(Cold) War with China Inevitable?

The Chinese navy destroyer Qingdao (DDG 113) moors at the pier in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Sept. 6, 2006. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales, USN. Work of US Government, not subject to copyright.

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?

Note: This is a slightly revamped version of a post from April 11, 2013. Most of it still held and it was worth reposting.

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 so, the only choice the rest of the world (led by the US as its largest power) has is whether, to what extent, and how it can shape the type of confrontation 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 fear that war may loom stems from an analysis of previous times when new powers rose 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 to dominate the others. There was a consensus among leaders at the time that an overall "balance of power" could prevent war by ensuring that no one leader saw a big advantage in waging it. They actively rebalanced in order to maintain that balance. 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).

This worked until Germany rose in power and built up its navy. The Kaiser eventually abandoned previous efforts by his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to prevent France and Russia from formally allying against Germany, which was sandwiched dangerously between them. When France and Russia did just that, Germany saw itself surrounded. Most of the other powers aligned to balance against German power, but that balance meant that, being pretty well matched, 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 actively to 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 new type of deterrence thinking emerged. 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 they were attacked, 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 who made the above points, like Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, 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 was insufficient to prevent a war that nobody wanted then, either.

Perhaps 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 to disagree on what exactly that meant and 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 mutually aggressive, cold-war-like stances between the two countries. There are plenty of other issues that could cause increased tension as well, from trade, to Hong Kong, to North Korea, to island-building in the South China Sea. The temperature is rising and a cold war is looking more likely than it has for a long time.

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 the areas of potential conflict are all in China's backyard—and far away from US shores. A new Cold War might end differently. The US and the world would do well to prevent one from recurring.


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