Can America win a war against China?

The situation between China and America is coming to a head - even until the great war?

The USA and China are heading for a phase of increased risk of war. A military conflict is by no means inevitable, but this possibility will have to be dealt with more seriously than before.

The Asia-Pacific region faces a crucial decade. An American-dominated and a Chinese model of order are already colliding in this region. Instead of a precarious balancing act for the good of the global economy, a confrontational downward spiral, driven by both sides, has emerged. The corona crisis has intensified this tendency. This is not yet an immediate prelude to a hegemonic elimination battle on a global scale. However, developments in the Asia-Pacific region will shape the character of international relations far beyond the region in the coming years. Europe will also be affected.

From today's perspective, it cannot be reliably predicted whether there will be a loss of American hegemony in East Asia with China as the new regulatory power or whether the USA will be able to maintain its prominent position. It is true that the economic upheavals caused by the corona pandemic could further restrict the USA's leeway and accelerate its decline. However, it is by no means certain that Chinese President Xi Jinping will emerge from the crisis as the “winner”.

Fear of the "Thucydides Trap"

Not only the outcome of the American-Chinese confrontation is in question. It is also questionable in what form this strategic rivalry will take place. Many decision-makers in politics and business consider a military conflict to be ruled out. However, whether the US-Chinese conflict will remain permanently below the war threshold must in reality remain open.

The realization that a possible hegemonic transition can become a cause of war is ancient and at the same time of unbroken topicality. It can already be found in Thucydides ’History of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). It cites the rise of Athens and the Spartans' fear of an increasingly stronger challenger as the "truest reason" for this world war-like turning point. Harvard professor Graham Allison has embraced this thesis of the "Thucydides trap" over the past decade and applied it extensively to the United States and China.

This historical analogy was met with partly justified criticism. Yet one need not rely on the Greek historian and his modern mediators to arrive at similar conclusions. The fact that the probability of a conflict between states that see themselves as strategic rivals increases sharply and that such constellations are responsible for the majority of all interstate wars, is a reliable finding of modern conflict research. It is also clear, however, that such rivalries do not necessarily lead to war. Military incidents and crises are also likely to become more likely in the relationship between the USA and China.

The fact that the likelihood of war in the Asia-Pacific region will continue to rise is due not only to the structural shifts in power, but also to concrete political decisions. While the former are mainly due to the rapid economic development of China in the last three decades, the latter are shaped by the decision-makers, their interests and domestic political factors. Only a joint consideration of these factors shows why the USA and China are currently moving towards an even more conflictual phase in their relations.

China wants to be able to win

In China, the military budget has been growing faster than the gross domestic product for years. That alone doesn't have to be threatening. What is rather worrying is the combination of efforts to modernize and arm the military with the territorial component of Xi Jinping's “Chinese Dream”. It provides for the reintegration of "lost" areas over the coming decades. This approach is inextricably opposed to the notions of order of the USA, but also of most of the Pacific riparian states.

The fact that nationalist currents are currently prevailing in both Washington and Beijing and have demonstrated their willingness to escalate - even if so far mainly on the trade policy level - also contributes to the aggravation of the situation. To understand this development merely as an interlude should prove to be a misjudgment. On the one hand, Xi has created the prerequisites for maintaining power for life; on the other hand, the US is pursuing interests in its relationship with China that will outlast a possible deselection of Donald Trump next November.

Developments in the military dimension are also problematic with regard to the likelihood of conflict. On the Chinese side, it is no longer just about the growing capabilities of the People's Liberation Army. The ongoing change in military thinking is just as significant. The self-confident to aggressive representation of Chinese territorial claims is reflected here in the concern not only to drive up the costs of an American intervention, but to be able to defeat the US armed forces in the region as early as possible and as decisively as possible. Above all, the People's Liberation Army should be able to create facts with its air and naval components before the opposing side can fully develop its military potential.

The corresponding military modernization should essentially be completed by 2035. By 2050 at the latest, the Chinese military should then move across all branches of the armed forces and operating spheres on a “world-class level” and thus be qualitatively unique in addition to the American armed forces.

