The Clash of the Giants: could a war between the US and China be likely?

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping raise a glass during a meeting between the two (PHOTO: Greg Baker/Pool/Reuters).
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping raise a glass during a meeting between the two (PHOTO: Greg Baker/Pool/Reuters).

Author: Giacomo Toffanello

The US and China are by far the two largest economies in the world and the two countries with the largest expenditure in defence budget; they both possess a nuclear arsenal and China is recording a positive trend in military budget growth, to modernize both its nuclear capabilities and its conventional maritime and air forces. Could these two superpower find themselves into a conflict? In this analysis, Giacomo Toffanello, Master student in International Security and Law, will assess the likeability and the characteristics of a conflict between these two countries.


The US and China: global economic and military leaders

With their two GDPs of respectively more than 17 and 10 trillion dollars, the United States of America and China combine for almost 28 trillion dollars; this makes Washington and Beijing by far the two largest economies in the world. As the closest in this list are Japan and Germany with GDPs of respectively a slight above 4.6 and 3.8 trillions, we can’t but remark the astonishing magnitudo of US and China as key players in the economic global arena. The US and China are also the two countries in the world with the largest military expenditure: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US have a budget of around 610 billion dollars, while China spent 216 billion dollars in 2014 for its military. Also in this figure the gap with the following countries in the list is remarkable, since Russia and Saudi Arabia, respectively 3rd and 4th in the military expenditure list, are well below the 100 billion dollars threshold, stopping their budgets around 80 billion dollars. Moreover,  within the five nations recognised as taking part in the Nuclear Club, China is the only state improving its existing nuclear capabilities, as it is undergoing a rapid modernization of its nuclear arsenal and stocking more and more missiles with capability of reaching continental US: from less than 20 in 2006 to more than 40 today, with the plan of having more than 100 by mid 2020s. China is also «undergoing rapid modernization of its conventional maritime and air forces and investing in the militarization of outer space and cyberspace»[1] that resulted in an outstanding 10% increase in military budget for the year 2015, marking two decades of nearly unbroken double-digit growth in that same figure.

So we saw how the US and China are the two largest economies in the world and the two countries in with the largest military expenditure; moreover, we noticed that China is the only country among the ones with a nuclear capability that is undergoing a heavy modernisation of its arsenal and has a steady trend of double-digit growth in military budget that is not presumed to slow down. Notwithstanding all the points we highlighted above, some scholars argue that between these two countries «war is unthinkable»[2]. In this paper and in the next one that will be published next week, I will try to provide an analysis on to prove if this assumption is or not correct: today I will show whether or not a military confrontation between the two countries might happen in the near future, and in case what kind of conflict we might expect; in the next paper I will discuss some possible hypothetical scenarios that might trigger a confrontation between the two superpowers.

First of all I will investigate how China developed to become one of the largest economies in the world, challenging American hegemonic role in the global arena;  China’s economy grew from a GDP of 560 billion dollars in 1994 to more than 10 trillion today, thus increasing almost 20 times in the last two decades, with a steady growth rate of around 10% each year. But how can it be possible that the US, the main economic actor in the world, allowed for another country to grow so consistently thus endangering their leadership as the global hegemony?

According to Ott, during the last twenty-five years, the US were drawn into other international theatres (the Balkans and the Middle East), «leaving their strategic interests in Asia unarticulated for a long period»[3]. Washington’s strategy toward Asia was mostly «to maintain a robust forward and active presence coupled with bilateral alliances to ensure peace, stability and prosperity»[4]. This American disinterest allowed China to rise in the region as the main economic actor since, without any major external threat, Beijing was able to constantly develop its economy, both exploiting the inflow of foreign capital and free-riding the rest of the world’s technological innovation in order to catch up quicker and to establish itself as a global economic great power[5].

Could a Conflict actually be Possible?

Before starting to analyse if the conflict is a real possibility we have to stress again some facts: both China and the United States possess a nuclear arsenal and are part of the Nuclear Club. Moreover the two states are the global leading countries in military budget. If, according to some scholars, the possibilities of a conflict between US and China are «tangible in the near future»[6], what are the political reasons that might trigger a fight between the two countries? And what kind of confrontation would it be?

When we analyse the likelihood of a confrontation to happen, at least four are reasons that would make a conventional confrontation between the two superpowers likely to happen. These reasons can: “core interests”, “communication crisis”, “the Stability-Instability Paradox” and the role of technology.

About core interests we can say that it is likely that the two superpowers would confront if China’s vital interests were at stake; in Washington there is a certain ambiguity over Beijing’s «red lines»[7] , and this makes it more likely for the two countries to arrive at a confrontation. This is due to the fact that Washington’s uncertainty and unawareness, combined with some risky or hazardous policies might look provocative from a Chinese perspective, thus exacerbating the risk of a conflict to sparkle[8].

This scenario might be aggravated by a communication crisis, that has a high chance of being triggered in two different ways: a delay in the communications between China and the US due to the fact that the very centralised Central Politburo of Beijing wants to unify internal opinions before being willing to implement a strategy to counter any move by Washington, or before even confronting on delicate issues; the other scenario would see a simple translation fail that could provoke unpredictable results[9].

