•While China’s rise may not trigger a Thucydides Trap with the United States, the possibility of conflict remains due to increasing tensions in the South China Sea and the ratcheting up of threats against Taiwan.
By Gregory Mitrovich
THE ESCALATING strategic rivalry between the United States and China represents the greatest foreign policy challenge that President Joe Biden’s administration faces today. The growing confrontation over the South China Sea (SCS) and China’s increasing threats towards Taiwan have left many fearing that war could erupt due to crisis miscalculation. Experts warn, however, that the risk of war between the two powers will remain high, regardless of whether the situation in the SCS improves, due to the structural tensions caused by China’s rise. This rise, in the long term, could potentially set off a global war for the dominance of the international system.
The new Biden administration is thus faced with two difficult tasks—tempering the immediate risk of conflict in the SCS and reducing the probability of hegemonic war triggered by China’s rising power.
IN HIS book Destined for War, Graham Allison argues that the greatest threat of hegemonic war occurs when rising powers attempt to overturn an established global order. These challenges in turn trigger a “Thucydides Trap” like that which sparked twelve hegemonic wars over the past five hundred years. The increasingly heated confrontation between the United States and China coupled with the growing sense that Beijing aspires to replace the United States at the apex of global power, has led many scholars to join Allison and argue that conflict between these two powers may also be inevitable.
However, beginning with the industrial era, not all hegemonic challenges have led to war, even among rising powers eager to overthrow the existing established orders. During the nineteenth century, Great Britain faced fundamental challenges from a rising, democratic United States bent on reforming a world dominated by great power aristocracies. From 1815–1900, the United States was one of the fastest developing nations in the world—a continental-sized nation with vast resources, a rapidly growing population, and the champion of an economic and political model that by century’s end positioned it as the world’s leading economy and democratic inspiration. However, despite numerous diplomatic confrontations throughout the century, the two nations remained at peace.
The reason is that the United States chose not to threaten the key source of Britain’s hegemony, its naval and financial dominance of the world. The United States would only emerge as a challenger to the British during the twentieth century, after the rise of Germany forced the United States to build a “navy second to none” while World War I left Great Britain heavily indebted to American financiers, alarming London of America’s growing influence. While the nations remained rivals, the potential for confrontation was muted by the economic upheaval of the Great Depression and the revived German threat under Adolf Hitler. Eventually, the United States would surpass Great Britain on the high seas during World War II and become the dominant power in the new postwar world.
Under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany also managed to rise to power without triggering a war with Great Britain, though power transition theory would have suggested such a war inevitable. Following the wars of German Unification, which culminated with Prussia’s shocking victory over France in 1871, Bismarck moved aggressively to establish the German Empire as the dominant power on the European continent, fundamentally reshaping the balance of power system first established by the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Yet he did so while also deferring to Britain’s global leadership, arguing in 1889 that the Pax Britannica represented “the greatest force for peace in the world.” Rather, Bismarck planned Germany to become the most powerful “second-tier” state, a decision that instead put it on a collision course with the United States. While Britain watched growing German industrial capabilities with increasing wariness and recognized the impact of German economic competition on Britain’s dominance of the economic system, Bismarck’s Germany did not pose an existential threat to Great Britain.
However, by the late 1880s, a new generation of leaders emerged who believed that Bismarck’s restraint prevented Germany from achieving its “place in the sun” and rightful standing as a world leader. They influenced the young and increasingly ambitious new Kaiser Wilhelm II to abandon Bismarck’s moderation in lieu of a “New Course” which saw Germany aggressively expand its influence in Asia, Africa, and South America well beyond the boundaries the “continentalist” Bismarck had envisioned. The most famous of these new counselors, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, recognized that Berlin’s new Weltpolitik required a powerful navy that could match British power and coerce London into recognizing Berlin as its global equal.
Tirpitz’s massive naval buildup embodied the very threat centuries of British policymakers had sought to neutralize: a rival with the ability to invade or blockade the British Isles. The “Tirpitz plan” posed an existential threat to more than just Britain’s geopolitical supremacy, but to its survival as a nation. Britain responded with its own massive naval buildup, including the creation of the revolutionary Dreadnought battleship and Invincible-class battlecruiser that rendered the world’s existing navies obsolete. Rather than Berlin forcing London to concede to its demands, Britain would triumph in the ensuing naval arms race while resolving its age-old rivalries with France and Russia, ultimately joining both powers in World War I. Ironically, the wars resulting from the Anglo-German rivalry would ensconce the United States as the world’s dominant power several decades later.
FOLLOWING WORLD War II, the newly minted American hegemon faced two distinctly different challenges to its world leadership: The Soviet Union which aimed to replace American liberalism with Soviet Marxism, and Japan, whose state-centric capitalist model sparked one of the most dramatic economic ascendancies in history, leading many Americans to fear that Japan was destined to supplant the United States as the new leader of the postwar world order.
