This past November’s meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping seemed to create a genuine, if tentative, thaw in US-China relations. Four months later, however, ties are rapidly deteriorating.
Last month, the sighting of a Chinese surveillance balloon over US territory scuttled a visit that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been due to make to Beijing. US officials have expressed growing concern that China may be considering the provision of lethal military assistance to Russia. China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, called the United States’ downing of the balloon “absurd and hysterical,” and Chinese officials contend that Washington seeks to contain Beijing’s technological development. While observers disagree over what language most accurately characterizes the relationship between the two countries and what historical episodes offer the best clues for considering how it will evolve, virtually all of them agree that it is in freefall.
Less remarked is a judgment that appears to undergird much of today’s analysis: that either the United States or China will “win” their strategic competition — either in an armed confrontation or a protracted, Cold War-style rivalry.
This conclusion is understandable in light of America’s confrontations to date with external challengers. Japan and Germany were two of the world’s most destructive countries in the first half of the 20th century, exploiting the United Kingdom’s relative decline and a depressed global economy to engage in wars of aggression that claimed tens of millions of lives. They suffered decisive military defeats and offered unconditional surrender in 1945, though, bringing World War II to a close. Remarkably, in the aftermath, they emerged as two of the United States’ closest allies.
Separately, while the nearly half-century-long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union did not, mercifully, lead to a nuclear exchange, historians can look back and agree on the outcome: the latter’s regime collapsed, and President George H. W. Bush and his counterpart Boris Yeltsin formally ended the Cold War in February 1992. Moreover, through the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, the United States enjoyed, if not unipolarity or hegemony, an extraordinary degree of relative preeminence that it will likely never reclaim.
THE IMPROBABILITY OF A DECISIVE WAR
That a war between the United States and China would be devastating for each’s military and economy is self-evident. It is not clear, though, that the differential devastation would be sufficiently large as to induce the “loser” to recalibrate its strategic orientation toward the “winner” — as Japan and Germany did after World War II — or that the former would prove incapable of regenerating the foundations of its national power.
Framing US-China relations as a new Cold War is problematic because it suggests that the strategic environment of today is different from the first one. But the emerging geopolitical frame does not lend itself to that judgment.
The United States has defied many prognostications of terminal decline over the past eight decades. China, for its part, has endured several catastrophes in just its recent history that could plausibly have appeared fatal at the time of their occurrence: the Taiping Civil War (1851-1864), the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1911), the Great Famine (from the late 1950s through the early 1960s), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), to name but a few. Were the two countries to go to war, one would hope that it would shock them into resetting their relationship.
It is plausible to imagine, however, that if neither were to deal the other a decisive blow, each would steel itself for a subsequent confrontation, this time regarding the other not as a fierce competitor but as an existential adversary bent upon its collapse. A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies considered what might unfold in the first three or four weeks after China attempted an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, eliciting a response by the United States that received support from Taiwan and Japan. Even though both Washington and Beijing suffered staggering damage, the study warned that “the war might not end after this initial phase but drag on for months or even years. Conflict might be episodic, with periodic ceasefires.”
THE LIKELIHOOD OF COMPETITIVE COEXISTENCE
Framing US-China relations as a new Cold War is problematic for a similar reason: it suggests that however different strategic competition might be today than it was during the first Cold War, one country will eventually prevail. But the geopolitical frame that is coming into view does not lend itself to that judgment.
The coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s coercive diplomacy have induced greater alignment among advanced industrial democracies. That alignment is unlikely to be uniform; where Asian allies and partners will be more openly and proactively supportive of US efforts — with Australia, India, and Japan being especially out front — European allies and partners will be more tentative. Still, it significantly constrains whatever ambitions China may harbor within and beyond Asia.
Even so, China is far from a pariah. It believes that it can offset growing external pressure by deepening its ties with major regional powers that share its grievances against the extent of US influence, especially Russia and Iran. It’s also strengthening its relations with hedging powers, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which discern an opportunity to enhance their freedom of foreign policy maneuver in deteriorating US-China relations and US-Russia relations. And with countries across the developing world, which are far less concerned with upholding the current international order than with managing indefinitely, if not permanently, China sees itself as a state that can help reduce food and energy insecurity.
The United States has certain competitive advantages that China will find difficult to replicate, especially its set of alliances and partnerships; the speed and multifacetedness of its response to Russian aggression affirm the strength of that network. Meanwhile, China is increasingly central to the global economy — it is now the largest trading partner for over 120 countries — and is making massive investments to achieve greater technological self-reliance, which it regards as at least as much of a national security imperative as an economic one.
China’s mounting competitive difficulties, including demographic decline and an increasingly strained external outlook, challenge the judgment that it is on a glide path to global preeminence. Its significant competitive strengths, however, caution against the conclusion that it has entered a period of systemic decline. Instead, as the Lowy Institute explains in its new Asia Power Index, a strained coexistence between the two countries seems more probable, one in which China’s comprehensive national power may never match America’s: “Whether this uneasy cohabitation between unequal superpowers results in stability is an overriding regional and global concern. But what is clear is that a Sinocentric century is in arrested development.”
The likelihood of this outcome becomes even more apparent when one considers the extent of economic linkages between the two countries — US-China goods trade reached a record high last year — and the range of transnational challenges that will continue to entangle their economies and societies. Rather than asking whether the United States or China will prevail over the other, it would be more useful to consider how they will cohabitate.