US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — The Asia-Pacific region is on the verge of a decisive decade. Already now the pro-American and Chinese social models are coming into conflict. The precarious balance maintained for the prosperity of the world economy is giving way to a confrontational spiral, accelerated by both sides. The coronavirus crisis only reinforces this trend.
But all this is not yet the direct start of a hegemonic duel on a global scale. However, in the coming years, processes in the Asia-Pacific region will leave an imprint on the nature of international relations far beyond this part of the world. They will affect Europe.
Will America give up its dominant position in East Asia to China as a new decisive power? Or will the US be able to maintain a privileged position? In the current situation, one cannot predict with certainty. True, the economic problems caused by the coronavirus can further limit the space for action by the United States and accelerate the decline in their influence. But the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping will emerge as a “winner” from the crisis is by no means guaranteed.
Fear of the Thucydides Trap
The question is not only the outcome of the US-Chinese confrontation. It is also unclear in what form this strategic rivalry will be played. Many leading politicians and economists believe that military conflict is excluded. But in reality, the question of how long the US-Chinese conflict will remain below the threshold of war remains an open question.
The thesis that the possible transition of the hegemonic position from one subject to another can cause war, is as old as the world and at the same time is constantly relevant. It can be found even in the “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides (431-404 BC). In it, he calls the rise of Athens and the Spartans’ fear of an ever-growing adversary the “true cause” of this conflict comparable to World War II. In the past decade, Harvard professor Graham Allison introduced the thesis into the scientific world under the term “Thucydides trap” and used it extensively to describe the situation between the United States and China.
This historical analogy has aroused fair criticism. But it is not necessary to turn to Greek historians and their modern interpreters to come to similar conclusions. The fact that the likelihood of conflict between states that see themselves as strategic rivals is greatly increasing and that such situations were the reasons for the overwhelming number of interstate wars, has been convincingly proved by modern conflictology. But the fact is that such rivalries do not necessarily lead to wars. However, the likelihood of military incidents and crises in relations between the United States and China may increase.
The fact that the likelihood of war in the Asia-Pacific region will increase is due not only to structural changes in the balance of power, but also to specific political decisions. While the former are caused by the rapid economic development of China in the past thirty years, the latter are the consequences of the actions of politicians, their interests and domestic political factors. Only a comprehensive examination of these factors shows why the United States and China are now moving in their relations to a phase that is even more fraught with conflict.
China wants to be able to win
In China, for several years now, the military budget has been growing faster than GDP. But only this one is not necessarily threatening. The concern is most likely a combination of aspirations in the field of modernization and arms growth with the territorial component of the “Chinese Dream” Xi Jinping. It provides for the return of “lost” territories in the coming years. This intention is in sharp contradiction with the ideas of the world order among the United States and most of the Pacific Rim states.
Both in Washington and in Beijing, nationalist trends are prevailing now, showing, although for the most part at the trade and political level, a tendency to escalate, and this fact contributes to the aggravation of the situation. To consider this process only as an intermediate is probably incorrect. Firstly, Xi created the prerequisites for himself to remain in power for life, and secondly, the United States in its relations with China pursues interests that will be relevant after the possible re-election of Donald Trump in November this year.
Problematic in connection with the likelihood of conflict and processes in the military field. On the Chinese side, the combat effectiveness of the People’s Liberation Army is not only growing. No less important are the ongoing changes in Chinese military thinking. The self-confident, if not aggressive aggression by China of its territorial claims is expressed not only in the desire to force America to constantly increase the costs of possible intervention, but also in the desire to gain the ability to win a quick and decisive victory over the US armed forces in the region. The People’s Liberation Army must be able, above all in the air and at sea, to win even before the opposing side fully unfolds its military potential.
Corresponding to these tasks, the modernization of the army should be largely completed by 2035. At the latest in 2050, the Chinese army in all military branches and operational areas should be at the “world level.” Thanks to this, along with the American armed forces and in a qualitative sense, it will become a unique army.
