Are the United States and China Destined for War?

December 16, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: MilitaryTechnologyHistoryChinaSouth China SeaPolitics

Are the United States and China Destined for War?

Are Washington and Beijing fated to repeat the mistakes Britain and Germany made a century earlier?

Finally, observers should not go too far in dismissing the role that economic interdependence, even if imbalanced, could play in constraining U.S.-China rivalry. While it has become nearly axiomatic to claim that integration did not prevent war a century ago, political scientists Erik Gartzke and Yonatan Lupu explain that that conclusion mistakenly treats prewar Europe as a single unit of analysis. By instead deconstructing it into two clusters, they reach three compelling conclusions:

First, the turn of the century saw a series of intense crises among the interdependent states of Western Europe that nevertheless did not result in open warfare. Second, despite these growing tensions among the Western powers, the fighting in 1914 actually began among the less interdependent powers of Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Third, during the same period in which the highly interdependent European powers were generally able to resolve their crises without resorting to war, the less interdependent powers were typically unable to do so.

One could argue, as such, that World War I actually validates the judgment that greater economic interdependence reduces the likelihood of war; Gartzke and Lupu demonstrate, after all, that Europe was not nearly as integrated as is commonly believed. International relations scholar Amitav Acharya corroborates their assessment: “European economic interdependence in 1914 was narrow and regional; today’s interdependence is broader, deeper, and global in scope.  Intra-Asian interdependence today is based not only on trade…but also on production networks, finance, and investments.” Focusing specifically on the United States and China, economic ties are sufficiently strong that, according to the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, one has to “look back to the period before World War I for cases of such levels of interdependence between great power competitors.”

Additionally, the present gap in aggregate power between the United States and China means that the former has a longer window in which to fashion an accommodation with the latter than Britain had with Germany. Japan analyst Robert Dujarric notes that while Kaiser Wilhelm II had to confront “a powerful Social-Democratic movement,” “the socio-political fabric of Germany was vastly stronger than that of the People’s Republic.”  It was also “demographically dynamic”; had “two continental associates, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires”; and “was the most advanced country on the planet” in numerous fields.

China faces enormous internal challenges, beginning with separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as Taiwan’s longstanding quest for independence. With a growing middle class finding its voice, and with information technology becoming more pervasive, the leadership has been expressing increasing concern about threats to the Communist Party’s authority, and President Xi Jinping is cracking down ever more aggressively on media outlets and civil society.

China also plans to absorb some 250 million people—equal to roughly four-fifths of the U.S. population—into urban areas by 2025, a Herculean undertaking that will compound resource shortages and environmental degradation in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. The chief engineer of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning conceded this month that “China’s emissions of all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide are the largest in the world.” Water pollution is arguably an even greater long-term challenge: as of early 2014, half of China’s rivers were contaminated and three-fifths of its groundwater was unfit for drinking.

With the world’s lowest fertility rate (1.05), China also has a grim demographic outlook.  Its working-age population is shrinking while its elderly population is exploding: “By 2055,” according to one projection, “China’s elderly population will exceed the elderly population of all of North America, Europe, and Japan combined.” These realities have significant implications for an economy that is already under significant strain: China is making a painful switch to a more consumption-oriented growth model, and with a debt of over $28 trillion, its “debt-to-GDP ratio stands at over 280 percent, exceeding that of many advanced economies and all developing economies for which data is available.”

China’s external difficulties are no less formidable. Whether one considers the danger of nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan or North Korea’s increasing atomic brinkmanship, it inhabits an Asian-Pacific region that is fraught with geopolitical risk. To satiate its burgeoning appetite for vital commodities, moreover, China will have to strengthen its footholds in an ever-growing number of politically unstable countries; Venezuela’s accelerating national crisis exemplifies the risks inherent in such an undertaking. Finally, despite its professed commitment to achieving a “peaceful rise,” China has few reliable allies—a deficiency that will grow more crippling if, as Anne-Marie Slaughter predicts, power in the 21st century will increasingly revolve around connectivity and networks.

