President Biden declared the United States’ relationship with China as an ‘extreme competition’ during a CBS interview in February 2021 (Wertime 2021). However, this arbitrary term does little to determine the desired outcome of the relationship for the U.S. Suggesting there is no need for conflict implies that conflict is a possibility. But what would drive the U.S. and China to conflict, and is there a half-way house before the world suffers another global conflict?
An ancient Greek account of a conflict between Athens and Sparta is often referred to in political science, it is canonised as “Thucydides Trap”. “Thucydides Trap” describes how a rising power, Athens, usurped a reigning power, Sparta, in what is now understood as an inevitable conflict (Hansler, Gaouette, and Atwood 2021). Historically, many geopolitical events have mirrored “Thucydides Trap”, as rising powers grow in strength and threaten to disturb the global order, usually usurping the incumbent hegemon. This pattern can be found presently, as China becomes increasingly powerful and increasingly unwilling to curb its ambitions, while the U.S. refuses to be relegated in the international order (Hansler, Gaouette, and Atwood 2021).
However, whilst America accepts China as ‘extreme competition’, they have no plan for a future ‘victory’. Therefore, it is pressing for America to consider the possible eventualities of this relationship. With this, the overarching question appears: will this geopolitical rivalry end in coexistence or regime failure and conflict?
Advocates of ‘competitive coexistence’ suggests that the U.S. and China could pursue an outcome of mutual accommodation (Cooper and Brands 2021). This relies significantly upon the strength of America’s influence. Through ‘competitive coexistence’, the U.S. would actively maintain a balance of power in the Western Pacific, through strengthening their allies and combatting China in the region – ultimately forcing Beijing to adopt U.S. favourable policy, while ensuring mutual state survival (Cooper and Brands 2021).
However, this argument relies solely on an assumption of superior American strength. Despite this, the reality displays a progressively weakened U.S, struggling to maintain their hegemonic status (Hansler, Gaouette, and Atwood 2021).
Logically, one could presume that mutual accommodation is Washington’s desired outcome, as it would result in a strategic success without the fall of either state. Nevertheless, the likelihood of China softening any foreign policy while they are in a position of strength is slim. Contrastingly, due to the balance of power’s increased instability, the U.S. may have to prepare for the possibility of ceding a sphere of influence to China and embracing bipolarity in the global order. The beginnings of this threat to America’s unipolarity were seen in the Obama administration, as the Philippines turned on their alliance with the U.S. in favour of the ‘stronger power’, China.
Consequently, America may seek ‘victory’ through a Cold War-esque approach, whereby ‘extreme competition’ would continue powerfully until the Chinese Communist regime collapsed (Cooper and Brands 2021). This would see the extrapolation of U.S. Cold War tactics, whereby the U.S. would contain the threat, and externally pressure the Chinese regime until it fell or transformed. However, this could lead to increased tensions developing, and it is unclear whether this would fuel a more aggressive China or further entrench Chinese nationalism. Accordingly, fears rise over the potential for a Cold War-esque approach culminating in a global conflict, and as China continues to work towards becoming a ‘world class military’, this threat becomes more concerning for the U.S. and the international order (Office of the Department of Defense 2020).
None of these outcomes are fixed or set in stone, although we can see this pattern in history. Yet, the Biden administration would be unwise to allow the events to simply play out without an end goal, this could blindly lead the U.S. towards a global conflict with China. Therefore, to avoid such an end, the Biden administration must expand on the notion of ‘extreme competition’ and establish their outcome for this relationship. It is only through transparency and mutual understanding that China and the U.S. shall avoid catastrophe.
- Cooper, Z. and Brands, H., 2021. America Will Only Win When China’s Regime Fails. [online] Foreign Policy
- Hansler, J., Gaouette, N., and Atwood, K., 2021. “US and China trade barbs after Blinken warns of need to respect global order or face a ‘more violent world’” CNN Politics
- Office of the Department of Defense (2020) “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China: Annual Report to Congress” Office of the Secretary of Defense
- Tisdall, S. 2016 “Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ failed. China is in ascendancy” The Guardian
- Wertime, D. 2021 “’Extreme Competition’ is now the watchword in U.S. China relations” Politico