated by water are likely to fear each other less than great powers that can get at each other over land.”
Just like nuclear weapons, these geographical factors are not an absolute guarantee against conflict. Japan and the United States went to war despite being separated by the Pacific Ocean, and so did Spain and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Still, China and America’s large land size and separation are both conducive to peace, and—combined with nuclear weapons—provide hope that they can avoid conflict.
Image: Paramilitary policemen take part in an anti-terrorism drill at a military base in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region April 16, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer