The risk of confrontation between the U.S. and China is greater than it has been in decades, and a broader war, triggered by a Chinese action against Taiwan, is a possibility. In “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” (2017),
likened the situation to the Peloponnesian War, which the Athenian historian thought inevitable because Sparta feared the rising power of Athens.
Yet the real reason for the current tensions has less to do with the decline and rise of great powers than with threat perceptions, balance-of-power estimates, autonomous assessments and internal decisions that have been driving China—and Russia—for several years now. (They have increasingly aligned in their opposition to the U.S. and the post-Cold War international order.) The rising threat of high-intensity state-on-state war is driven by the growing elite conviction in Beijing and Moscow that their power disadvantage relative to the U.S. and its allies will worsen unless they move soon, making victory increasingly unattainable.
There are three principal reasons why China and Russia may want to confront the U.S. and its allies sooner rather than later, possibly within five years. First, the U.S. military will require time to restructure and refit away from counterterrorism and toward high-intensity state-on-state great-power conflict. The Army Modernization Strategy published in 2019 sets 2035 as the deadline for transforming the Army into a multidomain-capable force. From a Russian or Chinese perspective, that means each additional year will shift imbalances, which currently favor them in some areas, in America’s favor.
The second factor is domestic conditions in the U.S. and Europe. Western democracies are buffeted by the trifecta of Covid-19; increasingly brazen mass in-migration, to which their governments seem unable to respond effectively; and the cresting cultural revolution, especially in the U.S., which is likely to peak within the next two years. All have strained national cohesion across the West, fed distrust in government, and sowed seeds of doubt that legacy democratic institutions and processes are able to meet the basic requirements of governance and satisfy the citizenry. Once America has moved beyond its current internal 1970s-style turbulence, a reconsolidated U.S., with its key manufacturing supply chains re-shored back from China, will present Beijing and Moscow with a far more formidable foe than today.
A good indicator is the recent reports that the U.S. has made a qualitative leap in hypersonic missile technology, likely to nullify the edge Russia and China had hoped to maintain through the investment in their own programs. Notwithstanding their blustery propaganda, Beijing and Moscow are keenly aware that America’s research-and-development base can be mobilized to improve U.S. capabilities. Time is on America’s side when it comes to the quality and sophistication of its weapon systems.
The third factor: internal pressures building within Chinese and Russian societies. For both countries, population trends and current projections paint a devastating picture. In 2021 China reported its first projected population decline since the famine that accompanied
“Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s. With the official birthrate of 1.3 children per woman—far below the replacement rate of 2.1, and in part a result of the now-relaxed one-child policy—there are credible projections that China’s population will peak in 2022, and that births will continue to decline and deaths will surpass births by six million in 2025. Russia’s population is projected to decline from 146 million today to 121 million in 2050.
Historically, wars have often started because of miscalculations based on unsound intelligence estimates and underestimating the enemy. In the case of U.S. strategic competition with China and Russia, the risk of war has grown not because of their rise but because of how China and Russia assess the real near-term implications of Washington’s decision to refocus its defense strategy on the fundamentals of great-power competition and conflict instead of counterterrorism and nation building. Whether war breaks out will depend on how badly Beijing and Moscow fear the global power shift in the next decade and how eager they will be to exploit their perceived current relative advantages to remake the world.
Mr. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
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