Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: Competing Visions for the Global Order” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
The next decade is likely to bring an intensification of great power competition. This is not a new or recent development, although Donald Trump’s approach to national security has drawn attention to it: Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea was evident during the Obama presidency and Russia’s occupation of Crimea, of course, predates Trump’s election.
Nevertheless, understanding what this burgeoning competition means for global order requires answering three questions. First, what is the prognosis for great power competition in the foreseeable future? Second, is war among great powers becoming more likely or do structural or normative considerations mean the risks are being exaggerated? Third, what is the likely evolution of the international order in East Asia, where China is reasserting itself? To answer these questions briefly: Great power competition is, in fact, likely to intensify in the coming years. Moreover, the risk of limited war during this period of competition will be moderately high but, nevertheless, nuclear weapons will continue to limit the likelihood that a major war will break out. Finally, the combination of a rising China and a relatively declining United States creates the possibility for much uncertainty and potential conflict in East Asia.
Why Has Great Power Competition Returned?
Over the last few decades, the United States and China have cooperated more than many theorists of international relations might expect. Forging extensive economic ties has been in the interest of both countries. However, those ties have also served as the foundation for Chinese economic growth — growth that has effectively translated into military might. As I have argued elsewhere, the particular combination of American and Chinese time horizons have allowed this cooperation to flourish. While Washington was focused on other short-term threats to its security, Beijing was patiently “biding its time,” recognizing that its brightest days as a great power lay ahead.
In recent years, this dynamic has shifted. Most importantly, for a mix of both domestic and international reasons, China has become more assertive in the South China Sea, prompting questions about its long-term intentions. In turn, Washington has become increasingly nervous about the consequences of China’s economic growth and military expansion, and policymakers in the Beltway are now asking whether America’s strategic approach to China has been misguided. The consequence has been heightened tensions with rising concerns about the prospects for a military clash between the two countries. A more cooperative relationship might be restored if either America’s or China’s time horizon were to shift back to what it was, but all signs at the moment point to continuing growth in Chinese ambitions and concomitant growth in American concern.
While shifting time horizons are critical to understanding the evolution of Sino-American relations, a real and perceptible decline in American relative power together with a relative rise in China’s power, is crucial to understanding why great power competition has returned. Simplistic arguments about the “Thucydides Trap” ought to be rejected, but the simple dynamics of relative power in the international system can explain a great deal. China’s increase in power may very well produce fear in the United States, but the two countries can manage this shift in power dynamics in ways that will make war and peace more or less likely. As the relative power of the United States declines, it may become less willing and able to defend previously defined American interests around the globe. Recent history gives us two examples of this: Chastened by his experience in Libya, Barack Obama grew increasingly reluctant about projecting American power abroad, while Donald Trump has signaled a reticence for American involvement in international affairs and organizations. Meanwhile, as China continues to grow, it has slowly been expanding its presence throughout Asia, meeting little resistance along the way. At some point, expanding Chinese interests will encounter the remnants of American interests (shrinking though they may be), and it is in these spaces that competition will occur. One could tell a similar story about Russia. While Russia’s relative power has not been increasing at the same rate as China’s, the country has been emboldened to pursue its interests in ongoing disputes such as the Syrian civil war. Where those interests butt up against American interests, for example over Iran, is where we ought to expect to see the most intense competition in the coming decade.