That which until recently most commentators dismissed or negated is today likely to be obvious: the United States and China are in a state of intensifying conflict, which threatens to turn the old world upside down and a direct conflict between the two. The two most important and pressing questions right now are: can we stop this and, if not, then what might these conflicts look like?
The case for co-dependency is clear: the economies of two superpowers are too closely tied together for armed conflict to be of profit for either – it is however so flawed that it fails to withstand the most basic historical analysis
Could anything prevent escalation of conflict?
As to the first question, it contains three main arguments for remaining optimistic, in which two are widely known and one is not. These include: economic interdependencies, political interests, the idea of a concert of powers in Asia. We shall take a closer look at these.
The argument about interdependencies is clear: the economies of two superpowers are too closely linked for confrontation between them to be of value to either. And yet it is flawed in that it doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. The annals of European history provide us with different proofs, in that this “safety valve” doesn’t work. The Anglo-French wars, internal German conflicts or German-Italian disputes show how misguided faith in the peaceful might of economic bonds can be. This faith essentially collapses faced with the reality of the First World War, prior to which the interdependence between competing powers were historically strongest. And yet we witnessed the bloodiest conflict humanity had thus far experienced.
This does not mean that economic interdependences are not potentially an effective barrier to war, or else that they have no influence (oft soothing) over its shape. In fact, this is in my opinion the situation at present in terms of US-Chinese rivalry, something we will return to. This merely means that we cannot be lazy in depending on the same interdependencies as insurance against armed conflict.
The second key argument against the likelihood of armed conflict is basically this: such a war would be costly and risky for both sides, while as long as they keep on working together they both stand to gain – therefore it is not in their interest to push on into a competition, it is better to resolve disputes or else find compromises.
This is a valid argument, alas only in a very general sense. The political strategies played out by both superpowers go against it. In spite of evident and massive profits the present world order brings them, China is unsatisfied: they are building alternative, land-based trade/communication trails (New Silk Road, or else Belt and Road Initiative), pushing the US out of the strategically significant South China Sea, limiting the dollar’s influence, and – last but not least – are openly trying to outperform America in a number of ways.
Washington however already finds China’s current expansionism unacceptable, something clearly shown in the Cold War style speech given by vice-president Mike Pence which initiated the new politics of the current US administration. Seeing as Beijing’s current position is already threatening the US’s leading role in the world, and China is growing in influence much faster than America, then what additional allowances are to be made by the White House administration? None in fact.
Both the Chinese and Americans are of the opinion that the current world order is not profitable enough for them and desire to make changes to it
For the same reason “existing only in theory” will rather be left with the remarkably interesting concept of a new concert of powers in Asia, presented a few years ago by Prof. Hugh White, a remarkable Australian political expert and strategist (in his book “The China Choice”, brought to the attention of Polish readers by “Nowa Konfederacja” and Jacek Bartosiak). According to White, both superpowers, along with India and Japan, would create in Asia and the Pacific an order similar to the Vienna Congress, sharing influence and surrendering hegemonic ambitions. Once again, however, the rise of China seems too fast, their ambitions too extensive, America’s determination too intense, and the influence of the remaining countries too weak for this sort of enterprise to succeed. It is for good reason that it has been ignored by the strategic community long before things became as intense as they are today.
In short, the situation is as follows: both China and America think the current world order is not in their interest and want it reviewed – in ways which are opposed to the interests of their competition. This not only bodes badly for the current international arrangements, but also carries the risk of a sudden and uncontrolled escalation, with catastrophic consequences for the global economy and threat of nuclear war in the background. An escalation which often accompanies the hegemonic competition between superpowers, not necessarily wanting armed conflict, yet unable to avoid it, considering the inescapable logic of the situation pushes them in its direction.
