Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in 2012. Photo: AFP
Richard W. Hu
Richard W. Hu

Why US, China power transition does not have to be dangerous and lead to war

  • It is not their power positions but their domestic and foreign policies that determine whether nations go to war
  • Domestic politics are causing the deteriorating Washington/Beijing relationship, including the most dangerous issue: Taiwan

Power transition is a powerful logic in international relations discourse. Between rising powers and existing powers – or a formerly weaker power overtaking a stronger one – it is often viewed as dangerous in world politics. International relations scholars A.F.K. Organski, Jacek Kugler, and Robert Gilpin have long argued that power transition is a basic cause of systemic war.

We have seen many wars occur when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing power. The rise and fall of great powers have happened like this throughout history. A few years ago, Harvard professor Graham Allison coined the term “Thucydides Trap” to describe the likelihood that the US and China would go to war, as Sparta and Athens did in ancient Greece 2,000 years ago, when Athens was threatening to overtake Sparta.

The Thucydides Trap has framed today’s mainstream thinking and academic discourse. The world is increasingly concerned by the idea that China and the US may fall into the Thucydides Trap when the former overtakes the latter.

Yet, although wars have often occurred in the context of power transition, they are ultimately caused by human error, not by power rivalry at the international level. Using the power transition theory to predict war is deadly wrong.

It is true that power transfers between rising and existing powers as they grow at differential rates, altering their relative power. However, a power transition between competing powers is not a necessary and sufficient condition for war. It is not countries’ relative power position but their domestic and foreign policies that determine whether they go to war.


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Biden in UN speech slams China over nuclear arsenal, Xinjiang but says US ‘not seeking conflict’

The rise of China is inevitable, and the power transition between China and the US can be peaceful. Many of the concerns over China catching up with or even overtaking the US in the short run are exaggerated. The rise of China and the relative decline of the US power will not turn the post-war international order upside down.

China is not trying to take over the US’ role in world affairs and replace the existing world order with a China-centric order. The US and its allies are still powerful and will remain powerful in world politics for a long time to come.

We must not be swayed by distorted rhetoric about an impending US-China war, nor by pessimistic forecasts that a more dangerous world order – characterised by growing US-China hostility, a remilitarised Europe, inward-oriented economic blocs, digital division along geopolitical lines, and the increasing weaponisation of economic policies – is inevitable.

Perpetuating such misperceptions will lead us to a self-fulfilling prophecy of war and conflicts between rivalling powers.

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Contrary to the received wisdom, the real danger for war and international conflicts is rooted in domestic politics, not in the international system. Domestic politics are causing the deterioration of relations between the US and China, including on the most dangerous issue in US-China relations: Taiwan.
This is the only issue that can cause war between the US and China. This is why previous US administrations have been cautious on Taiwan. For example, when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian proposed a referendum on Taiwan-China relations in the early 2000s, the US under President George W. Bush strongly opposed this move.

Bush stated: “We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

However, succeeding US administrations have increasingly undermined the decades-long framework governing the US’ relations with Taiwan through ‘salami slicing’.

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The Trump administration overturned, in stages, the terms of the US’ relationship with Taiwan. In 2019 and 2020 the US increased its naval presence around the Taiwan Strait and exponentially increased sales of arms and equipment to Taiwan, at a scale unprecedented since the early 1990s.

In October 2020 high-ranking US officials visited Taiwan, the first such visit since 1979, when official ties were cut.

In January 2021, the Trump administration further lifted the decades-long restrictions on interaction between high-ranking US and Taiwanese officials. The Biden administration continued this salami- slicing approach.

Deviating from his more nuanced view on defending Taiwan when he was a senator, President Biden has shown more “strategic clarity” on the issue, and repeatedly affirmed, including in September, that the US would defend Taiwan in case of an attack by China.

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The proposed Taiwan Policy Act 2022 would further cement the US’ military and strategic relationship with Taiwan, further undermining the US policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan.

It is dangerous to let domestic partisan politics drive US-China relations. As US-China relations deteriorate further, American domestic political alignments and partisan struggles could become the primary driving force behind Washington’s China policy and the future trajectory of US-China relations.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August – with a public call from Biden to cancel her plans – stirred up so much bilateral and regional tension that many experts are calling it the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis since 1949.

A pro-China supporter hits images of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen with a shoe. File photo: TNS

It is clear to many people that Washington has picked a fight with China over Taiwan at the wrong time, when its strategic attention is much needed for the war in Ukraine.

But in the context of American domestic politics, China is an easy target. On the Taiwan issue, Beijing is viewed as a bully that must be responded to with strength.

In response to a warning from China, Democrat Pelosi said she must not back down on visiting Taiwan. Anti-China sentiment in Congress is high, with Republicans also supporting her visit.

Her trip showed that US foreign policy can be undertaken for domestic partisan reasons and that overall national interest could well be hampered by myopic self-interest in domestic politics.

From the Chinese perspective, Washington’s salami slicing is gradually hollowing the US’ promise to keep to the one China policy and squeezing Beijing’s strategic space on the use of force for reunification.

Taiwanese tanks during a live fire exercise in Penghu, Taiwan, in October. Photo: EPA-EFE

Since the 1972 Shanghai Communique, Washington has followed a one-China policy that encourages peaceful cross-Strait relations while deliberately staying ambiguous on whether it would come to defend Taiwan against Beijing’s forced unification.

To Washington, maintaining the status quo – meaning, no war and no unification – is in the best interest of the United States. The US is far away from the Taiwan Strait, and defending the self-governed island is not a vital security interest and would cost a lot. But for China, reunifying Taiwan is a core national interest. It is part of the mission of the Chinese dream of great national rejuvenation.

No Chinese leader can afford to let Taiwan formally separate from China. If the White House cannot bring its domestic partisan politics under control, Washington and Beijing may come to blows over the Taiwan issue.

Instead of sleepwalking into a spiral of crisis and even war over Taiwan or other thorny issues, it would be better for Washington and Beijing to clearly communicate their concerns and red lines, tune down populist discourse on both sides, and more effectively manage their relationship in the context of ongoing power transition.

Richard W. Hu is Professor and Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Macau. This article was first published by the Asian Peace Programme, an initiative to promote peace in Asia, housed in the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.