As the US focuses on ‘extreme competition’ with China, conflict is just a step away
- Competition will most certainly intensify as the US sees a last chance to bring down a rising China
- Despite American assurances that it is not seeking conflict, when competition becomes extreme, a clash seems all but inevitable
The second-largest economy in the world is simply too big to hide. And it is impossible for Beijing to bide its time when Washington takes it as its primary strategic competitor.
According to Yale professor Paul Kennedy, this will be a situation that has not existed since the 1880s, when America’s economy overtook Britain’s. For the entire 20th century, the American economy was about two to four times larger than that of any other great power.
When China emerges as the world’s largest economy, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd pointed out, it will be the first time since George III (1738-1820) that the world will have a non-English-speaking, non-democratic, non-Western state as its largest economy.
It is hard to believe the Capitol building – the supreme seat of American democracy – would be violently attacked by a mob of supporters at the call of former president Donald Trump and false allegations of election fraud.
But while a few nuclear subs might indeed complicate decision-making in Beijing, they are not necessarily game-changers. For Australia, balancing is probably an art too delicate to learn. Historically, most of the wars that Australian soldiers fought are other people’s wars which they joined as junior partners.
This time, the Morrison government has obviously decided to risk taking America’s side in a military conflict with China. Given Australia’s inevitable reliance on US and British nuclear technologies in the decades to come, the Morrison government has left succeeding Australian governments hostage to its decision.
Even with some British and Australian help, time is not on America’s side. The Pentagon’s war games over Taiwan showed the US losing repeatedly to China. Of course, this is no reason for China to be complacent, but should a conflict occur in China’s periphery, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has all the advantages of being on home turf.
Today, America’s armed forces are considerably smaller and older than they were in the 1980s. The PLA is just the opposite. By 2019, the PLA Navy had about 350 ships, outnumbering the US Navy’s around 293 ships. Although quantity is not quality, it has a quality all its own.
Nothing speaks of a country’s security assessment more than its defence expenditure. For three decades, China’s military expenditure has stayed below 2 per cent of GDP. It speaks volumes about China’s self-confidence about its security challenges.
If China feels threatened to the extent that it has to increase its defence spending, the second-largest economy could easily afford to double the defence budget; but can the US double its military spending, which is already three times larger than China’s?
The pendulum of US foreign and defence policy traditionally swings between assertiveness and pullbacks. The question is when will an America in retrenchment swing back, or will it swing back at all? The US pull-out from Afghanistan was justified as a means for America to focus on competition with China. Only time will tell if this is a wise decision.
But if it is a boneheaded strategic blunder, then it is a monumental error more consequential than the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars combined. It will doom America’s hegemonic status, held since the late 19th century, for good.
Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert