(Cold) War with China Inevitable?
There is much debate in the world of political science about whether war with China, cold or otherwise, is inevitable. Must we fear the future?
Will China's rise be peaceful? Should the US and the world seek to accommodate China, or "contain" it, as was its policy against the Soviet Union? Is some sort of confrontation inevitable? If some sort of conflict is inevitable, then the only choice the rest of the world (lead by the US as its largest power) has is whether, to what extent, and how it can shape the type of conflict that emerges. Can it just be a situation of occasional "tensions," must and can we rely on our old Cold War friend deterrence to prevent WWIII, or is WWIII even inevitable?
The idea that war may loom because there is a shift in what is called the global "balance of power" stems from an analysis of previous shifts among powers in Europe. A prime example is WWI. In the 19th century, the UK was the world's predominant power, particularly at sea. It used this power to "balance" threats, which then all originated on the European continent. It did this by shifting alliances so that no one power or group of powers could threaten it. There was a consensus among leaders at the time that an overall balance could prevent war by ensuring that no one leader saw a big advantage in waging it. They actively rebalanced in order to keep this. This is part of the reason why the UK, France, and, to some extent, Russia constantly divided and redivided the world among themselves (the UK and Russia for a while kept Afghanistan as a neutral buffer, for example).
It seems this worked until Germany rose in power and built up its navy. The Kaiser foolishly abandoned previous efforts to prevent France and Russia from formally allying against him. When they did so, Germany saw itself surrounded. Balance meant that the powers were indeed pretty well matched, so the war dragged on for years until the US helped to put an end to it. A similar thing happened in WWII, adding a rising Japan to the mix. Between the two world wars, there was no predominant power able to keep the peace. Many blame America for not taking on that role, a lesson it learned in WWII and thereafter, when it decided not to return to isolation but instead to actively manage world affairs in a bid to maintain relative peace and stability.
The big challenge, as the West saw it, after WWII was the increasing power and influence of the USSR. With both the US and USSR armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, a special type of deterrence thinking was devised. It was known as "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD). The idea was that if one side attacked the other, there was no way to be certain of destroying all the latter's nukes. Both sides promised to retaliate with nuclear weapons if this happened, so neither could gain by using nukes for offensive purposes. In addition, it was thought that nukes would prevent conventional wars between the two sides, too, since neither would wish to risk escalation that might make one side or the other desperate enough to move to nuclear responses. War between the US and USSR did not happen, though a number of "proxy" wars did (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, as well as seeking influence by propping up each side's own dictators throughout the world).
All this assumes that war would have broken out between the US and the USSR had it not been for deterrence. Not everyone agrees with this. There are a few reasons: The countries were far apart, vast, and had no direct territorial disputes. The first two features meant that it was difficult for either to mount a conventional attack on the other and even harder for one to overcome the other. Geography favored defense and the status quo, so the US and USSR had little to gain from attacking each other and thus nothing to fear. Nuclear weapons, of course, changed this. A few nuclear weapons could wipe out either country, bringing the prospect of successful offense nearer and giving both countries something to fear again. MAD provided the answer by removing any prospect for either party to attain victory by using nukes first.
On the face of it, then, neither side had anything to gain from attacking the other and virtually everything to lose, so there ought to have been little tension. But there was. The same scholars, like Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, who made the above points, also argued that deterrence was to blame for tension. By assuming that small commitments would tell opponents something about big commitments, both sides took tough stances, fearing that to give ground anywhere, even where few interests were at stake, would risk giving ground everywhere. The problem was that both sides often saw themselves as the defenders of these commitments, and thus wished to stand firm against the irrational "attackers" on the other side. This led to tough stances, tough talk, and escalations (like the Cuban Missile Crisis). Nuclear deterrence thus solved the problem of nuclear weapons, but using deterrence logic for every decision at every level caused unnecessary tensions and may have prolonged the Cold War.
So what about China? Is China more like Germany in the early 20th century or more like the USSR in the mid 20th century? On most counts, it is more like the latter. The US and China are vast, far apart, have no common claims to territory, no interest in a war that would inevitably be catastrophic, and both have nuclear weapons. The real question then becomes "Is the US doomed to wage a 'cold' war against China?" There are promising signs. China and the US trade with each other, whereas the US and USSR did not. This means there's more to lose by fighting and more to gain by cooperating. It also means there are many contacts between the countries. This was also the case between European countries before WWI, however, and wasn't sufficient to prevent a war that nobody wanted then, either.
The big risk now is Taiwan. China desires its formal incorporation into China as soon as possible. Taiwan resists this. The US has agreed that Taiwan is a part of China, but the two countries made an agreement not to alter the status quo unilaterally. This means the US is theoretically obligated to fight for Taiwan should China decide to incorporate it by force. The risk is not so much that either side would choose a course that would bring such a confrontation, but that they might blunder towards it through a series of more minor events. US allies in the region are already asking the US for reassurances. Reassuring its allies in the region looks to China a lot like an attempt to contain and deter it--something aggressive. This has potential to slowly escalate into gridlock between the two countries.
One of the main conclusions from analysis of Cold War deterrence is that all commitments are not linked. In other words, China could be accommodated on certain issues without concluding the US is weak, giving it an opportunity to challenge it. It is also important to note this time that China is larger than the US in population and will soon have a larger economy. That means that, over time, the US is unlikely to be able to keep up with Chinese military spending should the latter decide to challenge it. The US is overextended throughout the world and very close to China's own shores. A new Cold War might end differently. The US and the world would do well to prevent one from reoccurring.