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War Between China and the US: Why it Will Never Occur.

This is the final paper I wrote for my Chinese Foreign Policy course. I actually really enjoyed writing this piece and wanted to share it with the public. I’ve removed in-text citations and anything else that would deter from smooth reading.

            “This is China’s century. They’ve been modernizing and their economy is thriving. They will become our main enemy and a war, possibly a third world war, will occur.” These have been impactful predictions that many of my friends from the United States have uttered over the past few years. Concerns have been growing over China’s rapid development and rising power in the past two decades; more and more Americans have been contemplating the likelihood of the two states clashing over security issues and depleting resources. To further understand the implications of these assumptions, this paper seeks to analyze the plausibility and reasoning of a war between China and the United States in the future. I will first play devil’s advocate by arguing why war will occur between the two states using various international relations and economics theories. Following the aforementioned analysis, weaknesses will be pointed out under neo-realist, liberalist/neo-liberalist, and constructivist lens to uncover why war is not an issue and will never occur between the two powers.

            War is likely to occur between China and the United States under both rationalist and realist explanations. China has been deepening its economic and diplomatic ties with the rest of the world and, as a result, has been increasing its power. As a result, it would be unable to successfully negotiate with the US due to “withholding private information about relative capabilities or resolve due to incentives to misrepresent such information.“ This is due to both China and the US caring about relative gains, where “[they] will only take action to increase their own power if this action increases their power more than it does for other states.” Under these realist notions, states exist in a state of anarchy and self-help; rulers only care about protecting their states and the ultimate goal is survival. Given these parameters, the following could be argued: China knows about their military capabilities that other states would not know about, and they falsify their abilities to other states to increase their own security. Because all other states are enacting the same strategy, they would in turn increase their own security due to the uncertainties of other states. A security dilemma would result in which power is constantly out of balance between China and the United States – they would constantly balance against each other or regularly increase their arms, eventually leading to war.Another reason why war would occur between both China is due to the neo-realist theory of the prisoner’s dilemma. Instead of sharing mutual cooperation, China may choose to challenge American interests and may even attack them if: Chinese leaders believe they can deter effective US intervention, if they perceive the US military to be distracted with other preferences, or if they believe that the US could be separated from its regional allies via political persuasion or military coercion targeted at those allies. In addition, China has been increasing its energy consumption. These are classical examples of the prisoner’s dilemma, in which rational players prefer to cooperate, but due to the rules of interaction and their preference ordering, end up in conflict. A prisoner’s dilemma would result between these two states due to indivisibility, information asymmetry, and the commitment problem. These terms are further elaborated below.

            Indivisibility occurs when states are in dispute of an item that cannot be cut or substituted for with no possible bargains. China has becoming increasingly dependent on fuel due to an influx of motor vehicles and public transportation. Under the CCP today, China has been rapidly modernizing and has commenced an innumerable amount of construction projects – as a result, they are competing with the US for finite resources. As stated earlier, information asymmetry also poses a problem, as states have an incentive to misrepresent their capabilities and resolve in order to gain (or maintain) power over others. Whereas Beijing does not know all US secrets, Washington D.C. on the other hand doesn’t know the entirety of Chinese secrets. Lastly, both states are afraid of the commitment problem: there exists no overarching institution that oversees or enforces international agreements. Even if the two parties wish to cooperate, there would be no punishments or sanctions should any agreements be broken. Such mistrust over potential exploitation would lead China and the United States to never improve their relationship. The culmination of these three traits form the prisoner’s dilemma which help explain why the US and China will eventually engage in armed conflict.

            The failures of deterrence, denial, and disarmament will serve as final explanations as to why China and the US will inevitably go to war. Each strategy will first be defined, followed by a discussion of why it will not prevent war between the two states. Deterrence seeks to prevent arm conflict by threatening the enemy with unacceptable consequences. In order for deterrence to work, the states involved must be vulnerable to attacks, must be able to survive an attack and retaliate, have leaders that are sane enough to avoid launching an incredibly destructive attack, and require the state to be able to credibly threaten opposition. The reason why deterrence will fail, Scott Sagan argues, is due to nuclear proliferation. In this current era, both states have a large number of nuclear weapons. With the invention of ballistic missile defense, possibilities of misperception and accidents occurring, and the chances of failing delegation, deterrence will not prevent China and the US from going to war.The strategy of denial, which prevents war by preventing the enemy from launching a successful [nuclear] attack, will not prevent war as well. Sagan explains that it is difficult to safeguard materials that construct weapons, is difficult to destroy offensive weapons before they launch, and is difficult to intercept weapons once they are en route to their target. On the other hand, the strategy of disarmament seeks to prevent [nuclear] war by reducing the number of existing weapons. As stated earlier, no international committee exists to make certain that both the US and China will fully cooperate in reducing their military capabilities. Therefore, both the strategy of denial and disarmament would not work. Along with the failures of deterrence, suffering from the prisoner’s dilemma, being involved in constant misperception due to an anarchic world, and suffering from the security dilemma, war is inevitable between the US and China.

