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Stop Hyping the China Threat

Author: Gregory Mitrovich 

Affiliation: Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University  

Organization/Publisher: The National Interest

Date/Place: April 24, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 2906


Keywords: China’s Rise, American leadership, the Thucydides Trap, hegemonic wars, and arguments of history




In light of the US-China increasing strategic rivalry, many fear that the two powers may fall into what Graham Allison calls “the Thucydides Trap”, when an emerging power instills fear in an existing dominant one and threatens to displace it and turn the international system in its favor, which in turn provokes “the hegemonic wars” over the international system, as has happened repeatedly throughout history. In this article, the author questions whether China currently represents an existential threat to the United States enough that it could lead to a war of hegemony. He answers: “Not yet.” Certainly not to the extent that Germany, the Soviet Union, or Japan had previously put forward. The article consists of two parts. The first part presents historical arguments through which the author denies the inevitability of hegemonic wars between a rising power and existing dominant one, contrary to what Allison argued. The second part discusses China’s rise and the limits of the current and future threat it poses to the US. Since the industrial age, not all challenges of hegemony led to war, even with the presence of rising powers eager to overthrow the existing systems. During the period (1815-1900), dominant Britain faced fundamental challenges from the US, a rapidly emerging democratic power, that was determined to reform a world dominated by the aristocracies of the great powers. Despite the many diplomatic confrontations over the course of the century, the two powers remained at peace, because the US chose not to threaten the main source of British hegemony—its maritime and financial hegemony over the world. The US did not compete with Britain in these two areas except during the twentieth century due to the rise of Germany and the decline of British power from the economic effects of World War I. During World War II, the US overcame Britain and became the dominant power in the post-war world without a hegemonic war between them. Something similar happened between Germany-Bismarck and Great Britain, as Germany was able to rise without starting a war with Britain, even though the power transition theory was indicating that war was inevitable. After the wars for German unity, Bismarck moved aggressively in 1871 to establish the German Empire as the dominant power in Europe, reshaping the balance of power system established by the Vienna Congress in 1815. He did so while yielding to Britain seeing “Pax Britannica” as “the greatest force for peace in the world”. Bismarck had planned Germany to become the most powerful “second-tier” state, that’s why he did not pose any existential threat to Britain. However, the generation that came after him departed from its “continental” vision and aspired to expand Germany’s global influence outside Europe. The Germans, along with Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in the late eighties of the 19th century, adopted what was known as the new “world politics” (Weltpolitik), which required a powerful navy that could match British power and coerce London into recognizing Berlin as its global equal. This constituted an existential threat to the survival of the British nation as well as its global geopolitical supremacy. All of this later led to World War I. Therefore, the hegemonic war here was originally a choice of leaders rather than an inevitable war due to the structural tensions in the international system resulting from the rise of Germany. After World War II, the US faced two challenges to its global leadership: the Soviet challenge, which aimed to replace American liberalism with Soviet Marxism, and the Japanese challenge, which presented a state-centered capitalist model that threatened its American counterpart. The Soviet existential threat to the US began after the Soviets detonated their atomic bomb in September 1949, then the hydrogen bomb in 1955, as the Kremlin could carry out the first nuclear strike and reach their ballistic missiles to faraway American soil. This amplified the fears of direct war, which culminated with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. At that time, many believed that the nuclear arms race made war inevitable, but the world escaped from a dangerous period, as the nuclear revolution, rather, led to stabilizing the global strategic environment. As for Japan, it posed a different threat to the US, an “insider” challenge to the US leadership of the postwar order. Although armed conflict was never possible, the rise of Japan in the 1970s posed an existential dilemma for the American leadership, shaking American self-confidence where Washington warned against the state-centered Tokyo economic model that would reshape the global economy and place Japan at the center of it rather than the US. At that time, many considered it a historical turning point reminiscent of the time when the US overtook Britain during World War I and assumed leadership of the international financial system, to the point where some writers recommended containing Japan, warning of the advent of “Pax Nipponica”. Within a decade, however, things had changed dramatically and the US re-established its leadership as the world’s dominant economic power. Based on what history tells us, the author argues that China for now does not represent an existential threat to the US, neither from a military aspect like the Soviets, nor economically as Japan did. China’s growing military power remains a regional concern for its neighbors, not the United States. The US’ concern about China is represented in the spread of China’s global economic power, its increasing influence in international organizations, its growing technological advancement in quantum computing technologies and artificial intelligence, “weaponizing” its technological advancement using 5G networks and Huawei to eavesdrop on individuals, organizations and governments, then collecting huge data for security purposes. In addition, greater concerns are China’s increasing efforts to control what historians call “the infrastructure of empire,” as Beijing builds commercial road networks, communication lines, and global supply chains of goods and services through mega-projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. The author concludes: “these moves do not make China an existential threat to the United States, but it does mean the United States has to raise its game in these areas if it is to arrest growing Chinese influence. This battle will define their great power competition in the twenty-first century.” Also, “China’s rise may not trigger a Thucydides Trap with the United States”, however, “the possibility of conflict remains due to increasing tensions in the South China Sea and the ratcheting up of threats against Taiwan… Wars erupt far more frequently over strategic miscalculations than by grand systemic pressures.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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