A Policy Question:

Both the merits and the deficiencies outlined above point to the same policy question: how, if at all, can leading powers and rising ones discern each other’s strategic intentions? On January 1, 1907, Sir Eyre Crowe, an official with Britain’s Foreign Office, sent a memorandum to the country’s foreign secretary in which he proposed two hypotheses for Germany’s rapid modernization: either that it was “definitely aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendency, threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England”; or that, absent “any such clear-cut ambition,” it was merely “seeking to promote her foreign commerce, spread the benefits of German culture, extend the scope of her national energies, and create fresh German interests all over the world wherever and whenever a peaceful opportunity offers.” Crowe was unable to decide which hypothesis he found more persuasive (though, crucially, he deemed the answer immaterial; it was the fact of Germany’s naval expansion that concerned him, not the intentionality behind it).

U.S. observers similarly struggle to divine China’s goals.  Some contend that China will continue to focus on fulfilling domestic imperatives; others, that it will try to displace the United States as the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific, but will not contest U.S. preeminence globally; others, that it will attempt to achieve and sustain strategic parity with the United States; and, yet others, that it will seek to become the world’s preeminent power. If the two countries’ strategic aims and decision-making processes were completely transparent, one would expect their relationship to evolve in accordance with objective realities: for example, the balance in their power-projection capabilities. The less their national-security establishments understand each other’s thinking, however, the more likely it is that the United States and China will formulate policy toward each other on the basis of misguided conjectures, as opposed to considered judgments.

Concluding Thoughts:

It is hard to imagine a war between the United States and China, at least if one’s conception of that phenomenon involves large-scale troop deployments and mass casualties. They both have nuclear weapons, whose unrivaled destructive power provides a powerful disincentive against contemplating confrontation, let alone provoking it. Unlike Britain and Germany, moreover, the two countries are separated by vast expanses of land and bodies of water; physical distance reduces strategic friction. And, as James Fallows noted recently, they “have become so intertwined economically, and so constructively collaborative in a range of scientific, environmental, academic, and even diplomatic spheres, that almost any measure that would ‘punish’ China would necessarily also damage the United States.”

Still, it would be imprudent to deduce from the seeming impossibility of a U.S.-China war that one cannot occur. Policymakers should consider the suggestion that the “most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency”: “Too many people…believed that because Britain and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners after America and there was therefore no economic logic behind the conflict, war would not happen.”

But if it is unwise to dismiss the possibility of war, it must surely be at least as misguided to fixate on the prospect: the occurrence of a catastrophe does not preordain its repetition. Still, the United States and China will have to make reciprocal sacrifices if they are to establish a foundation for long-term stability in their relationship. As the world’s preeminent power, the former must recognize the strategic and moral imperatives of accommodating the latter’s resurgence. More concretely, it needs someone to serve as a contemporary incarnation of Lord Thomas Sanderson; having just stepped down as permanent under secretary of state in Britain’s Foreign Office, Sanderson penned a rebuttal to Sir Crowe: “It was inevitable,” he explained, “that a nation [Germany] flushed with success which had been obtained at the cost of great sacrifices, should be somewhat arrogant and over-eager, impatient to realize various long-suppressed aspirations, and to claim full recognition of its new position.” In addition to advocating for greater Chinese representation within longstanding postwar institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the United States should welcome and assist in the development of Chinese-led initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road.”

But the quest for mutual accommodation, by definition, cannot be a unilateral undertaking. Given the unprecedented rapidity and scope of its ascent, China has a pressing responsibility to assure the world that it seeks to preserve order, not overturn it. It must also recognize that, unlike in centuries past, when its neighbors readily deferred to its authority, it now contends with several other strong, proud powers, including Japan, South Korea, and India; they will not quietly acquiesce to its strategic preferences.