The New Pacific Climate

Will China continue to accept the US-built liberal economic order while continuously pushing for a larger share?

Justin Chock in SIR Trinity term 2015

Recent Chinese construction of airstrips and artificial islands, alongside the possibility of American patrols contesting these projects, are giving new life to the “China-threat” and “power-transition war” schools in academic international relations. The current Sino-American relationship looks tense, but does this mean that conflict is on the horizon? The wide view of the relationship suggests not; instead the 2030 trans-Pacific dynamic looks to be a competitive, but peaceful, sharing of power. Indeed, while in the short-term we are still testing the stormy waters of a ‘new style’ of superpower relations, these tempests will eventually calm without conflict to form a dynamic of shared power within Asia.

In the worst-case scenario, however, the US and China will view their relationship as a zero-sum competition of strength, and thus if conflict breaks out, it will be under this dangerous mind-set. The following analysis examines this assumption, focusing firstly on the military dimension as the primary source of conflict, followed by an analysis of likely economic conflict, and lastly a consideration of their respective soft power capabilities. All three ultimately represent potential areas of conflict that could devolve into a military struggle; fortunately the most likely outcomes in all three areas feature only peaceful competition.

The 2030 trans-Pacific dynamic looks to be a competitive, but peaceful, sharing of power

Firstly, from a military perspective, the US has and will have an absolute advantage in terms of defence capabilities. Numerous reports underscore the fundamental problems in the ranks of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), such as endemic corruption, an overcomplicated and inefficient organizational structure, and operational inexperience. Many cite China’s rising defence spending as evidence of future growth in its armed forces, but as Professor Peter Robertson notes, the increasing economic prosperity in China is paradoxically making purchases more expensive: since the military budget hovers at around 2% of GDP, the absolute increases in military spending, with price increases taken into account, provide approximately the same purchasing power and thus capabilities. Consequently, projecting a relatively unchanging military power gap, the US – not to mention its numerous Asia-Pacific allies – will safely maintain a military advantage from now through to 2030. This unchanging inequality is something that the PLA would not reasonably want to challenge challenge due to the low likelihood of success.

The US, on the other hand, recognizes that its commitments across the world are spreading its forces worryingly thin. Should a limited conflict arise within the Asia-Pacific region, China would have the regional upper hand due to its greater concentration of forces in the area. This is largely due to China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) methods, designed to exclude an opponent’s forces from a specific territory or deny those forces the ability to use or transit resources. Such a strategy is primarily defensive, and would not escalate the conflict as much as the likely US counter of its Air Sea Battle strategy. Due to the overwhelming force needed to neutralize A2AD sites deep within Chinese territory and behind layers of defensive forces, any such counter would likely usher in a full-scale war. So playing out both strategies shows that the US understands that excessive provocations could quickly force the other side to enact a strategy that leads to war.

China and the US are beginning to build trust, and inter-military cooperation is actually on the rise

The fact that this downward spiral rests on a hairpin trigger is precisely why America shares China’s hesitance about initiating hostilities. Last November’s pledges to establish official inter-military notification mechanisms are a recognition of the volatility of the situation, and represent concrete steps from both sides taken to avoid any escalation. Indeed, the ongoing ‘pivot to Asia’ will cause the two nations to come into even more contact and thus more friction between them is likely in East Asia. Viewed through this lens, assertive measures like island-building in the South China Sea are short-term, calculated ways to push the competition forward that have been determined not to be detrimental to the underlying peace, and so measures like this will continue through 2030 without large-scale battles surrounding them.

As the notification mechanisms demonstrate, China and the US are beginning to build mutual trust, and inter-military cooperation is actually on the rise. The 2014 Rim of the Pacific military exercises demonstrated a historic moment in this regard, as this was the first time the PLA Navy participated in the world’s largest international maritime exercise. Although some criticized China for including an uninvited intelligence collection ship, US Pacific Commander Admiral Locklear noted that China is in fact acting under the international norm that permits military and surveillance operations within a nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone. China is not revising global norms as the ‘China-Threat’ school believes, but instead is beginning to exploit them to serve its own rational interests.

China is not revising global norms but instead is beginning to exploit them to serve its own rational interests

On the second front, although military issues are the greatest predictor of conflict, economic considerations reinforce the future vision of competitive power-sharing. Speculating upon China’s future economic growth has proved notoriously difficult. Answers range from the Chinese economy overtaking the US within the decade to never coming close. However, what is certain is that China is leveraging its growing economy, and the recent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AAIB) is one way that the country is challenging the American-built system, which includes the Asian Development Bank, the IMF, and the World Bank.

However, the AIIB’s purpose is to provide infrastructure investments to only the Asian region and thus serves as a way for China to focus on consolidating local influence while continuing to let other organizations uphold the global economic system elsewhere. China benefits greatly from economic flows under the current system, but the nation does want a larger influence within the global economic structure, thereby making the economic climate by 2030 likely to be similar to the military one; namely limited competition that does not upset the overall order.

China benefits too greatly from economic flows under the current system – but the country does want a larger share of the global economic structure

Finally, while the US retains a vast amount of soft power, China’s attractive power seems to be growing. For example, the AIIB attracted many US-aligned states like the UK, Germany, and South Korea against American wishes, challenging the prevailing assumption of full American cooperation with these countries. Furthermore, the quickening rapprochement of the India-China relationship, combined with strengthening ties with Russia, demonstrates the increasing degree to which China is able to attract and deepen its partnerships, which could be seen as a balance against regional and global US alliances.

Nevertheless, these measures continue to pale in comparison to the global network that the US has formed: over 60 security partner nations, integration within the leadership of numerous major international institutions, and the American-led spread of liberal democratic ideals. As Professor Joseph Nye has argued, soft power is not necessarily zero-sum: although China may increase its global attractiveness, this may serve to reduce the likelihood of conflict as both countries become more attractive in each other’s eyes. Yet the future of Chinese soft power appears to be on a similar trajectory of a strengthening China that will begin to push back and hold its own, but not upset the overall dominance of America’s global brand.

Even from a hard-line zero-sum perspective on the relationship, time is on the side of a peaceful relationship between China and the US. Indeed, a continuation of competitive peace could play out in either of their favours. The US is waiting for China’s economic slowdown to lag behind the accelerating pace of the American economic recovery, or the possibility of liberal democratic ideals taking hold within China itself. China, for its part, will wait to allow its GDP growth to slowly push its global position past America’s, whilst hoping to quell its numerous domestic problems, thereby allowing the nation more power and a larger role on the world stage. Both scenarios require the maintenance of peaceful relations due to their economies relying so heavily on each other and their respective surrounding nations. Open conflict would swiftly cut all of those ties and undermine the long-term economic policies of both countries.

Consequently both sides have an impetus to prevent conflict with one another, while still pushing their own agendas as far as is compatible with this goal. The Sino-American relationship is too tense for a formalized alliance, but not tense enough for conflict. The middle ground lies therefore in an informal sharing of power that both sides have a stake in upholding. However, competition always has the potential to escalate out of control, and it will be up to these two superpowers to remain vigilant in their relations as they chart a shared path through choppy Pacific waters.