In 1945, the power of the United States was so vastly superior to all other nations that the world was far more unipolar than bipolar. The U.S. economy totaled nearly 50 percent of the world’s GDP, U.S. finance kept the global economy functioning, and U.S. humanitarian assistance fed a war-ravaged world. America was in sole possession of the atomic bomb and its global power-projection capability allowed it to intervene in every corner of the world if needed. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was a powerful but ultimately regional actor with large conventional forces that, due to its size, threatened three key theaters: Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. This forced the United States to end its historic isolationism and create a system of global alliances to deter Soviet expansion.
While Soviet conventional military power and political warfare capabilities endangered American interests, they did not represent an existential threat to America’s newfound ascendance. U.S. strategists were convinced that these new alliances did not require the deployment of American military power overseas—indeed, the United States would demobilize most of its conventional capabilities shortly after World War II. During his Senate testimony in defense of the NATO treaty, Secretary of State Dean Acheson repeatedly assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the treaty required no permanent American military presence in Europe. Consequently, America had no need to expand its military capabilities following the creation of NATO in May 1949, nor even establish a military command system in Europe.
That changed, however, with the Kremlin’s acquisition of the atomic bomb that September, which gave the Soviet Union the ability to directly attack the continental United States. U.S. strategic planners warned that because of the nation’s high concentrations of economic and military power, the Soviet Union could launch a war-winning nuclear first strike by the mid-1950s. The Soviet atomic bomb negated the once decisive economic power of the United States, meaning it no longer had the luxury of waiting for war to mobilize its industries and rebuild its military.
The North Korean invasion confirmed the bellicose intentions of the Soviet Union, leading President Harry Truman to authorize a massive buildup of conventional and nuclear capabilities and implement increasingly aggressive military and political warfare strategies to destabilize the Soviet system and preempt a Soviet nuclear first strike. The risk of war between the two powers reached a fever pitch as the crisis over Berlin escalated, which in turn lead directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Many analysts believed that the nuclear arms race made war inevitable, arguing that the rapid increase in nuclear stockpiles incentivized nuclear first strikes. The United States’ test of a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb in 1952, nearly a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, magnified these fears: everyone understood that when the Soviets developed their own bomb (which they did in 1955), the very survival of the United States would be at stake.
The world did survive this incredibly dangerous era. The expansion of survivable nuclear forces, including the dispersal of Strategic Air Command bomber bases and the construction of ballistic missile submarines, ameliorated these first-strike pressures, laying the foundation for the nuclear revolution which in turn stabilized the global strategic environment. Deterrence was further strengthened by the ideological faith both sides shared of the eventual demise of their opponent’s political and economic system, which finally occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
MODERN JAPAN raised a far different threat to the United States—an “insiders” challenge to the leadership of the postwar order. Though armed conflict was never a possibility, Japan’s rise nevertheless seemingly posed an existential dilemma to American leadership, shaking American self-confidence with dire warnings that “Japan Inc.” would reshape the world economy, with Tokyo replacing Washington as its new center of gravity. Though hegemonic war was impossible to imagine, Japan’s rise raised grave concerns about the possibility of a peaceful hegemonic power transition.
In only a few decades Japan had surpassed the United States in innovation and productivity and replaced it as the world’s leading creditor nation, an event many considered an historic turning point, reminiscent of the time the United States surpassed Great Britain during World War I and assumed leadership over the international financial system. Indeed, Japan’s stunning rise was an important motivation for Paul Kennedy’s epic work The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.
These changes triggered an avalanche of warnings regarding a coming Pax Nipponica, which saw the United States and Japan “trading places,” and of Japan’s “economic miracle” due to its unique coordination of industry and government—an example the United States must emulate if it hoped to arrest its decline. Japanese technological advances surpassed those of leading U.S. electronics manufacturers, even compelling Intel to abandon its prized memory chip business only a decade after pioneering the technology. The stunning rise of Japan’s semiconductor production threatened the survival of the American electronics industry, convincing even the free marketeers of the Reagan administration to support the creation of SEMATECH Inc., a research consortium of fourteen U.S.-based semiconductor companies tasked with coordinating industrial efforts to catch up to Japan’s more advanced semiconductor technology. Fearing that Japan had usurped American leadership, James Fallows recommended containing Japan, while others warned that Washington needed to emulate Japan’s industry-government relationship if the United States were to stem its rapid economic decline.
