Why China and the US (Probably) Won’t Go to War

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Why China and the US (Probably) Won’t Go to War

Geography and nuclear weapons make it virtually unthinkable that Beijing and Washington will clash.

As I noted earlier in the week, the diplomatic summits between China and the U.S. over the past month has renewed conversation on whether Beijing and Washington, as rising and established power, can defy history by not going to war.  

Xinhua was the latest to weigh in on this question ahead of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this week, in an article titled, “China, U.S. Can Avoid ‘Thucydides Trap.’” Like many others, Xinhua’s argument that a U.S.-China war can be avoided is based largely on their strong economic relationship.

This logic is deeply flawed both historically and logically. Strong economic partners have gone to war in the past, most notably in WWI, when Britain and Germany fought on opposite sides despite being each other’s largest trading partners.

More generally, the notion of a “capitalist peace” is problematic at best. Close trading ties can raise the cost of war for each side, but any great power conflict is so costly already that the addition of a temporarily loss of trade with one’s leading partner is a small consideration at best.

And while trade can create powerful stakeholders in each society who oppose war, just as often trading ties can be an important source of friction. Indeed, the fact that Japan relied on the U.S. and British colonies for its oil supplies was actually the reason it opted for war against them. Even today, China’s allegedly unfair trade policies have created resentment among large political constituencies in the United States.

But while trade cannot be relied upon to keep the peace, a U.S.-China war is virtually unthinkable because of two other factors: nuclear weapons and geography.

The fact that both the U.S. and China have nuclear weapons is the most obvious reasons why they won’t clash, even if they remain fiercely competitive. This is because war is the continuation of politics by other means, and nuclear weapons make war extremely bad politics. Put differently, war is fought in pursuit of policy ends, which cannot be achieved through a total war between nuclear-armed states.

This is not only because of nuclear weapons destructive power. As Thomas Schelling outlined brilliantly, nuclear weapons have not actually increased humans destructive capabilities. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that wars between nomads usually ended with the victors slaughtering all of the individuals on the losing side, because of the economics of holding slaves in nomadic “societies.”  

What makes nuclear weapons different, then, is not just their destructive power but also the certainty and immediacy of it. While extremely ambitious or desperate leaders can delude themselves into believing they can prevail in a conventional conflict with a stronger adversary because of any number of factors—superior will, superior doctrine, the weather etc.— none of this matters in nuclear war. With nuclear weapons, countries don’t have to prevail on the battlefield or defeat an opposing army to destroy an entire country, and since there are no adequate defenses for a large-scale nuclear attack, every leader can be absolute certain that most of their country can be destroyed in short-order in the event of a total conflict.

Since no policy goal is worth this level of sacrifice, the only possible way for an all-out conflict to ensue is for a miscalculation of some sort to occur. Most of these can and should be dealt by Chinese and the U.S. leaders holding regularly senior level dialogues like the ones of the past month, in which frank and direct talk about redlines are discussed.

These can and should be supplemented with clear and open communication channels, which can be especially useful when unexpected crises arise, like an exchange of fire between low-level naval officers in the increasingly crowded waters in the region. While this possibility is real and frightening, it’s hard to imagine a plausible scenario where it leads to a nuclear exchange between China and the United States. After all, at each stage of the crisis leaders know that if it is not properly contained, a nuclear war could ensue, and the complete destruction of a leader’s country is a more frightening possibility than losing credibility among hawkish elements of society. In any case, measured means of retaliation would be available to the party wronged, and behind-the-scenes diplomacy could help facilitate the process of finding mutually acceptable retaliatory measures.

Geography is the less appreciated factor that will mitigate the chances of a U.S.-China war, but it could be nearly as important as nuclear weapons. Indeed, geography has a history of allowing countries to avoid the Thucydides Trap, and works against a U.S.-China war in a couple of ways.

First, both the United States and China are immensely large countries—according to the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. and China are the third and fourth largest countries in the world by area, at 9,826,675 and 9,596,961 square km respectively. They also have difficult topographical features and complex populations. As such, they are virtually unconquerable by another power.

This is an important point and differentiates the current strategic environment from historical cases where power transitions led to war. For example, in Europe where many of the historical cases derive from, each state genuinely had to worry that the other side could increase their power capabilities to such a degree that they could credibly threaten the other side’s national survival. Neither China nor the U.S. has to realistically entertain such fears, and this will lessen their insecurity and therefore the security dilemma they operate within.

Besides being immensely large countries, China and the U.S. are also separated by the Pacific Ocean, which will also weaken their sense of insecurity and threat perception towards one another. In many of the violent power transitions of the past, starting with Sparta and Athens but also including the European ones, the rival states were located in close proximity to one another. By contrast, when great power conflict has been avoided, the states have often had considerable distance between them, as was the case for the U.S. and British power transition and the peaceful end to the Cold War. The reason is simple and similar to the one above: the difficulty of projecting power across large distances—particularly bodies of waters— reduces each side’s concern that the other will threaten its national survival and most important strategic interests.

True, the U.S. operates extensively in China’s backyard, and maintains numerous alliances and partnerships with Beijing’s neighbors. This undeniably heightens the risk of conflict. At the same time, the British were active throughout the Western Hemisphere, most notably in Canada, and the Americans maintained a robust alliance system in Western Europe throughout the Cold War. Even with the U.S. presence in Asia, then, the fact that the Chinese and American homelands are separated by the largest body of water in the world is enormously important in reducing their conflict potential, if history is any guide at least.

Thus, while every effort should be made to avoid a U.S.-China war, it is nearly unthinkable one will occur.