U.S.-China Competition: Is China Winning Without War?

U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) steams through the South China Sea.
Image: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr

By Garrett Ehinger

Tensions are rising in the Taiwan Strait. Within the past three months alone, 149 Chinese military aircraft have breached Taiwanese air space, and six naval ships have conducted missile exercises on Taiwan’s doorstep. In light of this, the Taiwanese recently have overwhelmingly supported the pro-cooperation Kuomintang (KMT) party in the recently held local elections. Considering China’s robust military and the Taiwanese distrust of America’s commitment to defend against a Chinese attack, these provocative exercises beg the question: What is China waiting for?

Since the fifties, the United States has been building its Taiwan strategy around the concept that China primarily fears the threat of war, otherwise known as “deterrent threats.” Many believe this strategy is why China hasn’t invaded yet. Despite the popularity of this view, there are many other possible reasons. 

Perhaps China is concerned with how a Sino-U.S. military conflict might affect its ability to handle the domestic uprisings that have plagued occupied territories like Xinjiang or Tibet for decades. Or perhaps they are concerned about how such a conflict might affect their global economic investment plans, such as the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). 

U.S. deterrence should not be the focus of further U.S. policy. It should focus on global infrastructure projects to strengthen its allies and counter Chinese geopolitical plays in ways that matter.

U.S. deterrent threats have failed numerous times, like in deterring Iran from trying to develop nuclear weapons or, most recently, Russia invading Ukraine. America’s rivals are autocratic states who weigh threats and opportunities in ways unfamiliar to American policymakers. In countries like China, Russia, and Iran, leaders consider costs differently than in the United States, so both parties end up speaking past each other. 

This miscommunication can make deterrence ineffective and wasteful. For example, Iran might view U.S. threats of sanctions as a worthy price to pay for developing nuclear weapons and supporting violent terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Or they may view them as attempts at Western coercion and feel prompted to assert their independence through defiant acts. 

China differs from these aggressors because it has not yet resorted to violence. While key Chinese decision-makers may hold different worldviews that render U.S. deterrence less intimidating, they may still prefer peace for other reasons outside of just American threats. 

In his strategic classic The Art of War, Sun Tzu teaches that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy first without fighting.” China has sought to advance its economic development and further its national interests through an investment plan called the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Through the BRI, China has established influence in countries accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s population. Many of these countries have large reservoirs of oil and precious metals or being strategic American allies. 

America invests far too much in deterrence and fails to compete with China in international development and diplomacy. While China has invested up to $1.2 trillion through the BRI in over 147 countries to date, the United States has only just recently announced a partnership with the UK and other G7 world powers, such as Japan and Germany, to invest in ten infrastructure projects globally over the next six years. At a total of $500 billion, this international coalition fails to provide even half of the scale of China’s infrastructure investments. 

The United States prefers to pour money into deterrent threats in response to China’s provocative military games. This military-based solution likely has little effect on China or its desire to fight. China may prefer the United States continue its current approach with deterrence because its plans of creating global dependency on it through the BRI and other investments remain functionally unchallenged.

The first step in pivoting U.S. strategy to more effectively address Chinese motivations would be exercising restraint in the realm of deterrence. Instead of wasting U.S. resources by dumping guns, missiles, and money into Taiwanese hands with diminishing returns, the United States should focus on maintaining strategic ambiguity to maintain an international perception of its willingness to defend Taiwan. 

China is more concerned about how its international partners and separatist factions may react to a Sino-American war than the actual U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan. China is less likely to invade based on how capable the United States appears to be in protecting it. Chinese military capability fully dwarfs the Taiwanese military capability to the point that it plays little role in Chinese military planning.

U.S. policymakers should be aware that Chinese public messaging may seem escalatory to maintain a powerful global image. Regardless, American deterrence is already strong, so the United States should instead force China into a proliferation game through international development competitions.

By mimicking Chinese economic strategy, the United States should readjust foreign affairs priorities to account for more international infrastructure programs, such as in Central and South America, due to their geographical proximity to the United States. Unlike China’s competition with India, Japan, and Southeast Asia, the United States currently enjoys comparatively safe neighbors. Still, this advantage can be dismantled if China attracts Latin American powers toward deeper partnerships with China and the United States fails to offer an alternative.

China is not as affected by U.S. deterrence as American leaders might think. It recognizes the high costs that war with the United States would have and how it could reverse its ambitions for global economic dominance. Thus it seeks to provoke the United States into further investment in deterrence while patiently entrenching itself around the globe. 

It is crucial to American interests that U.S. leaders recognize these realities and compensate for them with renewed attention to global infrastructure investments and restraint regarding deterrence.

Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.

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