The common tragedy all great powers have is their inevitable decline. China and US the two superpowers, share the world’s most consequential relationship. The power shift with China taking over USA’s hegemonic throne is the handwriting on the wall. The tumultuous trajectory of the US-China relationship has been analyzed numerous times through different lenses. Many have predicted the result of the rising tensions and diverse opinions exist.
The strategic competition between US-China has been considered a second Cold War parallel to the Soviet-American cold war. Similarities can be found. The use of Taiwan like Germany in the Cold War as the battleground and undercurrents of an ideological struggle can be seen. This is reflected in Joe Biden’s speech who characterized this conflict as: “a battle between the utility of democracies and autocracies.”
However, the international system has evolved greatly since the end of the Cold War. Therefore, such kind of war can occur between the two states, but it will be very different from the previous one. China has always used soft power tools. The integration of the global economy makes division into blocs difficult. Thus, a containment strategy might not work as it did against USSR. The economically entangled world cannot be split into another Iron Curtain as the costs are too high. The possibility of a nuclear war at the global level also raises the stakes. The concept of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ would restrain USA and China. Tense and cold relations can be seen in the future with no ‘hot war’ if the hostilities keep growing. Bipolar world order is a probable scenario but with entirely different dynamics.
Another scenario played out by many is Thucydides Trap. Chinese increased improvement in cyber, air, land, and navy arms and arsenal increases the risk of armed clash. Some consider the ending of these hostile relations through a war. Thucydides Trap presents a similar perspective that the US, the ruling power will face a threat to its throne from China, a rising power. War in this situation is inevitable. Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State in this context said, “we are now trying to find … a new answer to the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.” In my opinion, a power shift through the route is very less likely. China is the second largest economy, but there is still a large gap between both world powers. The Asian country’s ambitions seem moderate. The domestic preoccupation faced by it presents constraints.
Furthermore, stability in China is essential for economic development. Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has been aimed at safeguarding the country’s interests. He called this “China’s Dream”. The states are bound by institutional frameworks and possession of nuclear weapons as mentioned above had also made violent war difficult. Although the rivalry has expanded into trade, geopolitics, and technology, it shows no signs of an impending war. Of course, conflict is always possible due to human miscalculation but the belief that ‘costs will exceed benefits’ presents a rational calculation of interest.
The misperception that both have become almost equal is false. The narrowing power gap between Washington and Beijing in almost all aspects of the international arena is tapering but the disparity remains. The difference in terms of stronger military, per capita income, education level, and scientific advancements cannot be ignored. In addition to this, America still dominates the international spheres of influence, the global commons, and international organizations. Its authority over decision-making in these domains is still extensive and widespread.
According to my perspective, the most viable option that the current scenario presents can be explained through complex interdependence. Due to increased economic entanglement between states, the chances of a direct war get slimmer. As stated by the US-China Business Council study, it is estimated that the US-China trade relationship alone supports 1.2 million US jobs and that Chinese MNCs directly employ 197,000 Americans.
Moreover, the growing interdependence has reinforced each government to engage in cooperative relations with one another throughout history. With collaboration on one hand and contingency on the other, a pattern of dualism was reflected. The strategy of dualism included positive engagement to pursue cooperative ties and at the same time the countries seeking to use such connections to create interdependence.
This in turn produced a web of relationships that acts as a constraint for the other power to use if it does something against the interests. Both sides are aware that each country’s growth, well-being and success are tied to the other. Thus, reducing the risk of war.
The international system is always undergoing changes and constantly evolving. Therefore, it is hard to predict the actual result. Cooperation at the time seems difficult when both are competing for regional and global leadership.
In conclusion, the theory of complex interdependence presents the best possible scenario for the future. The dependency has the potential to prevent the likelihood of war as predicted by the Thucydides Trap. Though transition of power, in my opinion, is inevitable but won’t be happening anytime soon.
Iqra Mumtaz is an undergraduate student of Peace and Conflict Studies, at National Defence University, Pakistan. She has published works on national and international platforms. Her pieces include analysis and work on the US-China conflict, Spatial warfare, nuclear proliferation, and some domestic issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.