Tormenting discussions about strategy in the West
Hot debate about how best to respond to Chinese ambitions continues in the United States so far, although experts have been debating for many years. The idea of delivering military strikes against targets inside China is too problematic due to the high danger of escalation. The same applies to the idea of confronting possible Chinese aggression with a naval blockade. Recently, more and more supporters of the idea of creating a line of defense along the “first chain of islands” (from Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines to Borneo). But how this debate in the coming decades will affect the development of the armed forces is not yet clear.
It is also important to determine this because the economic costs associated with the coronavirus have also affected the vast US military budget. The fact that the pandemic will temporarily stifle Chinese ambitions also cannot be completely ruled out. But it seems that at the moment the situation in the western part of the Pacific Ocean is developing in the opposite direction. China takes advantage of the fact that the West was distracted by a pandemic to increase military pressure on Taiwan. More often than usual, the armed forces of Taiwan over the past months have become the target of provocations from the People’s Liberation Army of China.
So far, the prevailing opinion is that the war is likely to start due to perception errors, incorrect calculations, mistakes or tragic accidents. But the fact that the United States at the end of the 2020s will still be able to resolve the military conflict between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan in favor of the endangered island democracy is highly doubtful. It is possible that in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party elite, the attractiveness of the forcible reunification of Taiwan with mainland China is likely to increase. Politicians tend to resort to military tools when it is likely that a conflict can be won quickly and at reasonable cost.
To prevent a war in the Pacific, it is not least necessary to take a fresh look at some dubious statements. These include – contrary to the numerous opinions of scientific experts in the field of politics and military affairs – and the popular thesis about the “nuclear peace guarantee”. One can often hear that the very existence of nuclear weapons is an effective prevention of military conflicts between great powers. But this thesis is highly doubtful, and not only after the Kargil war between the atomic powers of Pakistan and India in 1999. Even before that, there were fair doubts about the ability of nuclear deterrence to automatically prevent wars.
Speaking specifically about relations between the United States and China, this idea in its imaginary simplicity seems especially untenable. Nuclear weapons do have effective deterrent potential. But it will help prevent a war if both sides are confident that military actions with conventional weapons are likely to develop to a nuclear level.
However, such confidence in the military theory of the People’s Liberation Army is practically not felt. Quite the contrary: Chinese military theorists are optimistic in the field of control over the escalation of conflicts, frightening Western observers. It seems that they do not seriously doubt the possibility of limited regional conflicts below the nuclear threshold.
At the same time, in the American debate on military doctrines, the significance of the nuclear factor is noticeably understated. In the presence of a wide variety of scenarios of “entry into hostilities” below the classical military threshold, it is completely possible that the two powers will someday accidentally engage in war with each other without thinking over the nuclear factor in detail.
Against this background, Europe should abandon a dangerous illusion, namely, the idea that wars between great powers, in principle and irreversibly, have remained in the past. Oversight War is just one of the possibilities. And we should not consider ourselves insured against wars between the great powers, which leading politicians may consider inevitable, necessary and promising and therefore will deliberately foment them. In the Pacific, on the one hand, Washington has not given up its intention to continue to plant its ideas about the order and reinforce them with military means. On the other hand, the Chinese leadership in recent decades has consistently worked to one day get the opportunity to absorb the disputed areas.
Underestimation of risks
Many Western politicians have not yet taken seriously the consequences arising from this or put them behind economic interests. Probably, the sovereignty of democratic Taiwan has long been less concerned with them than good economic relations with the People’s Republic. Even when Beijing stated that the South China Sea is a “blue land” and an integral part of Chinese tourism, and began to challenge Japanese claims for sovereignty in the East China Sea, leading Western economists and politicians considered the scenarios of military conflicts to be theoretical in their forecasts. residual risk.
“If only not to call trouble!” – For many years it was their motto. But such metaphysics does not meet the real goals of international security policy. With such a “closed eyes and ears strategy”, the likelihood of a military conflict only increases. This should be clear to Europe more than anything.
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