Are the United States and China destined for war against each other? Growing tensions between the two countries in recent years have led to fears that their differences might result in war and bloodshed, but several factors suggest otherwise.
First, the background. While countries have put forward competing claims for territory in the South China Sea for centuries, tensions over the disputes have escalated in the past few years.
China has built artificial islands and started naval patrols to defend its expansive claims, drawing the ire of US officials such as Admiral Harry B. Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, who said in February 2016 that China’s actions in the South China Sea were undermining the region’s stability and security.
On the trade front, experts believe that the frontrunners of the ongoing US presidential election – Mrs Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and Mr Donald Trump for the Republicans – might take stronger stances against China if elected to office, worsening the US-China relationship.
Mrs Clinton was the architect of the US’s pivot to Asia, which has been widely seen as a move to contain China’s economic rise. Mr Trump, on his part, has promised to impose hefty tariffs on Chinese exports to the US in his quest to “make America great again”.
The case against war
Despite these worrisome signs, however, war between the two countries is unlikely, according to experts at a recent panel discussion on the US-China relationship, organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
The main deterrent is the threat of nuclear retaliation. While clashes between ruling powers and rising powers – as the US and China are now, respectively – have led to war in the past, these instances occurred before the nuclear age.
Mr Gideon Rachman, who is the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, noted that both the US and China now possess nuclear weapons. He said: “The stakes were much lower in the past. The leadership of both countries are rational, and neither wants a conflict – one hopes that because they are both nuclear powers, that it won’t come to war.”
Mr Rachman said, however, that the tensions between the two countries were unlikely to lead to war: “Rising powers do tend to clash with established powers, and this has led to war in 12 out of 16 cases since the 1500s. But these instances were before the nuclear age, when the stakes were much lower. One hopes that because both China and the US are nuclear powers, it won’t come to war.”
Consensus for war is unlikely
China’s economic rise has also increased its interdependence with the US. China is the US’s largest goods trading partner, with US$598 billion (S$825 billion) in total, two-way goods trade in 2015. China was also the US’s third-largest goods export market in that year, as well as its largest supplier of goods imports.
The multi-faceted relationship between the two countries reduces the likelihood that either side can achieve an internal consensus for war. Even if territorial disputes lead to growing tensions, the financial interests of both countries in maintaining a good relationship might trump such disagreements.
“China’s rise has diversified the US’s interests to such an extent that it’s difficult for any US leader to strike a consensus-based China policy,” said Professor Huang Jing, who is director of the LKY School’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation, and the Lee Foundation Professor on US-China Relations.
“That gives me hope that the interdependence between the US and China is unprecedented in such a way that you cannot reach a strategic consensus for launching a war against the other side,” he said.
Foreign entanglement fatigue
The US’s other foreign entanglements and priorities may also dissuade it from war with China. Mr Rachman noted: “The Chinese may have overstepped the mark (in the South China Sea), but they have been quite intelligent in making each move small enough to make it hard for the US to respond aggressively.
“The US also has all these other things going in the Middle East, including its fight against ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a terrorist group).”
Cooperation, not conflict
In fact, the US and China have shared interests that might encourage cooperation rather than conflict. In 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a historic US-China agreement to combat climate change. The two countries also worked together, and with others, to forge the global climate agreement in Paris in late 2015.
Terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear threat are other common concerns. Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies – Asia, said: “Both the US and China agree that there should be more cooperation and intelligence-sharing in the security sphere.”
The tensions between the two countries may worsen in the short term, but is unlikely to lead to outright war. Prof Huang summed up their relationship: “They might have a messy engagement with each other, with constant negotiation, but they both want to optimise common interests and manage conflicts. If they both see that they are very close to a fight, they will step back.”
On May 26, 2016, Mr James Crabtree, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the LKY School and Contributing Editor of the Financial Times, hosted an panel discussion titled “Must America and China Clash? The Troubled Future of Sino-US Relations”. The panelists were: Mr Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist for the Financial Times; Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies – Asia; and Professor Huang Jing, Director of the LKY School’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation, and Lee Foundation Professor on US-China Relations.