Another key element that we have to take in consideration is the Stability-Instability Paradox. This paradox has to be analysed bearing in mind that both states possess a nuclear arsenal able to assure at least a first strike capability; as we will see in the next lines, both countries want to avoid a nuclear conflict, this makes the possibility of a conventional confrontation more likely, since this paradox makes lesser conflicts seem safe to fight. This is due mostly to two reasons: from a US perspective the fear of China’s nuclear capability limits Washington’s willingness to escalate beyond conventional weapons, since they could not bear the costs of a major nuclear confrontation[10]. The second reason is China’s nuclear No First Use (NFU) policy, implemented in the 1960s. According to this policy, China trains their military forces and implements their nuclear strategy on the assumption that it will never use its nuclear arsenal unless first attacked with nuclear weapons. Being aware of this strategy of their Chinese counterpart, this could make the US more willing to trigger small crises, since they might feel relatively safe that there would be no nuclear retaliation from Beijing[11].

Another factor that we have to take into consideration is technology. The US have a clear superiority in military technology: this disproportion can improve the risk of a conventional war, since asymmetry can result in two different perceptions: from an American perspective, the clear advantage is likely to lead to a clear victory, therefore increasing the possibility of starting a conflict; from a Chinese perspective the disadvantage of being the weaker side might lead to the “use ’em or lose ’em” pressure, thus deploying and employing their military capabilities before the opponent has the chance to destroy your offensive arsenal. This pressure is more likely to result in an escalation of the conflict especially when the weaker side believes that its vital interests are at stake or when they value them more than the stronger opponent[12].

Nuclear “stability” and small confrontations

As we analysed in this article, there are not significant possibilities of a nuclear escalation, especially as neither of the two states is willing to bear the costs of such a devastation; the only chance would be if incredibly high stakes of the US were at a great danger[13], but this seems to be very unlikely to happen.

This nuclear “stability” helps in making smaller-scale confrontations more likely. As a matter of fact, if one side believes that it has a stronger interest than the opponent on a specific objective, and that these stronger interests ensure that it will be more resolute than the opponent in pursuing them, then it could be tempted to use limited conventional force to manipulate the risk. Of course the risk of a nuclear escalation exists and it is always kept in mind by policy makers before any crucial decision is made; but that risk is perceived to be so small that in a cost-benefit analysis, when compared to the advantage of gaining a significant strategic advantage in the confrontation with the other superpower, it might be ruled out as an unrealistic possibility.

To conclude we can stress how, after all we said in the previous paragraphs, the chance of a confrontation that would take the form of a small conflict fought with regular weapons and without Weapons of Mass Destruction could be quite significant: since both players might end up believing that the counterpart would not be willing to engage in a nuclear conflict with its unbearable costs only for a marginal strategic objective, then they might increase the chances of engaging each other in a conventional confrontation.

In the next paper, that will be published next week, we will try to analyse some realistic scenarios that might actually trigger a conflict between the two superpowers, according to the likelihood, the modalities and the characteristics we discussed in this article.


[1] Y. Matsuda, «Engagement and Hedging: Japan’s Strategy toward China», SAIS Review of International Affairs, Volume 32 (2), Summer-Fall 2012, p. 109;

[2]C. F. Doran, «Power Cycle Theory and the Ascendance of China: Peaceful or Stormy?», SAIS Review of International Affairs, Volume 32 (1), Winter-Spring 2012, p. 85;

[3] M. Ott, «Southeast Asia’s Strategic Landscape», SAIS Review of International Affairs, Volume 32 (1), Winter-Spring 2012, p. 115;

[4]M. Raska, «Rebalancing US Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific ed. By Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson (review)», Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Volume 37, Number 1, April 2015, p. 146;

[5] S. G. Brooks, Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization and the Changing Calculus of Conflict, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2005, p. 55;

[6]A. Goldstein, «First Thing First: The Pressing Danger of Crisis Instability in U.S.-China Relations», International Security, Vol. 37 (4), Spring 2013, p. 50;

[7]Ivi, p. 59;

[8]Ibidem;

[9]Ivi, p. 62;

[10] See especially Waltz point of view in K. N. Waltz and S. D. Sagan, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, Norton, New York, 2013;

[11]A. Goldstein, pp. 65-66;

[12]Ivi, pp. 70-78;

[13]Ivi, p. 83;

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2 thoughts on “The Clash of the Giants: could a war between the US and China be likely?

  1. Actually, I believe the chances for a conventional war are pretty low, because of the interdependence between US and China. A war would hurt both economies, and as we can observe, in China’s interest is the stability of the situation. Of course both are showing their muscles in the Asia-Pacific region, both US cannot contain the rise of China, and eventually they will have to accept it as a world superpower. As you can observe, China sphere of influence is rising day by day, also in the economical sector and in the political one. US closest allies, for example UK and South Korea are showing a warming of political relations with China, thus China becomes an important partner for almost everyone. I believe US will not make such a step that will force China in a corner and attack, and China will not hurt itself economically by making such a move that will force it into a war.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Felix, thank you for your comment!

      I totally agree with you, and this would have been the introduction in my next paper where I will analyse possible scenarios that might trigger a confrontation between the two! I totally agree with Brooks (S. G. Brooks, Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization and the Changing Calculus of Conflict, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2005) when he says that economic global interdependence makes war less likely between great powers! In the next paper you will find a more comprehensive analysis on this very important aspect 🙂

      Hope I answered your doubt!

      Best, Giacomo

      Like

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