It is an ever-more common theme in modern media to depict the possibility of a Sino-American conflict. A war, in the coming future, between the Dragon and the Eagle. It is an understandable trope, and one that follows the line of thought postulated by power-transition theory. At some point, the line of thought goes, that the military strength of China will reach parity or near parity with that of the United States; it is at this stage, according to power transition theory, that the likelihood of conflict is at its greatest.
This type of alarmist thinking is not altogether new. In the 1980s, rising Japanese economic fortunes saw to similar sentiments of a potential challenge to United States interests in the Pacific, no matter how unlikely it was. Nonetheless, the thesis of a Sino-United States conflict is currently far more plausible; for one, the People’s Republic of China is not bound to the United States through a long military alliance, nor does it maintain the same intensely pacifistic domestic culture that Japan has since the end of World War Two (though there is evidence that this is shifting). Beyond this, China meets many of the qualifications for a potential revisionist power; from irredentist land and island claims (most notably on Taiwan), has adopted an offensive grand strategy aimed at expanding Chinese influence abroad, and has been, year after year, rapidly increasing its military spending and capacity.
Indeed, this is most vocally argued by proponents of Chinese containment. As Michael Pillsbury argues, the upper echelons of the People’s Republic of China are engaged in a “Hundred Year Marathon” with the United States, aimed at wresting international hegemony from the United States by 2049, aimed at righting perceived wrongs dealt by the West to China through the 19th and early 20th century. While this will not necessarily happen by force, Pillsbury argues that the PRC has ultimately been working over the past decades to undermine United States power, in spite of consistent attempts at engagement, as foreign policy hawks in Beijing, especially in light of Xi Jinping’s ascension, ultimately dominate Chinese foreign policy and grand strategy.
This however does not doom the United States and China into a headlong collision. First, the international security climate in the 21st century thus far has been the least militarized period in all of human history, and the significant role of international institutions and regimes predisposes nations towards peace, as opposed to war. Beyond this, Asian geopolitics hinders and minimizes Chinese opportunity for overt aggression, and limits its power projection capability through regional balance of power politics, nor does it consider that there is almost certainly room for engagement in the Sino-United States relationship. The rise of China is almost certainly one of the essential geopolitical questions of the near future, but it must be understood as an opportunity for engagement. While some will argue that this form of engagement is counterproductive to United States interests (and indeed, cooperation and agreements will not be met on every issue), it is the main, viable option to ensure long-term peace and stability in the international system.
Geopolitics and Chinese Security Concerns
First, in order to assess Chinese grand strategy, it is essential to understand the PRC’s geopolitical situation, and the constraints it poses on Chinese power. China, in comparison to the United States, faces a geopolitical situation that necessarily hampers its ability to project power. In contrast to the United States, China borders several major powers, with which their borders remain in friction; India and Russia in particular. While Russia is currently in a state of close cooperation with China, through organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, due to issues such as the Ukraine or the South China Seas putting the two nations into conflict with the West, this does not necessarily hold in the long run, as Chinese influence in Central Asia, in former Soviet Republics such as Kazakhstan, increasingly expands with their economic interests in the region. In India, Chinese military power and actions are observed uneasily, for instance, the recent announcement between China and Pakistan over the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistani controlled Kashmir, a disputed territory. Indeed, India, in many ways, is a long term regional competitor to China, with a growing economy and population. Unlike the United States, which maintains clear superiority against peaceful, comparatively weak and allied neighbors, China, both presently and in the future, is geographically disadvantaged with numerous strong rivals, both on land and in the adjacent oceans.
