China and the United States are pursuing policies that increasingly put them at risk of conflict, but according to some experts, the United States doesn’t currently have the will to follow through on the endeavor.
That was the consensus reached during a Sept. 7 discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based think tank, which sought to examine the “coming conflict with China.”
“As things get tough, great powers have to take decisive actions,” said Michael Beckley, a senior fellow at AEI. “And those oftentimes bring them into greater conflict with other great powers.”
Beckley said China, in this regard, was behaving in line with what might be expected of any nation in a similar economic and political position. Rising powers are often faced with crises, in which they could either attempt to risk exceptional action or face withering away.
“We’ve seen historically, when rising powers face these kinds of headwinds, they have two choices,” he said. “They can either sit back and do nothing and allow the new normal of slower growth and encirclement to play itself out. Or they can take decisive actions to try to rejuvenate their economies, beat back rivals, and try to accomplish longstanding national aims before it becomes too late.”
Hal Brands, a senior fellow at AEI, said the multitude of crises in Sino–U.S. relations were often compared to the concept of “Thucydides’ Trap,” a spiraling of tensions between a rising power and existing power that leads ultimately to war between them. Brands dismissed the concept as a “myth,” however, and said the slow slide toward war between the United States and China isn’t inevitable.
Instead, China’s quest to reorder the existing international system had simply made its leadership more erratic as the regime had become increasingly tolerant of risk, according to Brands.
That trend isn’t a sign of China’s confidence in overtaking the United States but is indicative of a fear that China’s power was peaking, he said.
“What we often see is the revisionist powers, countries that want to reorder the international system, they become most aggressive and erratic and risk-prone not when they think they are confidently rising forever into the future but when they worry that their power has peaked and begun to decline.”
To that end, the task of U.S. leadership would be to disrupt this trend in a way that made Chinese leader Xi Jinping less willing to take serious risks, according to Brands. A war between the two powers would simply be too catastrophic for the world.
“A war between the United States and China would be catastrophic,” he said. “It would inflict a level of economic destruction that would make that inflicted by the Ukraine War look minor by comparison.”
US ‘Not Serious’ About China
U.S. efforts to curb Xi’s risk-prone behavior are likely to fall short of the mark, however, according to Derek Scissors, a senior fellow at AEI.
“We have not demonstrated the political will to build up the military to confront the Chinese,” Scissors said.
He pointed to a decreasing military overmatch between the two nations and an apparent unwillingness in the United States to pursue meaningfully harsh economic measures against China as evidence of a floundering will to confront the regime.
Even in the most contested of spaces, semiconductor manufacturing, Scissors noted that guardrails to prevent China from benefiting from the advanced technology funded by the recent CHIPS Act weren’t introduced with the legislation. Only later, in September, were guardrails introduced by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
To that end, he said U.S. leadership was talking a big game in an attempt to be seen as tough on China, but that it was failing to do what was required to ensure that it could actually defend itself and its interests from Chinese aggression.
“The U.S. is not serious about its competition with China,” Scissors said. “Our policy is to speak loudly and carry a twig. China does not face serious U.S. economic pressure.”