Strategists throughout the Asia-Pacific region are asking themselves: Can two superpowers coexist in peaceful rivalry for influence in the Western Pacific, or does such competition necessarily lead to conflict or a prolonged cold war? In the case of China and the United States, there truly is no predetermined answer because the evidence is contradictory.
For peaceful competition, the favoring factors are:
- Neither Washington nor Beijing want to fight each other.
- The Chinese and American people generally view each other favorably.
- Peaceful cooperation would appear to be in the best interests of both countries.
- In the 21st century, war between major powers seems to be outdated as an instrument of policy.
- The economies of the two nations are mutually interdependent, a constraint on military competition and political rivalry.
- The United States does not want to limit China's growth; China does not want to exclude the United States from Asia. There may be room for a reordering of interests that can be beneficial to both countries.
For conflict or cold war, the factors are:
- Strong factions in both Washington and Beijing believe war may be inevitable and are actively taking steps to prepare for it.
- Many in the Chinese and American national security establishments view each other with profound suspicion.
- China and the United States have vastly different and even opposing ideologies, values, and national ambitions.
- Historically, the nature of politics is that only one power can be supreme in a given region.
- A redefining of Chinese and American spheres of interests in the Western Pacific would be very difficult.
What this means in terms of policy is that both countries will most likely attempt to maintain peaceful, cooperative Sino-American relations; but that both countries also will prepare for possible conflict. Within both countries, powerful voices will continue to debate over whether enduring peace is possible or eventual war is inevitable. Localized incidents can quickly escalate because both sides perceive their key interests to be at risk and because their militaries are moving into closer proximity. Importantly, as China develops its sea and air denial capabilities, and as the United States upgrades its forward offensive assets, the advantage increasingly moves to the side which is quicker on the trigger -- thus reducing the time during crises for diplomatic solutions.
April 28, 2012