A war between China and the United States is horrible to contemplate, but we might hope that such a war would bring a degree of closure to US-China competition, and peace to the region. “The object in war is a better state of peace,“ or so said British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart. But what if a better peace does not result?
Competition between the United States and China might look less like a single sharp, decisive conflict between Washington and Beijing, and more like a series of militarized conflicts in a broader context of trade and cooperation. This would represent more of an 18th-century appreciation of international conflict, seeing no wars as particularly decisive in themselves, but rather each as a step to improving a state’s position for the next conflict. As Paul von Hindenburg said of annexing the Baltic States into the German Empire during World War I, “I need them for the manoeuvring of my left wing in the next war.”
The idea that long-term great power competition must end in a single decisive conflict is recent, and wrong. World War I seemed to end decisively in that it eliminated two of the Central Powers, led to regime change in another, and produced a new international settlement, but of course, Germany’s ambitions were not quenched. World War II decisively ended the expansionist aspirations of Germany, Japan, and Italy, replacing the existing authoritarian governments with democratic systems (in Japan, Italy, and ¾ of Germany, at least), and made a replay of the war exceedingly difficult. However, both World War I and World War II were followed by long periods of disorder, civil war, and proxy conflict even after the guns of the primary combatants fell silent.
During the Cold War, not much thought was given to the prospect of multiple, iterated wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, largely because of the belief that nuclear weapons would come into play and possibly destroy both combatants, if not the entire world. At the same time, the sharply clashing ideological nature of the combatants led many to imagine that a US-Soviet fight would be resolved quickly and decisively, with the victorious ideology reigning supreme.
But the situation with China and the United States is different. Although Washington and Beijing have sharp ideological differences, neither puts much weight in the idea that it can topple the other. Each can inflict severe damage on the fielded military forces of the enemy, but is unlikely to cause much destruction to the industrial and economic foundations of the other’s military power. Weapons that a destroyed or expended can be rebuilt, quickly in the case of cruise missiles and slowly in the case of aircraft carriers.
The disputes that might spur conflict have similarly indecisive potential. A US defeat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan obviously won’t settle the question of Taiwan in the Chinese mind, and quite possibly won’t even unsettle the hold of the Chinese Communist Party over mainland China. It is entirely conceivable that the United States and China could fight a short, sharp war over Taiwan, resume relatively normal political and commercial relations, then fight another short, sharp war over Taiwan.
Even if China won such a conflict, the fundamental issues that divide Washington and Beijing would not disappear. While the regional reaction to a successful Chinese conquest of Taiwan context dependent and difficult to predict, countries such as Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea might well try to bind themselves more tightly to the US military, immediately creating the conditions for future conflict.
Any imaginable military conflict in the Western Pacific would be catastrophically destructive, not simply to the theaters of conflict but also to the financial and trade networks that have developed between Asia and North America. But we should take care with the notion that China and the United States will fight just one war. Hopefully, they will fight none. If they fight one, they are likely to fight more.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).