However, India, Russia, and China, are all part of the BRICS countries, which has recently been in the process of consolidation as a legitimate group of nations, with institutions such as the BRICS Bank being created. Surely, then, this will prevent the emergence of competition between these otherwise rival nations, when economic interests are at hand? Not necessarily; while Chinese economic ties are close with many of their neighbors, most notably Japan, this does not necessarily guarantee cordial political ties. Indeed, throughout the East Asia/Southeast Asia region, China’s political standings with many of the countries do not mirror the same level of intense economic cooperation and interdependency, and China (and other East Asian countries) keep a two-track diplomatic policy of separating economic and political concerns. This is particularly true with Japan, as due to unresolved historical and nationalist tensions, the political climate has grown quite tense in the short term. This in despite Japan being one of China’s largest trading and investment partners (indeed, in the aftermath of Tiananmen, Japan was one of the few nations to maintain trade and investment relations with China). Thus, it is clear that close economic relations do not necessarily translate to close political cooperation (as the Sino-American relationship highlights).
The next of China’s main geopolitical concerns is that of the One-China policy, and the continued ambiguous status of Taiwan in international affairs. Since 1949 and the end of the Chinese Civil War, the PRC maintains that Taiwan, which had broken away after the defeated Nationalists fled en masse to the island, is an integral part of China. While the United States was initially reluctant to support the Nationalists after their defeat, PRC involvement in the Korean War led to the historical development of a China policy featuring strong support for Taiwanese sovereignty, with the United States providing massive economic and military subsidies to the island, and a full guarantee against potential aggression from the mainland. Since the tense days of the Korean War, relations between China, the United States, and Taiwan have improved markedly. Tensions have eased and cross-strait economic ties have rapidly grown in the interim. The last period of heightened tensions followed the last slew Taiwan Strait crises in the 1990s. This may change based on Taiwan election results, and the perennial rivalry between Pan-Green vs Pan-Blue coalitions over the continued ambiguous status of Taiwan. Nonetheless, despite de-escalation, the PLA continues to hold missile forces aimed in the direction of Taiwan, and regularly holds military exercises near the Straits of Taiwan, and lingering threat of an armed invasion of Taiwan, to forcibly reintegrate the island, remains.
A peaceful resolution to the issue is desirable by all parties, but this is unlikely to occur until political liberalization occurs in earnest in Mainland China. As Taiwan has developed into a polity with a strong democratic political culture and a vibrant civil society, political unification with the People’s Republic of China, especially in the wake of Xi Jinping’s centralization reforms and the Hong Kong protests in 2014, is unpalatable. Political reunification would potentially face the same challenges to its democracy that Hong Kong has, despite prior assurances that Hong Kong democratic traditions would be maintained, as part of the “One China, Two Systems” approach. It is possible that in the future, political reform in China will pull China towards political liberalization, and which thus forms the central tenet of Taiwanese geopolitical strategy; aiming to delay reunification for as long as possible to see increasing growth of Chinese civil society and, it is hoped, political liberalization. The long-term prognosis for Taiwanese independence is grim: the diplomatic and political support for Taiwanese independence in international circles is a lost cause, against the backdrop of growing PRC influence, but until peaceful reunification becomes more palatable than continued diplomatic limbo that Taiwan presently occupies, the status quo will remain.
Alternately, there is the possibility of a violent resolution to the continued independence of Taiwan, by the PRC. As noted previously, the PLA maintains a sizable force in the area, and there are hawkish, hardline voices advocating a forceful end of the issue. While such voices will persist, in the short term this is unlikely to occur; thus far, Taiwan has grown increasingly close to China through economic ties (if not political or cultural affiliation). In addition to Taiwan’s relatively modern armed forces, this would put China into direct conflict with the United States, based off the informal guarantee of independence, and the powerful US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan and South Korea, whose twin military missions would be to intervene in either a future conflict on the Korean peninsula or a war between the Mainland and Taiwan. In addition to this, an armed invasion of Taiwan would put China at odds with its neighbors, specifically Japan, the ASEAN nations, and India, and undercut its international credentials and political capital. The combined weight of these factors makes a military solution to the Taiwan issue highly unlikely, as the political, economic, and military cost of such a war would be immense (not to mention the difficulty managing a hostile island territory would be).