            Although the aforementioned rationalist, realist, and economic theories are parsimonious, they contain fatal flaws that completely overlook all aspects of international relations. The subsequent half of this essay seeks to identify these mistakes and, using liberalist, neo-realist, and constructivist explanations, will suggest why war will never occur between the US and China.

            Liberalists first explain that states are not simply interested in survival, but also in happiness and freedom as well. This fundamental difference against realist traditions suggests that states are not in constant anarchy, therefore challenging the credibility of the prisoner’s dilemma, the security dilemma, and relative gains. States often care about absolute gains, meaning that they will take actions to increase their own power without caring how it affects the power of other states. Moreover, mutual trust through transparency, constraints on war, and shared norms of nonaggression could be made between states to maximize their respective gains. Thomas Christensen’s reinforces this notion by arguing that the US and China could indeed coexist: “Positive US diplomatic and economic initiatives toward China and its neighbors [will build] trust and reassurance in the region.“

            To further reinforce this argument of mutual cooperation, the neo-liberalist Pareto Frontier model will be used. As Ron Hassner of the University of California, Berkeley explains, the Pareto frontier is a fancy term for “efficiency” in which states wish to cooperate (or to avoid conflict) to maximize the rate-of-returns of their interests. As a hypothetical scenario: two states wish to compete for 100 units of gold from a mine. The two states wish to maximize the amount they could extract from the gold mine. With successful negotiations, all 100 units of gold will be harvested and distributed between the two. Were conflict to arise, however, the two states will expend resources on fighting each other – the time and effort could have been spent instead on something more productive. Moreover, the fighting may have escalated to the mine and damaged a section of it, resulting in only 80 units of harvestable gold. Because both parties understand the ramifications of the Pareto sub-optimal outcome, they would instead cooperate to reach Pareto optimality. Both China and the US understand this liberalist perspective, prompting both states to avoid any conflict.The neo-realist theory of the distribution of power will next explain why war is unlikely to occur between China and the US. This theory, proposed by Kenneth Waltz, explains three types of worlds: unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar. Under a unipolar world (one state has overwhelming power), power and alliances are clear but great power is not likely to last. Therefore, the system is relatively unstable and war is increasingly likely. Under a multipolar world (three or more states have overwhelming power) power and alliances are ambiguous and shifting, making the system very unstable. As a result, there will be many wars between small and large states fighting for power. However, power and alliances are very clear under a bipolar world (two states have overwhelming power).The system is very stable because there will be no confusion as to which states align with which of the two superpowers. Misperception and information asymmetry will be low. As shown in the Cold War with the US and the Soviet Union, only small proxy wars ensued instead of large scale wars. In today’s era, China and the US would exist as a bipolar world – a system which is stable, relatively peaceful, and void of war between the two superpowers.

            Finally, social constructivism will be used to dissuade any skeptics who still believe that the US and China will engage in war. Constructivists study the way that ideas, norms, taboos, and culture held by international actors produce the goals and preferences of those actors. As evidenced by the lack of nuclear attacks other than in World War II, the Chinese and the Americans, as well as the rest of the world share a universal taboo with weapons of mass destruction. They understand that, if a scenario of mutually assured destruction (MAD) were to occur, nobody would win. Moreover, the Chinese government changed its grand strategy in the early 1970s: it lowered its verbal attacks on the US, improved relations with the Western world, resumed and expanded commercial trade with foreigners, and established governments in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Instead of retaining strict socialist values, China has become a lot more tolerant towards the idea and practice of capitalism. Trading and constant interaction with the US has built a much more positive relationship between the two states, and the chance of war further diminishes into nonexistence.

            The first half of this paper examined the plausibility of war using a few outdated international relations and economics theories. Following thereafter, the latter half of the paper used neo-realist, liberalist/neo-liberalist, and constructivist theories to explain why the US and China will never go to war. Of course, I must point out some flaws of my own assertions: assumptions have been made that ideas and culture, which make up constructivism, will either remain constant or will not radically change. As we’ve seen in the American Revolution and the Cultural Revolution, for example, the general masses have the potential to change their ideas at any given moment in time. Therefore, war between the US and China will never occur only in the pretext that the majority of the people do not change their worldviews. Under current trends, fortunately, I am confident that the two states will only deepen their relationship and avoid any major conflicts.

If you had the patience to actually read through an academic paper, feel free to share your thoughts!


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