China, the United States, and Hegemonic War

Tate Krasner is a senior at Boston College majoring in International Studies with minors in Chinese and Russian.

In late October, the USS Lassen entered disputed waters in the South China Sea, a move that raised diplomatic tensions with the People’s Republic of China. While the US State Department called the patrol an exercise in the freedom of navigation, the international community watched with interest as the guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. Recently, similar moves in the region by both countries have contributed to an ongoing debate over whether the superpowers will inevitably engage in heightened conflict. History has witnessed a multitude of so-called hegemonic wars, in which rising powers challenge existing great powers for international dominance. However, several contemporary factors—including economic integration, nuclear weapons, and domestic politics—challenge this assumption that war is likely between China and the US. And, because these factors do not completely eliminate risk, further proactive steps by both countries in the near future can further mitigate risk.

Today, the international community is witnessing an unprecedented level of economic integration between the US and China. The world’s two largest economies are intricately intertwined, the result of dense trade networks, debt acquisition, and tight financial linkages. Even contentious issues such as currency devaluation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have not fundamentally challenged the integral economic relationship between the two countries. And, while it should be noted that integrated economies do not guarantee peace (Britain and Germany were, after all, each other’s largest trading partners in 1914), the complexity and depth of the Sino-US economic relationship raise the threshold for going to war.

Second, the advent of the nuclear age has fundamentally altered the way great powers, including China and the US, pursue strategic and geopolitical interests. An important lesson of the Cold War is that even the most bitter of adversaries can be significantly restrained by the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The fact that the USSR and the US did not engage in conflict for almost half a century can in large part be attributed to a simple cost-benefit calculation: neither ideological nor geopolitical dominance was worth absolute self-destruction. Today, these calculations have not changed. With more advanced technologies and thousands of warheads within the Chinese and US arsenals, neither side is willing to engage in any conflict that could potentially escalate into hegemonic nuclear war.

Lastly, the domestic situations in both China and the US limit either side’s will or capacity to fight in any large-scale conflict, let alone a hegemonic conflict. In the process of exiting protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many in the US are calling for a disengagement from international conflict, instead arguing for domestic economic, political, and social reform. Further, continuing partisan gridlock in Washington presents serious doubts over whether US policymakers could rally the public to such an effort. China, on the other hand, is faced with several imposing domestic factors—including political corruption, economic slowdown, and social reform—that impede its ability and will to fight a hegemonic war. While some speculate that such factors might contribute to a more aggressive foreign policy in the near future, Xi Jinping’s recent reform efforts indicate that improving China’s domestic situation is the country’s most pressing priority.

Even given these constraints on the use of force, both sides recognize that the shifting Sino-US balance of power has the potential to contribute to international volatility, and therefore can take proactive steps to ensure stability. For its part, the United States must ask itself whether it is willing to make strategic concessions to China in order to guarantee such stability. Regionally, it is necessary for the US to allow China greater autonomy in the Asia-Pacific, recognizing that the US can nonetheless maintain its strategic interests with regional partners without complete tactical dominance. The US must also create space for Chinese influence and voice within international organizations in order to encourage China’s responsible engagement with the global community. China’s creation of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank suggests that, should Washington continue to deny China’s voice in such organizations, China will become a revisionist actor and develop competing international institutions. The ultimate question is whether the United States is willing to peacefully give up regional dominance in the Asia-Pacific to a second most powerful state with significant capabilities while still maintaining its position as the world’s most powerful country.

Similarly, China must ask whether it will be satisfied using peaceful measures to pursue its long-term interests, or if its ambitions are grand enough that it is willing to pursue a hegemonic war in order to achieve them. China’s posture in the Pacific and South China Sea suggests that it is willing to challenge the status quo, but it remains to be seen whether it is seeking to establish exclusive rights to the Asia-Pacific domain, a sort of “Chinese Monroe Doctrine.” Further, China’s economic and political engagement in other regions, including Africa and Latin America, can provide it an alternative means to achieve its objectives and expand its influence. This type of strategy—paired with active roles in international institutions—will provide China the financial and geopolitical benefits it desires without the costs associated with military action.

Most importantly, both sides must recognize that the status quo can be altered peacefully without threatening either side’s vital interests. A transformed strategic, political, and economic landscape means that Sino-US relations are not a zero-sum game. Practically, this means that the costs of a war in the future—the cost of lost trade, the cost of massively destructive arsenals, etc.—far outweigh any benefits. The Chinese proverb 脚踏实地 means to stay the course The past three decades have witnessed monumental improvements in Sino-US relations, the result of exactly such prudent, challenging, and engaging decisions from both sides. To abandon this strategy in pursuit of hegemonic war is to abandon the great potential of global economic and political security.

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