The South China Seas
The next vital issue of geostrategic importance is that of the Asian island disputes, particularly in the South China Seas (though there are long-standing disputes between China, South Korea, and Japan; the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, in particular). Rooted in nationalist, political, and economic reasons, this is a major facet of China’s focus on maritime affairs in the region, and its recent naval build-up. Some, such as Robert D. Kaplan, call the South China Seas, and the myriad competing claims therein, “Asia’s Cauldron” and proclaims it to be the Mitteleuropa of the 21st century, as the looming source of instability in the world. Much as Central Europe in the early 20th century proved to be a hodgepodge of competing national claims and counterclaims, which would form the catalyst for two world wars, the South China Sea also prove to be the location of numerous conflicting national claims. China’s Nine Dash Line puts them into direct disagreement with many of their Southeast Asian neighbors, from Malaysia and Vietnam to the Philippines, over the largely uninhabited island chains that litter the seaways of the South China Sea. Indeed, Kaplan compares these conflicting claims to the United States and the Caribbean in the late 19th century: by dominating the region and peeling it away from European influence, the United States was able to secure itself in its own hemisphere, and begin to project its influence abroad.
First, why are these islands important, and why do they constitute a similar role to the Caribbean? These islands are situated in the important seaways connecting East Asia to the Indian Ocean (and consequently, Persian Gulf oil). The seaways, upon which island chains such as the Spratleys straddle, are thus of vial economic significance for nations such as China, Japan and South Korea, which imports much of their petroleum from overseas. Indeed, there are also estimates of large oil reserves with the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the island chains. The lure of petroleum and natural gas is a strong motivator for a nation that has historically held deep significance to energy independence. In addition to the many nationalist claims based on hazy historical records and colonial meddling, and the conflict, from which few of the participants are willing to back down from, becomes apparent.
The realist argument would be that, in addition to these economic security and nationalistic concerns, there is an underlying geopolitical element behind China’s actions in the region. Under this view, China seeks to break a United States-led encirclement of Chinese waters, and the large string of US alliances and “island fences” that hem Chinese maritime power. According to Kaplan, control of the South China Seas islands, based on China’s nine-dash line, would open the cork to the bottle, and allow China to greatly expand their power projection capabilities, secure the maritime routes through the congested and Straits of Malacca, breakout into the Indian Ocean, and surround Taiwan, and threaten to end its de facto independence. This would then be followed by the establishment of naval bases in the Indian Ocean basin, or a “String of Pearls”, by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which would allow China to project power into the vital waterways of the basin, and provide the true emergence of China as a world power, and potential competitor to the United States. This thesis is somewhat debatable (India, for instance, will almost certainly react to Chinese naval bases in the Indian Ocean, as will the ASEAN nations), and the stark terms used to paint such a scenario is pessimistic, but there is no doubt that Chinese military expansion aims to provide China with power projection overseas, either to defend Chinese interests abroad or challenge the USN, and bring China’s military dimension up to the same size and prominence as their economic clout. The resolution of these island disputes will be one of the essential lynchpins of Asian stability in the future.
China and the Korean peninsula, and particularly North Korea, is another relationship that merits review: since the rise of Xi Jinping, China’s relationship with North Korea has grown significantly frostier; in stark contrast to the regular visits between Hu Jintao and Kim Jong Il, there has been no high level state visits between the countries, and holidays and anniversaries, such as the anniversary of China and North Korea’s relationship. Indeed, despite censorship, there is now a robust debate over the status of North Korea in China, both in the media and in the academic community, with two poles: one overall sympathetic to North Korea, and one that views it as a potentially dangerous and unstable state, and understanding of United States concerns. Overall, China remains concerned about nuclearization of the peninsula and, while committing to the continuation of a North Korea as a buffer state, is also looking to improve relations with South Korea, partially in an effort to peel South Korea from the United States alliance web (especially with the recent strain of relations between Seoul and Tokyo). This outcome is unlikely to occur, given the militarization of the peninsula, and the prospect of Korean unification a distant dream for now.
