US vs China: The War Neither Side Wants nor Needs To Happen

Xi Jinping and Biden are talking to each other again. Even talking about trivial matters, but that is exactly what gives reason for hope.

China and the U.S. have long been waging a new cold war. This is characterized by both sides wanting to employ their independence as a weapon — an independence that leads to vulnerability. Realists viewing the meeting of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping last week saw no reason for optimism. There was no rapprochement on the central points of conflict; however, there is still hope.

War Begins at the Psychological Level

For over four hours, the most powerful men in the world discussed tough issues, ranging from Taiwan to the Middle East to fentanyl. When they stepped out of the historic Filoli mansion surrounded by journalists, they seemed oddly relaxed and began talking about presidential limousines. Biden walked with Xi to the front of his car saying, “It’s a beautiful car,” and then he took a look inside. Xi answered, “This is our Hongqi sedan, homemade.” Biden nodded toward his Cadillac, calling it “the Beast.”

This scenario immediately became an internet hit in China, perhaps because such a nonchalant, almost friendly conversation between both presidents seems out of place. Neither had exchanged a single word for a whole year, with the two countries increasingly on a collision course. And it wasn’t the only scene of this kind. A popular photo shows the two presidents smiling, with Biden holding an iPhone. He had shown Xi a photo of Xi from 38 years ago during a visit to San Francisco. Biden is quoted as saying, “You haven’t changed a bit!”

It’s easy to dismiss scenes such as these as only shallow banter; however, at the highly sensitive meeting, nothing was left to chance. Even these harmless exchanges were put together by Xi’s PR team for the U.S. president, with the intention of making Xi appear to be a sort of regular person — someone with whom even Biden could share a casual conversation.

“War,” writes political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang, “begins at the psychological level when individuals cease to perceive a common humanity between us and them.” Commonality and humanity take a back seat in geopolitics, but they should be the focal point. For in the end, it is always the population who pays the price for the rulers, people and nations that scramble for territories, spheres of influence and technological supremacy. The wars in the Middle East and in Ukraine are painful reminders of this truth. Without a common ground in mind, grand theories of geopolitics remain incomplete. They do not describe the real picture.

But half-truths are often captivating, if we also keep an eye on what divides us. Historian Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order states that conflicts are triggered mainly by cultural differences between different groups of people. After Donald Trump took over the White House in 2016, this idea was revived. Kiron Skinner, then head of policy planning at the State Department described competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.”

Huntington’s narrative also lines up with the concept of “systems competition,” the contest of democracies versus autocracies popularized by the Biden administration. Basically, it posits that the rivalry between China and the U.S. isn’t about cultural or ideological differences, but instead concerns hard power-political divergences.

The Supremacy of the US Is Undisputed

The Thucydides Trap is probably the most frequently cited theory used to describe the great power conflict between China and the U.S. What the Greek historian came up with is simple: “The growth of Athens’ power and the alarm this caused in Sparta made war inevitable.” When applied to today, it means a rising China challenges the United States, the established but weakening hegemon, which will ultimately lead to war. The Thucydides Trap concept is also popular in Beijing, falling into the same camp as the widely embraced narrative that the East is on the rise while the West is in decline. The U.S. does indeed feel threatened by China, which is no longer poor and weak, but has caught up in many respects.

Economically: Taking purchasing power parity into account, the same amount of money gets more in China than in the U.S. China’s economy is already 23% larger than that of America, according to the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank estimates its lead somewhat more conservatively at 18.8%. Without taking purchasing power parity into account, the U.S. has a clear lead with a gross domestic product of around $25.5 trillion in 2022, compared to China with $17.9 trillion.

Technologically: According to an Australian think tank, China has already overtaken the U.S. in 37 out of 44 key technologies. But the U.S. remains the world’s technological power and is likely to remain so for some time to come, partly because it spends more on basic research and has a massive lead in space. China remains heavily dependent on imports in information and computer technology.

Militarily: China has the largest navy in the world with more military personnel; however, the U.S. still leads by a large margin. It is more technologically advanced, has more resources and has more war experience. The U.S. has around 800 military bases worldwide, while China has one. The U.S. has 4,000 nuclear warheads, while China has an estimated 500.

This shows that impressions are deceptive. Although China is catching up, in general the U.S. enjoys a clear lead and remains the undisputed leading world power. The world is neither multipolar nor bipolar. The current trouble spots demonstrate this: In both Ukraine and the Middle East, the U.S. is assuming responsibility, while China is playing a secondary role at best. This should actually give America more self-confidence.

A War Would Hinder China’s Rise All the More

China’s rise is admirable, but now the country faces major hurdles. Economic growth is stagnating at the very time when the population is shrinking and ageing. The days of social advancement are now over. Corruption has eaten its way through the system right to the very core, causing inefficiency. The country is facing more and more headwinds, feeling increasingly encircled by U.S. allies.

This is precisely what is so dangerous, argue the proponents of the “Peak China” thesis of an emerging, revisionist power that has reached its zenith and is now facing imminent decline. It is acting all the more aggressively toward the outside world and is trying to expand in order to satisfy its people through nationalism, and to get what it can before it is too late. This leads to territorial conflicts and war, but also to increased domestic control. The proponents of this thesis use Russia as an example. After the economic downturn of 2008, Vladimir Putin invaded two neighboring states and tightened the screws of repression at home.

However, the comparison doesn’t work with China. They have not started war over territories to divert attention away from problems at home. An obvious example of this would be an attack or blockade of Taiwan. Although this would allow China to prepare the Chinese people for war and crisis and in doing so would increase social control, the risks would be immense.

A Chinese-American war over Taiwan would be the beginning of World War III, and China’s rise would be hindered even more. The global economy would collapse. The consequences for both countries, especially for the losing nation would be catastrophic. Nuclear war would be a possibility.

This scenario is most likely what Xi and Biden both have in mind when they chat about presidential limousines. Their inconsequential conversation brings back the possibility of the two nations having something in common, even if it’s only common ground on damage control. The most accurate analyses of China’s and America’s power struggle view war as avoidable and not an inevitable conclusion. They see the rivalry between the two countries as manageable, similar to how competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was handled during the Cold War.

The narrative that we choose shapes the reality in which we live. The meeting between Xi and Biden gives hope that the two countries have moved a tiny bit away from their growing antagonism.

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