By relying on mere economic interdependence and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in weighing the options of war by both Beijing, Washington, and even Moscow, preventing any change in the status quo of current power parity advantage still held by Washington will be the projection of Uncle Sam. With that in mind, a common entanglement of chain reactions alone will not be sufficient in conflict prevention measures.
While war and its causes are multi-faceted and highly variable in nature, the main proponent of the major seismic justification for an inevitable conflict between the two powers is not measured in both absolute and non-absolute terms alone. When push comes to shove, other considerations and baggage of guilt or inevitable fall-out will matter less if it comes to ensuring survival, interest, and territorial integrity. The main cause of potential conflict in current and potential prospects will be a culmination of different pressing factors that are played out in changing contextual or normative reality and perceptive dogmas.
However, judgments and analytics will be open to riskier misperceptions and wrong considerations for policy options. In devising the right timeline for the first punch, both sides will risk missteps in correctly predicting the perceived strength or weakness to enable the first strike, barring any major upsets. Ties will remain structurally driven. No major policy changes are to be expected regardless of the partisan divide in Washington or other potential future candidates from CCP succeeding President Xi.
The rise of one challenging power to the existing power structure that has been created by a historically dominant power creator has mostly been met with a full-blown conflict – at least in historically statistical terms. The case of the US taking over the global dominance status from the British has been a different contextual scenario, with both being a largely open and democratic system, with the inescapable reality for Britain being unable to mount a serious challenge to this transition in that period.
This transition has hallmarks that are different from today’s setting. China remains relatively and structurally different from the expected norms, values, and principles that are championed by the West to be the standard moral frame for a global drive of influence in seeking legitimacy and respect. Future prospects will pivot more to the embrace of the transition to the morality and values of purpose and a sense of conviction in managing international affairs. As well as in confronting regional and global challenges, with emphasis on human security and ensuring the survival of humankind amidst growing natural threats.
The US and the West have always aligned themselves to the moral high ground and in seeking to expand and maintain their dominance through the periphery of these convictions and purpose — expecting other players and the new demographic changes to adapt and adopt these universally respected norms. They have projected that the eventual transition to this value-driven and principle-laden projection of norms and standards in global order will spur lesser reliance on Beijing. Lesser reliance by shifting away from mere priorities on trade volumes, market, and supply of easy and cheap capital, to taking the moral high ground on upholding human rights and improved civilizational resilience.
The power parity fulcrum still pivots to the US for now, with relative unparalleled strength in almost all power indicators. The US remains unchallenged, especially in its military might and the capacity to project, maintain, and execute power globally, as well as the capability to compel others to adhere to the current norms and order. This reality seems far-fetched to quarters that have been quick to dismiss America’s strength and potential, at their own peril. China watchers and sympathisers and existing anti-West narratives have centered upon the doomed systemic failure and future downfall of America from within. This would create further disillusionments to the relative staying power and resilience of the American system, strength, and room for revival in this century and beyond based on current and future indicators.
The compelling urgency and drive to prevent further challenges in the future to contain the threat of the rising power will give a new orientation to the threat perspective. The lessons of the past in failing to act fast enough, and the resulting impact in which the countermeasures and the containing policies are deemed as too little too late, will serve as the wake-up call for a better conception of preventive options to quell the threat at earlier levels. This also serves the purpose of Beijing in its orientation of Washington’s perceived declining power. It might be tempted to use Taiwan as the ultimate pretext and starting point of the inevitable clash, and the timeline remains crucial in the next decade both in using this short timeline to Beijing’s advantage and to prevent the long game advantage by Washington, seizing on this momentum which is perceived as Beijing’s to lose.
Realising that decades of strategic patience and support given to this relationship that enables Beijing to rise to where it is now, the Americans are faced with staggering realities that Beijing will not kowtow to pressures to change. Washington will treat this new frontier and transition of a different game model as one that is both competitive and systemic rival in nature.
Needing to align with domestic demand and to revive the greatness of America, this serves as the often-overlooked impetus and new openings for Washington to bid for the urgency of time in expanding the power gap with Beijing. The high potential of Trump’s return in 2024 serves as another fresh momentum and multiplier effect in Washington’s pursuit of direct and high-risk statement and deterrence creation, in highlighting the real and perceived strength projection and execution.
Players at the receiving end of Beijing’s new bellicose tactics have created new flexibilities of policy orientation in diversifying their foreign policy overtures, often discreetly inking and welcoming more concrete Western counterbalance measures. The measures taken have sparked alarm and fears which have expectedly created new circles of arms race and escalating security dilemma. The crucial flashpoint and sabre rattling created will both serve as the impetus for regional players to increase defensive actions and to seek greater assurances from the West.
In this next chapter of shifting norms and perception, the competition and conflict between the two powers will continue to harbour greater risks of declining deterrence impact with current conflict prevention measures. Urgent crucial triggering flashpoints in the case of Taiwan and missteps in perceptions and purposes will remain high risks, further enabling the fears of Thucydides trap.
The inevitable structural and systemic correlation of the fear felt by the incumbent power by a rising power will only bear the needed responses for both sides if this conventional dogma plays out in its original essence, which is the real and proven capacities for the rising power to challenge and replace the incumbent party with overwhelming capabilities. China in its current power measurement in all totalities lacks the fundamental facets and parameters in meeting this fulcrum. Consequently, the impact will be mixed and convoluted for both powers in opposing contexts. Believing that the decline of America is inevitable, Beijing might risk greater failures and backfiring to its riskier bet, born out of the illusions of growing confidence and overestimation of its capacity in taking on Washington early. For America, believing that China is doomed for long term decline and that Uncle Sam would have the strategic progressive advantage in the longer power frame will risk complacency and the return to strategic patience of buying time and waiting for Beijing to commit its first mistake.
For now, the intention has already been perceived and made clear by one’s own interpretation, with the eventual conversion to actions on the ground. The subsequent results will remain mired in an inevitable clash, in which the severity, type and depth of the conflict will depend on the tone of interpretation of intention and purpose. Washington might be perceived as the wounded tiger for now for its late entry into the game, but often this context serves as the primary fuel and pretext for bolder, sustained, even desperate scramble in protecting the lead.
The path for Beijing’s Dream looks increasingly narrowed if it chooses to remain on the current hard-hitting orientation and its reluctance to embrace historically abided international law and norms. Until Beijing is ready for that, an unavoidable arms race and clash will be in the cards, as certainly as President Xi will cement his limitless grip on the country’s leadership come this Fall.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.