Nonetheless, the stability of North Korea is uncertain. As it continues to lag behind in economic terms with many of its neighbors, and with its repressive political structure infamous in the West and in China, western analysts have been predicting its decline and fall for years. Most recently, however, debate in Chinese academia has shown a rise in increasingly critical voices regarding the country, especially after recent nuclearization efforts by the North. If, indeed, the stability of North Korea becomes uncertain in the near future, China may eventually grow to tolerate the idea of united Korean state on its border, provided United States forces are withdrawn from the peninsula as a condition, to allay Chinese security concerns.
Current Chinese Militarization
Since the 1990s, the Chinese military budget has continued to grow at a regular pace. From 2005-2014, adjusted for inflation, the official budget grew at around 9.5% annually. However, such increases have kept pace with GDP per capita, with the budget remaining below 2% of GDP despite the large, consistent increases. Actual military expenditures were estimated in 2014 to have been 169 billion United States as opposed to the official budget of 136 billion United States (accounting for several omitted categories, e.g. The procurement of foreign weapons and equipment, research, and development), though such estimates are difficult to make due to poor government transparency. The 2015 official military budget increase, of ~10%, is notably smaller than the 2014 increase of 12.2%. This coincides with declining economic fortunes and highlights potential declining fiscal capability or willingness to expand funding for the military.
Much of the military budget is currently aimed at modernizing and reforming the Chinese armed forces and supporting defense industries, and has been since the 1990s, in an effort to bring the armed forces up to par with NATO and Western forces, and over the past decade China has made dramatic improvements across all defense production sectors, comparable to Russian or European Union producers in some areas (United States DoD). China’s missile and space industry is now comparable to top-tier international producers, China’s aviation industry is now producing fourth and fifth generation fighters, albeit with foreign sourcing and assistance, and shipbuilding capacity and capability has been expanding. However, China at present, in aviation, shipbuilding, and armaments, remains dependent on foreign sourcing and acquisition to fill shortfalls and deficiencies, though this is changing.
There is also likely considerable funding for intelligence and cyber-warfare programs and development; indeed, China as a whole consistently remains the largest source of international cyber-attacks and hacking attempts (with the United States consistently the #1 recipient). Chinese espionage and intelligence agencies continue to target the United States, in both corporate and military fields, in order to illicitly procure restricted technologies, equipment, and information. This is to be expected, however the intensity is concerning, as it strains United States government and business relations with China, and also dis-incentivizes domestic innovation in China (an issue which the state of intellectual property rights in China similarly needs to tackle).
Despite the modernization efforts, particularly of the Chinese navy (which recently put out its new aircraft carrier), China’s military equipment overall remains 1-1.5 generations behind current United States gear in conventional equipment, and the Chinese aircraft carrier is categorically inferior to a current-generation nuclear powered United States carrier (let alone the new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers). China’s navy is currently still in a “green-water” phase, limited largely to its coastal areas, and is still likely decades off from true “blue-water” capability, though it is a possibility that the PLAN currently has the capability to beating a USN task force, in a hypothetical engagement with the PLAN, in Chinese littoral waters. This however, does not factor in the involvement of United States allied forces, as both Japan and South Korea maintain comparatively small but highly modern and effective navies, with Japan’s defense budget the fourth largest in the world, and Chinese power projection remains behind the United States. Pillsbury’s vision of a 2049 where China overtakes of the US as the premier world power, indeed, seems rosy.
Current United States Policy: The Strategic Pivot
Despite recent announcements by the Obama administration of a pivot towards East Asia, this pivot has been delayed in recent years, having been largely been distracted by Russian ambitions and an entanglement in the Ukraine. Nonetheless, the United States has turned increased diplomatic focus on the region, pushing forward closer economic interregional ties via the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), though Chinese absence is noticeable in the deal. As part of US grand strategy, engaging China in a productive and positive relationship is also on the agenda, and an essential part of the pivot. However, China’s policy in regards to the South China Seas island disputes and the other areas of geopolitical friction, remains a perennial issue that has exacerbated tensions both with China’s neighbors and with the United States.
