The deterioration of U.S.-China relations has many fearful that conflict is inevitable. Some argue that the United States and China are increasingly entangled in a new cold war, while others contend they may be locked in a Thucydides trap similar to that which ensnared Great Britain and Germany in the years prior to World War I. These comparisons, however, do more harm than good as they fail to appreciate their fundamental differences with the current U.S.-China tensions. In particular, they ignore the crucial strategic drivers that turned these earlier conflicts into existential battles.
What are these missing factors? First, the U.S.-China rivalry lacks an ideological conflict that even remotely resembles the ferocity of U.S.-Soviet relations during the 1940s-1960s. Second, the U.S.-China competition lacks a geopolitical point of contention equal to the magnitude of the “German problem” that heightened the risk of conflict during the early Cold War. Third, the U.S. faces no strategic vulnerability equal to that which threatened Great Britain during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, namely Britain’s heavy dependence on imported food which turned Germany’s drive for naval dominance into an existential threat that the largely self-sufficient United States does not face.
Though China is eager to present the world an ideological replacement to Western liberalism, Beijing’s autocratic alternative offers none of the ideological fervor of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought following World War II — how could they when China’s entrepreneurs today dream of being rich like their western counterparts?
The decades following World War II saw a brutal civil war in Greece, political struggles in France and Italy that nearly prevented the stabilization of Western Europe, and the spread of wars of national liberation across Asia and Africa. At the heart of Soviet communism was a Marxist teleology that inspired a religious devotion among its most dedicated adherents, fueled with the desire to end the European colonial rule throughout the so-called Third World. The goal of Soviet foreign policy was to support long-standing communist forces in the West and anti-colonial guerilla movements in those Third World developing countries.
Despite the return to standard Maoist phrasings, the ideology China hopes to spread throughout the world to replace Western ideology bears little resemblance to traditional Marxist-Leninism. Instead, they repeat the traditional dictatorial playbook. When Xi Jinping came to power, he was determined to root out the growing American influence within Chinese society, hence the creation of the Great Firewall to censor Western news and social media followed by a significant crackdown on civil society and economic policies focusing on increasing state control over the economy, and greater technological surveillance of the population. This is the model that China seeks to spread worldwide, however, while it may appeal to autocrats, it offers little of the revolutionary zeal or teleological certainty to inspire non-Chinese nationals to rise in support of Beijing.
While ideology may have defined the Cold War, geopolitics turned it into an existential threat; and the key geopolitical point of contention was the future of Germany. The rise of Germany following unification in 1871 caused a fundamental shift in the European balance of power and eventually ignited two world wars.
Not surprisingly, the German problem lay at the crux of the emerging U.S.-Soviet confrontation in Europe as both sides feared that whichever way a united Germany might tilt would determine the future of Europe. When efforts at reuniting the nation failed, the United States, Britain, and France fused their three zones to form West Germany while the Soviets created a communist East Germany.
The Kremlin grew increasingly concerned about the future of West Germany especially after the United States and its NATO allies decided to rearm West Germany in 1950 and brought it into NATO in 1955. A series of crises over the status of a divided Berlin threatened war on several occasions, however, it was possibility of a nuclear armed West Germany that especially alarmed the Soviets. As the historian Marc Trachtenberg argues, the West Germans’ adoption of a non-nuclear status in 1963 ultimately resolved the European crisis and lead to a final settlement over Berlin in 1971. However, by then the conflict over Germany had caused the military rearmament of Europe and ignited a dangerous nuclear arms race that would last another 30 years.
There is no modern parallel to the German problem — save for an unimaginable contest over Japan. China’s increasing threats regarding Taiwan and its aggressive “defense” of the illegal nine-dash line in the South China Sea do risk turning this region into a flashpoint similar to Berlin. However, since 1980 the United States hasn’t been formally obligated to defend Taiwan as the U.S. was obligated to defend West Berlin following Germany’s entry into NATO. Yet, the Berlin example does offer important lessons, namely that the United States should respond to Chinese provocations as creatively as it did Soviet challenges against Berlin, namely the famous airlift which brought tens of millions of tons of supplies that kept West Berlin from succumbing to the Soviet blockade, instead of direct military intervention.
A Thucydides Trap?
According to international relations theory, frictions between rising and declining powers often trigger wars, what political scientist and theorist Graham Allison calls a “Thucydides Trap.” The rise of Germany at the turn of the 20th century coupled with the decline of Great Britain sprung the trap that led to World War I. Will the rise of China trigger a similar trap vis-à-vis a “declining” United States? As I have argued elsewhere, British decline was as exaggerated in the 1900s as United States decline is today. Nevertheless, Britain had long felt itself vulnerable to attack. Since its victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, English leaders understood the nation’s survival required a dominant navy. This situation became even more acute with adoption of free trade in the 1840s, which lifted tariff protections for local British food producers that allowed the import of much cheaper foreign supplies. By the late 19th century, Britain imported two-thirds of its food and safeguarding these imports became one of the Royal Navy’s most essential missions.
Germany’s decision to build a battleship fleet capable of challenging the Royal Navy in 1900 alarmed the British, leading to the historic Anglo-German naval race and growing antagonisms that started the countdown to World War I. It was Germany’s Weltpolitik, its ambition to become a global power with a navy that could contest Pax Britannica that triggered the Thucydides Trap.
Quite simply, there is no comparable weakness on the part of the United States in its emerging rivalry with China. The United States has become largely self-sufficient in food and energy production giving it a level of security that few nations have ever enjoyed. Instead, its key concern is the safety of its allies.
Though not as dangerous as the earlier conflicts, the U.S.-China relationship will remain contentious for the near future. One reason is rising Chinese expectations. The Chinese likely see the United States as a nation in decline and with the COVID-19 pandemic as a “once in a century” opportunity for their country to seize the reins of world power from the United States. This is evident with China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, its crushing of Hong Kong’s democracy, its increasing belligerence towards Taiwan potentially turning it into a Berlin-like flashpoint, its military moves into India, and its efforts to assert dominance in East Asia, Central Asia, and spread its influence among autocratic elites in Africa, and Southwest Europe.
None of these moves represent an immediate threat to the United States. Furthermore, the United States could respond by strengthening the nations in direct line of Chinese attack, much as it did in Europe during the early years of the Cold War, while maintaining a robust deterrence to dissuade China from escalating these conflicts. If so, the U.S.-China competition could be kept within peaceful limits.