Power Transitions and US-China Rivalry: Winning the Long Game
Kalpana Misra
Kalpana Misra by , , pp.,
May 2024, volume 48, No 5

China’s rise as a global economic and political power in the post-Cold War era was always understood to be highly consequential but, until recently, there was little agreement on the likely evolution and impact of its emergence on the world stage. A fair number of American China-watchers bet on the increasing democratization and growth of civil society as a natural complement to privatization and liberal economic reforms in China and assumed that this guaranteed a peaceful and non-confrontational integration of China into the US-led post World War II international order. Others cautioned against such complacency and warned that a rise in capabilities would allow China to move beyond a tactical accommodation with the United States to a more self-confident pursuit of its ambitions for great power status and the restoration of its ‘rightful place’ of dominance in East Asia, if not globally.
China’s growing assertiveness in the last two decades, its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy under Xi Jinping’s leadership, rapidly expanding coercive power, close relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and energetic bid to both take on a more visible and influential role in existing international institutions as well as build its own parallel international order with groupings and initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank have tilted the debate in favour of the latter group; and there is broad agreement that, rather than convergence, the United States and China are growing farther apart. Among a group of theorists, the narrowing of the capabilities gap between the two countries poses the danger of the Thucydides Trap and the likelihood of major conflict during this period of power transition. China’s moves on the world stage now elicit the kind of warnings that John Mearsheimer had issued early on regarding the ‘unpeaceful nature’ of its rise, and there is no longer much debate on whether the United States and China are in a ‘new Cold War’.
In a book whose subtitle replicates that of Ross Munro and Richard Bernstein’s The Coming Conflict with China (1997), Hal Brands and Michael Beckley employ the term ‘Peak China’ rather than ‘Rising China’ to draw attention to a ‘danger zone’ when the ‘window of opportunity’ offered by China’s rapid development and expansion of capabilities for consolidating its status as a new superpower is closing; a ‘window of vulnerability’ is opening as the country slides into stagnation and decline with a looming demographic crisis, slowing economy, and stifling of innovation and entrepreneurship by a repressive and autocratic regime. ‘Beijing,’ they argue, ‘is a revisionist power that wants to reorder the world, but its time is already running out’, and this ‘blend of opportunity and anxiety’ makes a ‘deadly cocktail’. Countering the notion that the contest between the United States and China will be a protracted ‘superpower marathon’, Brands and Beckley emphasize the urgency of ‘blunting’ Chinese aggression and expansion in the short term in order to make the conflict manageable in the longer term.
Citing a number of historical examples, but most importantly, the US-Soviet Cold War analogy to illustrate a successful strategy of containment and eventually victory, Brands and Beckley highlight the Truman administration’s decisive commitment to the defense of Western Europe, and subsequently the security arrangements that expanded that commitment to other parts of the world, to argue for a similarly muscular US response to China in the present decade. Their prescription of selective multilateral decoupling to reduce economic dependence on China, formation of ad hoc coalitions to deny critical technologies, strengthened relationships with East Asia in general and with Japan, India, Vietnam, Philippines and Australia in particular, are all meant to enhance China’s sense of encirclement in the Indo-Pacific and increase the pressures under which it operates. A beefed-up and dispersed US capability in the region along with assistance to Taiwan for upgrading its defence and resilience is also a part of the strategy to deter offensive action by Beijing and be better prepared to respond to it, should deterrence fail. Much to the satisfaction of the two authors, some of these policy recommendations are now being implemented to varying degrees by the Biden administration.
Brands and Beckley are correct in assuming that signals of decisiveness and an intent to stand up to aggressive, expansionist moves are far more likely to elicit more caution and cooperation from Beijing. The abandonment of the ‘hide and bide’* strategy by Xi Jinping was made possible as much by a growing confidence in Chinese power and influence as a perception of American decline and weakness after the financial crisis of 2008 and its stretched military presence in the Middle East. However, their arguments for navigating the ‘danger zone’ are weakened considerably by some of the assumptions they put forward with remarkable certainty. They claim, for instance, that China in the 2030s will be ‘economically sluggish, internationally hated, and politically unstable.’ While there is now a daily drumbeat in the media about the problems facing Chinese economy, there is also an awareness that given China’s dominant role within the global economy, the ills facing China will invariably spill over outside its borders. Brands and Beckley seem little concerned about how heightened economic hardship will impact the ad hoc coalitions that they are advocating to resist China. There is scant evidence for their belief that China will be ‘internationally hated’; China’s recent diplomacy in the Middle East, normalization of relations with Australia and robust presence in Africa and Latin America, despite some misgivings about the neo-imperial aspects of the BRI, all point to an eagerness to move past frictions and maintain friendly ties with it. China’s East Asian neighbours have long overlooked its frequent provocations and exemplified the pragmatism that characterizes international politics when the advantages of collaboration outweigh the disadvantages of principled stances. Finally, the relative ease with which Xi has consolidated his position and overturned the conventions regarding term limits, concentration of power, and cult of personality reinforces the impression that the CCP elite privileges stability and continuity above all, and the chaos of political succession is not likely to materialize in the normal course of affairs within the next decade.
Brands and Beckley’s certainty regarding China’s trajectory is matched by a similar assurance that American policy preferences are likely to remain consistent over the short and long term. While the Biden administration continued the ‘great power competition’ stance of its predecessor, it has pursued policies of ‘de-coupling’, or ‘de-risking’ in tandem while steadily improving relations with old allies and new friends. At the time of writing, such an expectation of continuity in policy may have been somewhat justified, but recent developments have undermined their assumptions. An inconsistent and erratic US strategy is now entirely possible should there be a second Trump presidency and the whole ‘danger zone’ approach of building coalitions of like-minded states to contain China, already a not too easy proposition given the costs of economic disengagement, may be upended by hedging strategies on the part of jittery erstwhile and prospective allies.
Overall, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China presents an interesting comparison of the current international power transition with historical examples and is right on the mark for pointing out the need for a coherent and intentional approach to managing the US-China relationship at such a crucial juncture. However, their claim that the ‘idea of a danger-zone strategy is to avoid war, not provoke it’, is considerably undermined by the hawkishness of their approach and the extent to which they underestimate China’s warnings regarding its red lines on Taiwan and its immediate neighborhood including the South China Sea. The policies they advocate to ‘degrade’ China’s capabilities and halt or reverse the expansion of its presence and influence are more likely than not to raise the prospect of confrontation than reduce it. The historical examples they provide to buttress their argument are not as illustrative as they make them out to be. In retrospect, the Truman administration’s early containment initiatives may seem to have laid the groundwork for eventual success, but history is also full of contingencies, and similar policies in a different era and with a different set of protagonists may not produce the same results.

Kalpana Misra is with the Department of Political Science, University of Tulsa, USA.[/ihc-hide-content]