The United States stance on East Asia remains one aimed at maintaining stability in the region, and providing weaker states with support; containment of China is neither a viable strategy, nor one that is frequently brandied about on Capitol Hill (as Pillsbury laments). The South China Sea disputes has been the most pressing of the challenges to this policy that China has pressed. In regards to island disputes, the United States has advocated for the maintenance of free commerce and open seas, and has pushed for the internationalization of these disputes, either through the UN or through regional organizations like ASEAN. China has strenuously objected to any attempts to internationalize the disputes, as it would significantly weaken their otherwise dominating position if the disputes remain bilateral.
This issue is even more complicated, given the United States remains allied to several nations with whom are in dispute with China in the region, from South Korea and Japan in the north (whom also hold an island dispute between themselves), and most notably the Philippines in the South China Sea. In addition, any of the nations in the region see the United States as a counterbalance to burgeoning Chinese influence, and have been pushing for greater United States involvement in the island disputes. The United States thus remains in a balancing act: balancing the pull of nationalism from allied and small states in the region, against the United States-China relationship (and the possibility of an undesired armed conflict). Nonetheless, the US stance on the issue remains clear: further escalation of the claims exacerbates the likelihood of conflict in the region, and undesirable.
In regards to Taiwan, despite no longer formally recognizing it as a country, the US provides Taiwan with extensive support, both in arms sales and in the international arena, providing “open windows” for Taiwan to connect with international organizations. Indeed, the United States maintains its commitment to defend Taiwan against an unprovoked attack. This is generally understood to be voided if Taiwan declared de jure independence, and the United States would prefer to see a peaceful outcome to reunification, but with mainland missiles pointed at Taipei, this agreement is a welcome sigh of relief for Taiwan.
And finally there is the Korean peninsula. United States forces will remain in South Korea so long as North Korea remains a potential threat to South Korea, and South Korea requests it. The United States and South Korea have been preparing for the possibility of a North Korean collapse (which western experts predicting a collapse in 10-20 years), and have been training to intervene in such a scenario, to stabilize the country and secure potentially dangerous arms and nuclear material. Thus far, despite overtures, China has largely declined to participate in this topic of discussion with the United States and South Korea, though it has assisted the United States in the Six-Party Talks to keep the peninsula denuclearized.
Long-Term Predictions & Analysis
Chinese goals of reunification with Taiwan is unlikely to be achieved in the current political climate. Beyond the difficulties that amending the Taiwanese constitution requires either for independence and reunification, the issue of Hong Kong greatly undermines any credibility the PRC has in impartially maintaining a “One China, Two Systems”; this, along with a few other incidents, have strained cross-Strait relations, though it has not come close to the same level of armed tension as in the 1990s. Without significant political liberalization, the chances of peaceful reunification is remote, and the costs of a military solution on the part of the PRC is immense. In addition to this, an increasing number of younger generation Taiwanese are developing a separate Taiwanese identity, and feel less culturally and nationally tied to Mainland China, which poses a challenge for long-term prospects of reunification. With Taiwan elections upcoming, it is preferable to the PRC and US policymakers that the KMT-led Pan-Blue wins, as it would largely guarantee conciliatory relations between the mainland and Taiwan; if pro-independence pan-Green wins, it is then hoped cross-strait relations will not return to 90s level of tension. Long-term, as Chinese influence in the region grows, it is unlikely that Taiwan will achieve independence, and will ultimately face the prospect of reunification; the question of reunification remains, however, when it will occur, and in what manner. At the least, the “Finlandization” of Taiwan is the minimum expected outcome; that is, a Taiwan that is obligated to favor Mainland China’s political and economic interests, even without full reunification.
China’s military expenditure increases still put it decades away from truly matching United States capabilities and power projection. While China remains an undisputed regional power, it will not transition to being a “world” power for quite some time, due to geopolitical constraints and the wide gulf it must make to reach United States capabilities. Indeed, India already is showing concern for China’s economic and military gestures, and has been taking measures of their own to compete. Moreover, when factoring United States allies into the equation, China’s expenditures cannot possibly match the total spent by the United States and its chain of allies, even if they potentially, in several decades time, surpass US expenditures. Even with equalized expenditures, the United States still retain a distinct lead and advantage over China in military capabilities, which will take some time to bridge even when equalized.
