Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Non-Resident Principal Investigator of the German Marshall Fund in the United States.
The strategic competition between the United States and China is supposed to be a three-dimensional competition over security, economics and ideology.
In theory, maintaining a good balance between these three main strands seems both attractive and achievable, especially for Washington, which has significant advantages in all three areas.
In reality, unfortunately, security has a way of outweighing economic and ideological competition because of its zero-sum nature and appeals directly to our survival instincts.
The latest manifestation of how security increasingly dominates the strategic competition between the United States and China is the surprise announcement that the United States will share its nuclear submarine technology with Australia so that Canberra can provide a more effective counterweight to China’s burgeoning military might.
The dynamic in which security competition dominates competition from the great powers is easy to understand but difficult to stop.
Maintaining a military advantage to deter an adversary is a basic tenet of national security strategy. Accordingly, every step taken to improve its military capabilities has tactical or strategic merits, as in the case of equipping Australia with nuclear attack submarines.
Cumulatively, however, individual measures aimed at underscoring a country’s determination and strengthening a country’s military capabilities typically elicit countermeasures from its adversaries, inexorably shifting the center of gravity towards security competition. The militarization of US-China competition only makes it look more and more like the Cold War.
With a rival’s gain in military advantage a net loss to his opponent, who will then respond with his own military build-up, the only constraints on such an arms race are financial resources and technology.
In a large-scale arms race between the United States – and its allies – and China, Washington is likely to win because of the combined financial and technological clout. But a China armed to the teeth would always be a formidable adversary. Even if a pro-US arms race were successful in its strategic goal of deterring China, two other potential outcomes could trigger their own dangerous consequences.
The first would be the modernization and expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, which is currently only a fraction of that of the United States. Any significant increase in its nuclear capabilities by China would inevitably force India to increase its own, a development that would surely prompt Pakistan to expand its nuclear arsenal as well.
The other likely consequence would be the fallout from an intensified arms race on nuclear non-proliferation and controlling the spread of destructive technologies. A competitor’s efforts to arm his allies and partners to gain an advantage will give his opponent the motivation and justification to do the same.
Indeed, as security competition overshadows U.S.-China relations, it will be nearly impossible for them to cooperate even on issues of mutual concern, such as climate change and future pandemics. All bilateral issues will only be considered from a national security perspective and assessed against the ability of one modest cooperation to enhance the security of the other.
A simple but illustrative example is energy security, which is part of national security. Clean energy technologies are likely to be lumped into the same category as other critical technologies – and subject to strict export controls – to the detriment of the popularization of these technologies and the reduction of emissions.
Politically, the hawks of national security occupy privileged positions in both political systems. In the United States, they are entrenched in the military industrial complex, the pork barrel politics of Congress, and the right-wing media.
In China, the military guarantees the ability of the Communist Party to retain power, while the emotional question of Taiwan rarely fails to elicit neuralgic reflexes from a wide range of elites and ordinary people. Their voices – and their loud opposition – could condemn even the most innocuous forms of bilateral cooperation.
The last inevitable consequence of fully militarized US-China competition is the acceleration of economic decoupling. Of course, this process is already well underway. Increased antagonism due to heightened military insecurity could therefore strengthen the case for a complete severing of economic ties.
In the United States, the argument that Washington must stop “strengthening the enemy” is likely to become more attractive, while the call to reduce the economic influence of the United States will appear more and more convincing in China. . As the two countries take steps to strengthen their military security, their strained economic ties will deteriorate further.
While this nightmarish scenario is one of us that most of us would like to avoid, unfortunately it is perhaps the most likely to occur in the years to come, because when it comes to competition among the great powers, the security imperative traditionally takes precedence over all other considerations.
Britain and Germany had a higher level of economic interdependence on the eve of World War I than the United States and China today. In 1900, imports to the British Empire accounted for 21.5% of total German imports, while German exports to the British Empire accounted for 22.8% of its total exports.
In 2020, merchandise imports from China accounted for 18.6% of total United States imports, while imports from the United States accounted for only 6% of total Chinese merchandise imports.
But as we are well aware, as security competition increasingly dominated the German-British rivalry, bilateral relations became so hostile that they sparked a catastrophic conflict that neither of the two powers wanted. The challenge for China and the United States today is not to repeat another such epic calamity.