They could not have been more wrong. While Japan’s collaboration between the state and private industry sparked its rapid rise to power, Japanese industries failed to match the creativity of their American counterparts over the long haul. Instead, U.S. companies, especially the once hard-hit auto industry, responded to the competition by redoubling their innovativeness, retaking global share from Japanese corporations, and demonstrating that “decline” can be reversed. Furthermore, Japan valued its alliance with the United States and compromised on important points of contention, such as its competition in semiconductors. Within a decade, things would change dramatically. While Japan’s real estate bubble burst and its economy slipped into stagnation, the United States re-established itself as the world’s dominant economic power. Where once Sony, Sanyo, Fujitsu, and Toshiba, among others, ruled the electronics industry, soon Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and many more companies would overwhelm their Japanese competitors. While Japan remains a vital American ally and partner in the global community, it has had to abandon its aspirations for global leadership, especially as China’s rise has relegated Japan to third place on the global economic ranking.
DOES CHINA currently represent an existential threat to the United States—enough that it could result in the hegemonic war that now has many concerned? The answer is “not yet”—certainly not to the extent that Germany or the Soviet Union posed. China’s minimal nuclear deterrent does not pose a threat to the United States as did the Soviet nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. And while China is rapidly building up its conventional capabilities, especially its naval power, growing Chinese military might remains primarily a regional concern and does not pose a direct threat to the United States itself.
The greatest threat comes from China’s spreading global economic power and its increasing influence in international organizations. Benefiting from the significant advantages it accrued through admittance into the World Trade Organization, China has been able to develop its export economy while maintaining restrictions on imports. Furthermore, China has used the enticements of its labor market to demand the transfer of proprietary information from companies operating in China. When illegal hacking is factored in, the costs to the U.S. economy are enormous, estimated at roughly $600 billion per year. At present, many fear that China has a growing lead in cutting-edge technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. However, absent actual products it is very hard to know if that is indeed the case.
While China’s economic and political expansion are substantial, they still do not match those of Japan’s from the late 1970s. Then Japanese auto manufacturers devastated the American car industry, resulting in massive restructuring and U.S. government bailouts to keep some companies afloat, while products from Japanese electronics firms predominated store displays throughout the United States and Europe. Chinese technological advances remain impressive. However, the tech world continues to be dominated by American companies such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft—companies with trillion-dollar market capitalizations that dwarf their competitors, producing products that have revolutionized the electronics and computer industries, setting standards that competitors such as Korea’s Samsung and China’s Huawei must match.
China has moved aggressively into artificial intelligence and quantum computing, hoping to dominate these industries over the next few years. Many claim that China already leads in these fields. Recently, however, PsiQuantum, D-Wave, Honeywell, IBM, and Google have claimed significant advances in quantum computing as well. Thus, only time will tell. By contrast, in the 1980s, Japan’s technological lead was unambiguous, as its products were the envy of the world’s marketplace.
It is China’s growing efforts to “weaponize” its technological advancements that distinguish it from Japan and present a key concern for the future of the United States. Analysts have long argued that Huawei’s 5G networks provide China with the unique ability to eavesdrop on the systems which employ them, including governmental organizations. This is what lead the Trump administration to launch a campaign to halt the international adoption of Huawei’s systems. Social media apps like TikTok, WeChat, and ByteDance were also accused of failing to protect consumer privacy, even providing the Chinese security apparatus with ready access to enormous amounts of personal user data.
Of even greater concern are China’s increasing efforts to control what historians call “the infrastructure of empire,” the latticework of roads, trade routes, communication lines, and so forth that enables the international system to function. The most celebrated example is Rome’s famous network of roads that bound its empire. Similarly, in the nineteenth century, Great Britain deployed its worldwide system of ports and harbors, its dominance of the world’s financial system, and its undersea telegraph network to control the global economy. China is likewise expanding its tendrils throughout the world economy via the spread of its technology and online applications, exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to increase its dominance of the drug supply chain, touting its vast holding of “rare earth metals” needed for the electronics industry, continually extending its Belt and Road Initiative, and increasing its influence in both international and national governmental institutions. These moves do not make China an existential threat to the United States, but it does mean the United States has to raise its game in these areas if it is to arrest growing Chinese influence. This battle will define their “great power competition” in the twenty-first century.
WHILE CHINA’S rise may not trigger a Thucydides Trap with the United States, the possibility of conflict remains due to increasing tensions in the South China Sea and the ratcheting up of threats against Taiwan. Foreign policy matters—wars erupt far more frequently over strategic miscalculations than by grand systemic pressures. If the Biden administration combines diplomacy with robust military deterrence, it should, however, be able to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan while reengaging the United States’ commitment to peacefully frustrating China’s broader hegemonic challenge. Doing so will enable both parties to avoid war despite Beijing’s growing power.
Gregory Mitrovich is an award-winning historian whose forthcoming book is entitled The Contest: The United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Rivalries that Forged the American Century.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Credits | The National Interest