Tortured strategy debate in the West

The best way to counter these Chinese ambitions remains highly controversial in the USA after years of professional debate. Approaches that would have to rely on military strikes against targets in the Chinese interior are problematic because of their high risk of escalation. The latter also applies to the idea of ​​being able to deal with Chinese aggression with a sea blockade if necessary. Recently, an approach has gained in argumentative power that is more focused on the defensive along the "first chain of islands" (from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines to Borneo). But how these debates will be reflected in armed forces development over the next decade remains largely unclear.

This is all the more true as the economic costs of the corona crisis will not leave even the US's lush defense budget entirely untouched. It cannot be entirely ruled out that the pandemic will also temporarily put a damper on Chinese ambitions. At the moment, however, the situation in the Western Pacific seems to be moving in the opposite direction. China is currently using the distraction of the West by the pandemic to put Taiwan under increased military pressure. Taiwan's armed forces have faced provocations from the People's Liberation Army even more than usual in recent months.

For the time being, the risk of war through misperception, miscalculation, oversight or accidents is likely to remain in the foreground. However, it is highly doubtful that the USA will still be able to resolve a military conflict between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan in favor of the threatened island democracy at the end of the 2020s. In the eyes of the elite of the Chinese Communist Party, the appeal of violent reunification is likely to increase accordingly. Decision-makers prefer to use military instruments when a conflict can supposedly be won quickly and at acceptable costs.

Dangerous illusions

Last but not least, a reassessment of questionable basic assumptions is required in order to prevent a war in the Pacific region. In spite of the many respectable voices in political and military science, this also includes the beloved approach of a “nuclear guarantee of peace”. The often heard claim that the very existence of nuclear weapons would effectively prevent armed conflicts between the great powers has been highly dubious, and not just since the Kargil War between the nuclear powers India and Pakistan in 1999. Even before that, there were justified theoretical doubts about the inevitable war preventive effect of nuclear deterrence.

Especially in the relationship between the USA and China, this idea falls short in its deceptive simplicity. Nuclear weapons remain a highly effective deterrent. However, you can only prevent war if both sides are convinced that conventional military actions can also escalate to the nuclear level with some probability.

There is little to be seen of such a conviction in the military thinking of the People's Liberation Army. In fact, the opposite is the case: the Chinese military theorists display an optimism that is downright disconcerting for Western observers in the area of ​​escalation control. They do not seem to seriously doubt the feasibility of limited, regional conflicts below the nuclear threshold. At the same time, in the American debates on military doctrines, there is a marginalization of the nuclear factor. In view of the diverse "entry scenarios" below the classic war threshold, it is by no means excluded that the two powers will one day stumble into a war without having considered the nuclear factor in detail.

Against this background, there is another dangerous illusion to be cast aside in Europe: the idea that wars between great powers are fundamentally and irrevocably a thing of the past. The "accidental war" is only one possibility. We should not feel too sure about those great power wars that political decision-makers regard as inevitable, necessary or profitable and therefore deliberately bring about them. In the Pacific region, on the one hand, Washington insists on the claim to be able to continue to enforce its own ideas of order and to be able to underpin it militarily. At the same time, the Chinese leadership has worked consistently in the last few decades to one day be able to militarily annex disputed areas.

Risks underestimated

For the most part, western politicians have so far taken the resulting consequences little seriously or have placed them downstream in economic interests. The sovereignty of democratic Taiwan is likely to be less of a concern for many of them than good economic relations with the People's Republic. Even when Beijing declared that the South China Sea was an integral part of Chinese territory as “blue ground” and that Japanese claims to sovereignty in the East China Sea began to shake, Western business leaders and politicians only included military conflict scenarios as a theoretical residual risk in their calculations.

“Don't just paint the devil on the wall” was the motto for many years. But such questionable metaphysics hardly affects the realities of international security policy. On the ground, a military conflict only becomes more likely given a "closed eyes and ears strategy". In Europe, too, we should be more aware of this than ever.

Michael Haas (Senior Researcher) and Niklas Masuhr (Researcher) work in the think tank of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.