“Truth,” it has been said, “is the first casualty of war.” In this light, the delusion that China’s rise will continue to be peaceful has been the first geopolitical casualty of the war against COVID-19.
The pandemic and other recent developments have not only dispelled the myth of a peaceful rise, but they have raised a fundamentally important question regarding the telos of this entire process: Will the People’s Republic of China’s rise, already problematic in so many ways, culminate in a systemic or world war with the United States? In the academic literature, the kind of war I am talking about is referred to as a “hegemonic war”—that is, a system-wide military conflict over, first, the very nature of the international order and, second, its fundamental institutional architecture. These wars are said to occur almost invariably when an aspiring hegemon and an established one clash over which country will set the ground rules for global governance. With this in mind, the question regarding China’s rise can be framed thus: Will the accelerating growth in China’s power—a dynamic focused and amplified by President Xi Jinping’s ambitious dream of a rejuvenated, globally dominant PRC—result in a hegemonic war with the United States?
I would argue in the affirmative. In the same way that “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta… made war inevitable,” so too the rise of China will instill fear in the United States, making war between these two powers inevitable as well. In short, the “Thucydides Trap”—an ironclad rule that states that a rising challenger’s bid for supremacy almost always triggers a war with the hegemonic power—is likely to prove inescapable in this case. This, needless to say, does not mean war this year or next or even the year after that. This is not 1914, and the sounds we are hearing are not the Guns of August 1914. Indeed, concerning the precise “day and hour” such a war will erupt, “no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” But, to strain the metaphor just a bit, it does mean that we are at a point similar to June or July of that fateful year. As in the summer of 1914, even as the future belligerents were “sleepwalking” toward the abyss, it does mean that war is inevitable.
Whenever (and however) it begins, the gathering storm will inexorably culminate in a form of total war—that is, war over the very nature of the norms, values, institutions, and interests that will shape the fundamental architecture of the resulting world order. In this type of war, short of a nuclear dies irae and the apocalyptic end of human civilization, there can only be three possible outcomes, all of which definitively answer the question, Who will lead?
The first possibility, certainly the most attractive one from an American perspective, is the preservation—and perhaps even rejuvenation—of the status quo. To see off the China challenge, the US will need to rally its friends and allies in defense of the status quo. If successful, this will result in a reformed and revitalized liberal order that will enhance the universal goals of peace and prosperity.
The second possibility, obviously the least attractive one from Washington’s viewpoint, is a successful Chinese power play culminating in Beijing’s definitive assumption of the mantle of global hegemon. In this scenario the PRC, having supplanted the US as the world’s dominant power, would then restructure the international order in ways reflective of the values and interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—and detrimental to those of the US and its Western allies.
A third and final possible outcome, one with both distant and recent historical precedent, is an exhausting PRC-US struggle for primacy that creates an opportunity for a third power—a dark horse—to seize the throne. This was the case during the Peloponnesian War (out of which Persia emerged as the preeminent power), the Byzantine-Sassanid wars (out of which the Muslim Arabs emerged as the preeminent power), and the twentieth-century wars between Britain and Germany (out of which the US emerged as the preeminent power). While it is not clear who the dark horse contender would be today, in theory at least this remains a possible outcome of a hegemonic war between the US and the PRC.
I will make only two concessions to those who assert that the US and China can escape the Thucydides Trap. The first is that if the US acts now with prudence, fortitude, and strategic dexterity, it may be able to dissuade the PRC from aggressively seeking to realize its hegemonic aspirations. This might include taking steps to bend either the US or Chinese trendlines in ways favorable to the status quo, containing or rolling back Chinese efforts to position itself favorably for a bid for hegemony, or rallying the international community in support of US leadership and in opposition to China’s bid for global hegemony.
Second, I am willing to concede that it is also possible that we may escape the Thucydides Trap if there is a change of regime, or a change in regime leadership, in the PRC. Such a development has appeared increasingly plausible in the aftermath of Xi’s failed Belt and Road Initiative, botched COVID-19-related “medical soft power” play, abrogation of the “one-country, two-systems” modus vivendi with Hong Kong, inconclusive border clashes with India, failure to sustain China’s economic momentum, and a growing sentiment that China is becoming less powerful and therefore less relevant on the world stage—an indictment sheet far longer than that of the American colonists against King George III. But Xi’s secure power base within the CCP, and the CCP’s within China, augurs poorly for any such change.
It would seem, then, absent a miracle in China (Xi exits the scene, voluntarily or otherwise) or one in the US (Washington takes the prudent steps needed to derail China’s geopolitical power-grab), there is no reason to believe that a hegemonic war can be avoided in the future. No matter how much we might wish otherwise and no matter how deeply we plunge our collective head, ostrich-like, into the sands of splendid globalism, trouble simply will not pass us by.
Part two of this series will consider idealist counterarguments and explain why Christians should be concerned.