Image by David Saveliev
Essay by Sam Seitz
The world has changed. Following two interminable wars in the Middle East and Central Asia as well as a devastating financial crisis, the United States no longer enjoys the same degree of power and authority it once wielded. America’s image has been further tarnished by the vulgarity and venality of the man currently occupying the Oval Office, Donald Trump. By contrast, China’s golden age appears to lie in the imminent future. This suggests that there will soon be a moment when China surpasses the United States to become the world’s preeminent power. Troublingly, several prominent theories of international relations predict that this power transition will lead to war. From A.F.K. Organski to Robert Gilpin to Dale Copeland, there are manifold thinkers who have linked international power shifts to conflict. Indeed, recent work by Graham Allison explicitly examines past power transitions to derive predictions and lessons for the U.S.-China relationship, concluding that conflict may be difficult to avoid. These predictions are, fortunately, excessively pessimistic. While it is impossible to completely dismiss the potential for war to erupt between the United States and China, it seems far more likely that competition will remain below this portentous threshold.
The primary reason for optimism is the reordered nature of the international system, which is more durable than during any other period of power transition. This is a consequence of America’s post-1945 institution-building – organizations like the World Bank, IMF, and United Nations have helped to foster and entrench open, liberal preferences and norms throughout the international system. Indeed, China has itself benefitted from these institutions as well as others, such as the WTO, which have helped to create and sustain a multitude of stable and open markets into which China can expand to grow its export-oriented economy. Certainly, these institutions are not immutable, and they face challenges both from within – via the Trump administration’s refusal to appoint judges to the WTO appellate body, for example – and without, such as Chinese efforts to forge alternative institutions, like the AIIB, in which Beijing, not Washington, enjoys preeminence. Despite these challenges, most major actors appear to have no desire to seriously alter the current international order. The raft of new trade agreements passed over the past few years – TPP-11, CETA, and the E.U.-Japan EPA – is just one example of the open, market-based system pushing forward despite the current headwinds.
China also faces another major challenge: its fundamental values are not widely shared. As Charles Kupchan demonstrates, dominant states create international orders based upon their “social and ideological proclivities.” This presents a Gordian knot of sorts for China, as its model of authoritarianism is unpopular, resulting in a struggle to legitimate the institutions it is creating to supplant U.S. power. China will also be undercut by its hypocrisy, which research by Martha Finnemore suggests will only further delegitimize its rise. Southeast Asian leaders are already decrying Chinese “neocolonialism,” so it appears unlikely that Beijing will successfully convince states that its model represents a superior, more benign version of the American-dominated status quo. Indeed, we are already witnessing the E.U. and many East African countries block Chinese investments due to national security concerns. Path-breaking work by Randall Schweller and Xiaoyu Pu emphasizes the significance of China’s inability to effectively replace U.S.-led institutions, as they show that rising powers must delegitimize the hegemon and its order to effectively supplant it.
Finally, China faces severe challenges, particularly regarding economic and political stability, that complicate the narrative of its “inexorable” rise. These challenges, coupled with Beijing’s paucity of regional and global allies, impose severe material constraints on China’s power. For both material and cultural-ideational reasons, therefore, it is difficult to see China ascending to a position from which it can successfully challenge the U.S. in a hegemonic war.
China does not face nearly as many impediments to regional hegemony, however, because it will increasingly hold the economic and military means to dominate East Asia. As China’s regional power grows, so does the temptation for Beijing to engage in militarized disputes with its neighbors. Indeed, we have observed increasingly aggressive behavior by Chinese forces in the South China Sea as Beijing seeks to exploit natural resources and build artificial islands to the detriment of other regional actors. Other flashpoints include the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan, which has shown a greater willingness to pursue provocative strategies under pro-independence president Tsai Ing-Wen. As scholars like Avery Goldstein have noted, small skirmishes could escalate due to nationalist pressures within China and unreliable communications channels. A recent article by Caitlin Talmadge raises an even more harrowing prospect: that China’s proclivity to intermingle its nuclear and conventional command and control infrastructure might create “use it or lose it” pressures that result in nuclear escalation.
But while a limited regional conflict between the U.S. and China is certainly more likely than a war over global hegemony, it also is far from inevitable. Neither the U.S. nor China has an incentive to deliberately provoke a conflict, as this would devastate the economies of both countries given their high level of economic interdependence. While provocations and limited skirmishes may certainly occur – dangerous aircraft intercepts or the ramming of warships, for example – there is no reason to believe these would escalate. The Cold War is instructive here, as “despite explicit mutual, strategic, and existential antagonism between the U.S. and U.S.S.R, none of the hundreds of maritime incidents that occurred over the four decades of the Cold War escalated into anything beyond a short diplomatic crisis.” Past events, such as the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and 2001 EP-3 incident are also heartening, as they suggest that Chinese leadership strategically manipulates nationalist fervor for their own ends. Consequently, there is little risk of PRC leadership losing control of the narrative and being forced into war by an angry populace. Indeed, there is a good reason to believe that domestic pressures will constrain the PLA, as Chinese leaders are deeply uncertain of their military’s potential and cannot afford to lose a war, as that would undermine the CCP’s narrative that only through communist leadership can China achieve greatness. The risk of American nationalism forcing the U.S. into war with China is lower still, as few Americans perceive China as dangerous. And while there are certainly others threats to regional stability, such as a small regional power like the Philippines or North Korea dragging the U.S. and China into war, research by Michael Beckley shows this is unlikely to happen given the proclivity of great power patrons to include escape clauses in their alliance commitments.
This not is to say that conflict between the United States and China is impossible. Far more improbable wars have occurred, and there are many regional hotspots that could pull Washington and Beijing into war. Historically, however, there have been many localized crises – Fashoda, Orinoco River, and the Changkufeng Incident – that have not escalated. There is, therefore, a reason for optimism. Leaders have agency – they are not bound by international relations theory to act in a predetermined manner. Fortunately, current circumstances suggest that Chinese and American leaders will use their agency to avert war.
Sam Seitz is a senior and M.A. candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service studying International Politics and European Studies. He also serves as the Deputy Editor of the Georgetown Security Studies Review. This essay earned an honorable mention in the 2019 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.