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The game games the gamers
Game theorists claim that at times “the game games the gamers”. Prof. Graham Allison, a renowned Harvard politologist, analysed 16 cases from the past 500 years, in which rising competition threatened existing hegemonies, sadly concluding that 12 of them ended in a war (excluding the US-USSR dispute in the second half of the 20th century, classified as a period of peace). In a recent Washington Post article, Allison reminds us that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which led to the outbreak of WWI was not seen by the leaders of Germany and Great Britain as serious enough to interrupt their holiday plans. A month later, on the 28th of July 1914, the War broke out, leading to the deaths of almost 20 million, changing forever the face of our world. Similarly, seemingly insignificant events led to the outbreak of many other wars, including the legendary battles waged by the superpowers of antiquity, such as the Peloponnesian War or the First Punic War, classics of modern cultural and strategic thinking. Often in the past have the proverbial snowflakes kicked off an avalanche of events – so key for the development of history – while the game has gamed the gamers.
Is this going to be the case once again? Possibly, though not necessarily. Escalation might be backed not only by the aforementioned competing ambitions of the world’s superpowers and the logic behind their rivalry – time is also of the essence: the longer the current arrangement remains in place, the greater the loss of influence suffered by the US. It is enough to recall that China’s relatively low growth of 6-7% is still notably higher than the US (more than three times so in 2017). Beijing is not only much faster at building new infrastructures, as well as investing in research and development, but it is also arming at an alarming rate – including its naval capacity. All of this is taking place while America suffers from what is called imperial overstretch. While the US suffers an excess of responsibility, spreading its resources thinly across the globe, registering sizeable deficits, China rising in might month by month are comfortably focused on key directions. However, in terms of budgetary deficit they are now nearing the US, their gold and currency reserves are yet more than 25 times those of the US, in excess of three trillion US dollars. This leads us to a simple yet brutal conclusion: the US must strive to as quickly as possible overwhelm and break their rival, if they wish to remain a global leader. Hence the new politics of restraint, notable since October 2018 – meanwhile as China shows no signs of letting off the risk of escalation is visibly increasing.
In addition, we are also in some sense seeing an expansion of space – from America’s perspective only their “naval” part of this rivalry encompasses the gargantuan, almost ten times the size of Russia (the world’s largest nation), area of Asia and the Pacific. In turn, China are competing in their own “playground” with neighbouring states – all they need to do is “just” force the US to leave the South China Sea. This would give them – considering the lack of other comparatively sizeable competition in the area – control over the largest communication trails on the planet, allowing them to establish their own terms of trade and thereby making their country a truly Pacific state, able to project their power and influence across the boundless waters of the Pacific Ocean. This would be a revolution in global political and economic relations, most likely the start of a new Pax Sinica.
Let us stress: this accumulation of conflict interests is taking place close to China, being for the UK a region of so-called extended presence, thousands of sea miles from their shores. The costs of maintaining a single war ship are therefore deeply asymmetrical – to Washington’s disadvantage, meaning that in spite of general perceptions China doesn’t have to be America’s equal in all ways in order to win this conflict. It is enough that they will be able to resist the influence of nearby neighbours.
For years China has been investing in their New Silk Road, slowly reaching Europe across South-East, Central and Lesser Asia – in June of last year the first train left Sławkowo in Silesia for China’s Urumchi down the so-called Central Corridor. If China succeeds in making this enterprise work, even a total defeat in Western Pacific may no longer matter. New highly charged trade routes are now appearing, almost totally beyond the reach of US influence – and it is hard to imagine how the US Army might be able to affect this course of events taking place deep inland in Euro-Asia.
A knockout in the early rounds is, I think, necessary for a limited conventional armed conflict to make sense for the US
The Dangers of Conflict
And so, influencing the escalation of hegemonic conflict are: opposing ambitions, the logic of superpower rivalries, time and – to a degree – space. What is working to its disadvantage?
First, nuclear weapons – specialists tend to agree that should the US launch a nuclear attack China is capable of retaliation and hitting the US mainland. The ensuing losses would be terrible enough to dissuade leaders from following this course of action. Even if we are not dealing with a Cold War return to Mutually Assured Destruction, the likelihood of many millions dying while cities are turned into nuclear wastelands is enough to keep trigger-happy leaders in check.
