Why a US-China war cannot be ruled out under Donald Trump’s leadership

Donald Trump has disgraced American democracy with his election campaign and he is wasting no time overturning US foreign policy and disrupting world politics as well.

He is believed to be considering Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, for the post of Secretary of State. Strategic analysts are dismayed by this as Tillerson has a history of close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin – who conferred the Order of Friendship on the former in 2013.

Trump is also going out of his way to provoke China. He first took a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. If that could be dismissed as a colourful way of communicating to Beijing that it was no longer business as usual, Trump went one step further on December 11 telling Fox News that he fully understood the ‘One China policy’ but didn’t know why the US should be bound by it “unless we make a deal with China having to do other things, including trade”.

Trump is essentially saying that he will question China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity if Beijing is unwilling to do deals that the US wants. This is not the kind of challenge that China’s leadership can be seen as ignoring – because territorial integrity is, alongside high economic growth, a key source of legitimacy for the unelected, authoritarian rule of the Communist Party of China. President Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, the Party recently conferred on him the title “core leader” and with a personality cult centred on him, he cannot be seen as backing down since his own people, China’s neighbours and indeed the US will be watching.

It may well be that Trump chooses to defuse the situation, persuaded over time by the globalising corporate collective that is making its way into his Cabinet. Obama is still in charge for more than a month, which gives China the chance to limit its reaction for the moment to only sharp warnings. Be that as it may, Trump’s comments are reason enough to wonder about the prospect of a US-China war.

Few expect great powers to go to war in a globalised world. The dominant liberal view is that economic interdependence has made war obsolete and the US and China have too much to lose to risk such a confrontation. Not necessarily so, says Christopher Coker, a professor at the London School of Economics, in his 2015 book The Improbable War: China, the United States and the Logic of Great Power Conflict. Looking back at the history of great power confrontations and periods of confrontation, Coker writes that the possibility of a conflict between China and the US is a “possibility inherent in the present” although “it is not yet an inescapable fact”.

The book points to parallels between the situation recently and the period before the First World War in 1914, a time marked by commercial interdependence and an expectation that war “between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel”, as one historian put it in 1911. Historians say that the great powers “did not so much sleepwalk into war as blunder into it, in part because they thought such a conflict was so improbable” and indeed that leaders “eventually took too many risks because they genuinely believed that great power conflict was unlikely”.

We too do not envisage a conflict now but the risks are real. US-China tensions have risen in recent years owing to several developments including Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea that have unnerved its neighbours. The US has interpreted this as a challenge to its dominance which it has sought to counter through forging strategic partnerships in Asia. There has till now been a tenuous stalemate, with Obama signalling a pivot to Asia without necessarily confronting China directly while Beijing has occasionally challenged the US while avoiding escalation. As the Obama

presidency was winding down, the focus away from US-China tensions to China’s One Belt One Road initiative that plans to develop road, rail and sea links to Central Asia, West Asia and Europe as part of an effort to outflank US’ containment efforts on the high seas. The question about whether China would challenge US dominance or whether Washington would test the emerging power’s strength and resolve was somewhat suspended as Obama’s presidency was drawing to a close. Writing in 2015 Coker viewed Beijing as the problem but at least the situation was under control.

It turns out now that a US administration under Trump poses an immediate threat to stability. Material factors have produced a tense balance of power in Asia but Trump’s impetuosity makes it worse by introducing an element of irrationality, thereby heightening the risk of misperception and miscalculation. Trump may be giving China the chance it may have been seeking to test itself in the rough and tumble of world politics.

Coker’s arguments about emotions and war are worth noting in particular. He argues that nations, like individuals, can be swayed by passions and have a history of acting against their best interests. Rational calculations of self-interest do not always prevail. Societies are also driven by beliefs and narratives about the way the world works, or ought to work. Resentments rankle and morph into policy. For the Germans in 1914 war “served the need for greater respect.” Honour, reputation and status matter a great deal in international relations. Coker cites the work of political scientist Richard Ned Lebow who has written that of the 94 wars (between 1648 to 2008) he investigated only 19 were motivated by the search for security, sixty-two were attributed to ‘standing’ as a motive. China has a well-developed myth about being humiliated by the West and being denied due status. The US has rapidly moved from being a ‘city on a hill’ to being a disgruntled nation, unsettled enough by the effects of globalisation to generate an unsavoury figure like Trump. Both societies are poised to allow wrongheaded nationalism get the better of them.

A US-China conflict is not necessarily a given, yet. There are, of course, hawks and moderates on both sides. Both the economies have weaknesses; the US desperately needs to rebuild infrastructure and China has many internal challenges and is focused on becoming a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021. As Coker spells out in detail in his brilliant book, warfighting strategies do not assure desired outcomes and run the risk of escalation. The US has the technological edge and the global reach but China is seeking to compensate through a focus on developing space-related weapons and cyberwarfare. And it is in the domain of cyberwarfare that analysts expect China to exert pressure and secure bargaining advantage, discreetly. But even there risks of escalation exist.

In a point pertinent for the present, Coker writes that strategic thinking “is merely a grand term we give to social intelligence—the capacity to devise a set of options that take into account the opponent’s view of the world”. The American establishment is coming to terms with a president-elect who sorely lacks that and is putting his country and the world at risk.

How China reacts remains to be seen. There will be those who will hope that Beijing looks to ancient wisdom at this time. Coker mentions that “in Chinese thought the logic of strategy demands that the propensity inherent in events is exploited.” “Since the time of Sun Tzu Chinese strategic thought has emphasised the need to adapt to the movements of the enemy rather than to confront an enemy in a direct battle. Sun Tzu’s advice with regard to seeking a confrontation with the enemy only after the war has been won is very different from the emphasis in Western strategic thought on bringing the enemy to battle early.”

For now Beijing is keeping its cool, warning Trump that there will be nothing to discuss if the US’ adherence to the One China policy is compromised. But more US adventurism will be construed as a direct challenge to Xi Jinping’s authority. He will not want to be seen as backing down on the issue of Taiwan.