Can China Rise Peacefully?

Can China Rise Peacefully?

If the China continues growing rapidly, the US will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.

But more must be said about what a security competition between China and the United States would look like. In particular, we need to know what indicators to keep an eye on in the years ahead to determine whether my prediction is proved correct.

What Would Security Competition Look Like?

If a Sino-American security competition developed, it would have twelve main ingredients. To begin with, there would be crises, which are major disputes between the two sides in which there is a serious threat that war will break out. Crises might not occur frequently, but it would be surprising if there were none over long stretches of time. Arms races would be another central feature of the rivalry. Both superpowers, as well as China’s neighbors, would expend significant amounts of money on defense in order to gain an advantage over the other side and prevent it from gaining an advantage over them.

We should expect to see proxy wars, in which Chinese and American allies fight each other, backed by their respective patrons. Beijing and Washington are also likely to be on the lookout for opportunities to overthrow regimes around the world that are friendly to the other side. Most of those efforts would be covert, although some would be overt. We should also see evidence of each side’s pursuing a bait-and-bleed strategy when there is an opportunity to lure the other side into a costly and foolish war. And in cases where there is no baiting, but the other side nevertheless finds itself in a protracted war, we would expect to see its rival pursue a bloodletting strategy, in which it seeks to prolong the conflict as much as possible.

Moving away from the battlefield, we would find abundant evidence of government officials in Beijing and Washington identifying the other side as their number one threat. Public and classified documents outlining military strategy would clearly depict the other country as a dangerous adversary that needs to be countered. Furthermore, American and Chinese think tanks that deal with national security issues would devote a large portion of their attention to scrutinizing the rival superpower and portraying it as a formidable and threatening adversary. Of course, some people in both countries will reject this confrontational approach and instead recommend deep-seated cooperation with the other side, perhaps even including appeasement of the adversary on certain issues. Over time, we would expect these individuals to be marginalized in the discourse and policy debates.

Beijing and Washington can also be expected to put travel restrictions on visitors from their rival, as the Soviet Union and the United States did during the Cold War. We would, furthermore, anticipate seeing the United States bar Chinese students from studying subjects at American universities that have direct relevance for the development of weapons and other technologies that might affect the balance of power between the two countries. In related moves, both countries would surely place selected export controls on goods and services that have a significant national security dimension. The likely model here for the United States is CoCom, which it established during the Cold War to limit the transfer of sensitive technologies to the Soviet Union.

None of this is to deny the likelihood of substantial economic intercourse between China and the United States in the midst of their security competition. Nor is it to deny that the two superpowers will cooperate on a handful of issues. The key point, however, is that the relationship between the two countries will be conflictual at its root and that the struggle between them will manifest itself in the ways described above. Of course, my argument is not just that there will be an intense security competition but that there will also be a serious chance of war between China and the United States. Let us consider in more detail the possibility that China’s rise will lead to a shooting war.


The United States and the Soviet Union fortunately never came to blows during the Cold War, although both countries fought wars against smaller states, some of which were allied with their rival. The fact that both sides had large nuclear arsenals is probably the key reason the superpowers never fought against each other. Nuclear weapons, after all, are a major force for peace simply because they are weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of their use are so horrible that it makes policymakers extremely cautious if they think there is even a small chance they might be used in a conflict.

Given the history of the Cold War and given that China and the United States both have nuclear arsenals, one might surmise there is little chance those two countries will shoot at each other in the foreseeable future. That conclusion would be wrong, however. Although the presence of nuclear weapons certainly creates powerful incentives to avoid a major war, a future Sino-American competition in Asia will take place in a setting that is more conducive to war than was Europe during the Cold War. In particular, both geography and the distribution of power differ in ways that make war between China and the United States more likely than it was between the superpowers from 1945 to 1990.

Of course, one cannot predict the likelihood of a Sino-American war with a high degree of certainty, but one can make informed estimates.

The Geography of Asia

Although the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States spanned the globe, its center of gravity was on the European continent, where massive armies and air forces equipped with nuclear weapons faced off against each other. Both superpowers cared greatly about two other regions, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, but they cared the most about the balance of power in Europe. Indeed, the core of American and Soviet military power was located near what was called the Central Front, in the heart of Europe. Not surprisingly, when the Pentagon ran war games simulating a major superpower conflict, Europe was the centerpiece of the fight.

In the thirty years prior to the Cold War, Europe was a remarkably deadly region; in fact, both the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia before 1917) fought on the same side in World War I as well as in World War II. Nevertheless, there was no war in Europe after 1945, and although there were a handful of crises over Berlin, they did not escalate to the use of force. The main reason is that a war in the center of Europe would probably have turned into World War III with nuclear weapons, because there was a serious prospect of inadvertent, if not purposeful, escalation to the nuclear level. No policymaker on either side was willing to countenance a conflict in which his or her country stood a reasonable chance of being annihilated. This terrifying prospect explains not only why Europe was so stable during the Cold War but also why the American and Soviet militaries never clashed with each other.

The geography of Asia is fundamentally different from that of Europe in the Cold War. Most important, there is no equivalent of the Central Front in Asia to anchor stability, as China grows more powerful. Instead, Asia has a number of places where fighting might break out, but where the magnitude of any individual war would be nowhere near as great as it would have been in Europe between 1945 and 1990. This is due in large part to the fact that the likelihood of nuclear escalation in these potential conflicts is much smaller than it was in Europe during the Cold War. First of all, there were thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, and they formed an integral part of NATO declaratory policy and military doctrine throughout the Cold War. Furthermore, it was widely believed that victory in the initial battles of a European conflict would cause a profound shift in the global balance of power; this conviction created powerful incentives for the side that was losing to use nuclear weapons to salvage the situation. Nuclear weapons are unlikely to play anywhere near as prominent a role in Asia’s potential trouble spots. In effect, this means that the costs of all the likely wars in Asia will be significantly less than what would have been the costs of a war in the heart of Europe during the Cold War. Given that the likelihood of war increases as the potential costs decrease, this makes a Sino-American conflict more likely than was a Soviet-American war.

One might argue that the risk of war is still low because the stakes in these potential Asian wars are rather small, thereby giving China and the United States little incentive to fight with each other. But, as discussed above, the stakes in a Sino-American security competition are enormous. China’s security would be greatly enhanced if it drove the American military out of Asia and established regional hegemony, while the United States has a deep interest in maintaining its present position in Asia. Therefore, both parties will be sensitive to reputational concerns in virtually every crisis and unwilling to back down.