Second, there are the aforementioned economic interdependencies. Extreme conflicts would impact not just on the superpower players, but the whole global economy – the total sum of US and Chinese production (GDP at current prices) is about 38% of the total Earth output. The RAND corporation in its report published together with the US government estimated the economic losses should there be a prolonged intense war at 20-35% of GDP for China and 5-10% for the US. This is a nightmare which is best avoided, especially for those located to the west of the Pacific Ocean.
Third, political interests do in some way deescalate tensions – China doesn’t need war in order to topple America, all it needs is time. It could enter a military conflict if it is attacked or provoked (not just by the US itself). It could fight in order to defend its possessions, although it has no driving need to launch wars or escalate direct conflicts.
The US on the other hand need to escalate conflicts, even though this is a very risky strategy. Every defeat will be seen as a sign that the former “King of the World” is now naked, encouraging allied countries to recalculate their partnerships, and every failure will cause further erosion of the rapidly fading US empire.
China’s relatively low (6-7%) economic growth of late is still notably bigger – in 2017 threefold – than that of the US
Fourth of all there is the balance of conventional strengths. The US lacks the capacity to invade China, hence what conflict may yet come will take place in airspace, on and under the sea, in outer and cyberspace. The Chinese now outnumber their rivals when it comes to their seafaring arsenal, and are constantly launching new vessels, while modernising the old – both faster than US. They also have at their disposal the largest fishing and trading fleet which could come into play should the need arise to have them weaponised. Over in the US more and more alarmist voices are warning that their Navy is not ready not just for conflict, but for peaceful shows of force, necessary for the maintaining of influence and loyalty among their allies. There is talk of signals just after it was announced Pres. Trump would initiate an ambitious and politically charged program of expanding and modernising the US fleet. US experts tend to agree that they have the superior firepower and odds of winning a war for the time being, although the future is not so certain, and any victory might still come at a very high cost.
Meanwhile I believe that a first-round knockout is essential in order for a conventional war to make sense for the US. Every other narrative will lead to the Chinese people rallying round Jinping (or his successor), hated across the Pacific, mobilising the Chinese nation to come to its own defence, giving them time to recover economically and direct their energies towards Eurasia, serving the US up a strategic nightmare involving a devastating war against the most populous nation on Earth – where even a win for the US would not be all good news.
Fifthly, other nations in South-East Asia (among other key players across the globe) are concerned and/or terrified of what such a conflict might entail and of commenting upon it – if they do so it is only out of necessity, not need – the current bilateral arrangement is something they are used to. This is also true of a “unified” Europe, which benefits from trading with both superpowers. The same is also true of Latin American states – all the above will do their best to diffuse the chances of conflict, aware of the huge risks involved in its escalation.
Finally we come the question of business, and American attitudes to it – listening to Peter Navarro openly speaking about Xi Jinping appealing to “globalist billionaires” to soften up Pres. Trump, while trying to convince entrepreneurs to think about long term losses, one can sense the resistance put up by private capital to the idea of war. Is it not private money which caused the odd “strategic pause” ordered in Buenos Aires, giving China more priceless time in exchange for what seem to be minor concessions?
The countries of South-East Asia seem to be terrified of taking up a position on the matter.
Conclusions? Total war is unlikely, though to exclude it altogether is – following the law of escalating spirals – unwise. We are wavering between three key options: cold war, limited conventional skirmishes, and the US surrendering its global leadership crown without a fight. In his brilliant article “Another Long Peace?” the renowned Norwegian geo-strategist, professor Øystein Tunsjø stresses the relative stability of bilateral rivalries in place right now. On the other hand, he suggests that compared to the US-USSR Cold War the current scenario is less likely to provide the world with lasting peace and has more chance of turning into a limited conventional military conflict.
Yet before – and perhaps even after – it comes to such a conflict we have a whole spectrum of other means at our disposal, including diplomatic pressure, trade wars, currency wars, financial battles or cyber-financial conflicts. This is however – much like the other potential trajectories for this conflict – another story.
Polska wersja artykułu: link