Beyond this, there are fiscal and demographic constraints: China is an aging nation, and faces a shrinking labor-force and a transition into a “labor-scarcity” economy within 10 years. Coupled with the need for major financial and welfare reform, and general economic slowdown as the country continues to develop, and it makes it unlikely that China can continue to increase military expenditures at a continued double-digit rate for an extended period of time. The Chinese social safety net and pensions system is in shambles since the end of the “Iron Rice Bowl”, and with rising living standards and increasing income disparity in the country, will be necessary soon, which will begin to constrain the fiscal freedom that China has to continue the same level of budgetary expansion.
Finally is the United States-China relationship. At its core, it is ultimately one of the most important relationship of the 21st century, and one in which neither party wishes to see an irrevocable breach. Continued peace and cordial relations between the two countries is in everyone’s interests.
Conclusions and Recommendations
On the whole, it can be concluded that the United States and China are not fated to go to war. While the security climate in the West Pacific will be difficult to manage in the near future, managing the risk within the region, emanating from island disputes and competing claims, and from unstable states such as North Korea, is an essential task that the United States must undertake. While in the long term, the region will stabilize and adjust to growing (if slowing), Chinese power, the greatest risk of conflict and insecurity lies in the short and middle term, as a continued arms race between East Asian nations grows apace.
In issues such as the island disputes, a balance between the demands of weaker states in the region and vested United States interests in maintaining the relationship with China must be maintained. The status quo of United States policy in regards to the myriad island disputes, in favor of internationalization and of balance (which would strengthen the hand of smaller states versus bilateral negotiations), is prudent, and continues along expected United States East Asia policy, aimed at providing a stable center of gravity for smaller states to counterbalance Chinese influence. Indeed, Taiwan offers an excellent example of this: while the United States guarantees the island from Chinese aggression, in addition to the United States providing open channels to international organizations that Taiwan is barred from, it also stresses the need for peaceful cross-strait relations. The case of North Korea as well showcases the balance United States foreign policy has taken in the region, by aiming to minimize nuclear risk and the destabilizing threat that North Korea poses in the region, while also seeking to bring China into the fold, through the Six Party talks.
Pillsbury makes several astute arguments regarding Chinese intent, and points out that Washington has chronically underestimated Chinese resiliency. China is not a “fragile flower”, and currently is not on the path towards liberalization, as Xi Jinping’s early years are a stark indication of. Certainly, China should be thought of a geopolitical competitor of the United States, and a potential challenger for global hegemony, though hampered by their geopolitical position and large number of local competitors. Nonetheless, whereas Pillsbury attacks Washington for underestimating the hardline, hawkish attitude of the PRC elite, he similarly overestimates Chinese capabilities to achieve their objectives, and cultivate an anti-American nationalist narrative at home through media control. Despite repression and an overall rollback of political liberalization under Xi Jinping, Chinese civil society, with the rise of a middle class and increasingly vibrant internet culture, there are now avenues around official state-run media and censorship, through internet proxies and other measures, allowing politically conscious Chinese citizens to circumvent the “Great Firewall”. This a fundamental flaw in Pillsbury’s depiction of China’s “Long Marathon”; despite the weight he lends to the view of aggressive Chinese geopolitical goals, he fails to account for realistic domestic constraints on these plans, as a growing domestic civil society, a middle class with increasing contact with the external world, and bureaucratic friction.
Ultimately, both China and the United States have vested interests in maintaining the liberal international order, and in preserving the Sino-American relationship. While there is indeed a wide array of geopolitical issues upon which national views diverge, this does not mean that common ground and compromise cannot be reached. After all, armed conflict, even in a limited war, is very much against the interests of all parties.
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