Is War between the US and China impossible, improbable or inevitable?


The current, still cooperative relationship between the United States and China makes war improbable, despite the many challenges that have arisen during the Trump administration. Without doubt the strengthening of economic cooperation is the most proper choice for avoiding war, and the U.S. and China are likely to assess that the cost of war is far greater than the cost of peace. However, there are some situations where one side, or a country in the region, may decide that war is worth the risk, although this is unlikely.

It is important for observers of the two great powers to deliberate on assumptions regarding the possibility of a future war between USA, China and its neighbors and how such a war could be a regional as well as global disaster, both in terms of economic impact and politico-social stability. This analysis will consider the existing and ever-expanding international benefits of the US-China relationship.

The partners of these nations must also consider risk factors for the occurrence of a possible war between the US and China such as political tensions at the leadership level between Ji Xingpeng and Donald Trump and the risk of miscalculation. The essay will conclude by emphasizing the extensive interdependence between these two countries regarding trade exchanges on the international level and the cost of war. These reinforce the improbability of any future war between the two countries.

One of the main reasons for the improbability of war has been defined by Webb and Krasner, which is that the U.S. still carries the role of “hegemonic leadership” in the world, which will be discussed later in terms of military and financial power[i].

Emphasis has been concentrated upon the formulation of “peace through strength,” which according to Jeoffrey Knopf, was important but not the main factor in ending the Cold War without military confrontation.[ii] This could be established between the political antagonists of China and the USA despite the recent expansion of Chinese military capabilities. Similarly, we can compare the current situation between Beijing and Washington to the historical “Detente” between the equally hostile USSR and the USA during the Cold War due to the prevailing nuclear status quo. The main fact of this debate is the existing difficulty for China to compete with the USA in every sphere and the strong bargaining position of the USA.

Several scholars have questioned the presumed overtaking of the USA by China in terms of global influence. According to Beckley (2011), China would acquire greater power through greater “absorptive capacity” of new technology and USA would acquire greater quality of power through greater “intangible assets”.[iii] The ensuing cost of war could deter outright conflict. This had been amply demonstrated during the Korean War of 1951 which was one of the most destructive wars in the history of the 20th Century involving the North Korean campaign to reunite South Korea and the subsequent United Nations intervention, led by the U.S. forces. The material, human and financial casualties of this war drove home the futility of the prospects of going to war even with the latest equipment and technology since any new conflict would cause massive disruption to trade in both nations and massive loss of life. Today, both countries have far greater destructive capabilities than what was deployed during the Korean conflict.

At the same time, greater force projection capabilities such as a superior naval force could enable the USA to have greater leverage in this respect over China. As Ikenberry argued, the world is still seeing the “unipolar” moment where U.S. military power is allowing a higher level of peace than before, despite the tide of rising global conflict. Ikenberry has said, “With the rise of American unipolarity, stability and peace are guaranteed by the wielding of power by a single super state.”[iv] Therefore, war is made less likely, if we follow Hegemonic Stability Theory. On the other hand, the US might see the rise of China as a threat to its hegemonic position and the “hegemonic stability” and this could be a serious impetus for conflict since some forecasts determine that China could hold predominance over the USA regarding total GDP by the middle of the century at most.[v] This means that China might spend an increasing amount on its defense budget. The U.S. National Intelligence Strategy in 2008 predicted that by 2025, China would be taking the lead over the U.S. in some areas.[vi]

Even if Chinese military power continues to rise, the extensive military expenditures of both China and the USA could establish a “balance of power”. Scweller describes the Structural Realist view of this theory, where “system balance is a spontaneously generated, self-regulating, and entirely unintended outcome of states pursuing their narrow self-interests.”[vii]

The dual factors of hegemonic economic capabilities and superior military expenditure of the USA, in the form of 677.1 billion dollars during 2018, coupled with the possession of greater numbers of thermonuclear weapons, could ensure the improbability of war taking place.[viii] This brings into consideration the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The U.S. possesses more nuclear missiles within its land forces than China has in its full nuclear arsenal, with 400 silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds more nuclear weapons held by naval and air forces.

From the Chinese point of view, Shifrinson (2018) argues that China will struggle to match the U.S. militarily and, using balance of power theory, he argues that China may prefer to continue, or even increase cooperation with the U.S.[ix] On the other hand, the risk of conflict could not be ruled out between the USA and China given the expansion in the Chinese military budget allocation to 150 bn US dollars in 2017, excluding the expenditure of research and development as well as miscellaneous costs. Although China has no nuclear-capable bomber aircraft so far, it has been expected to have up to 50 in 2037. Even in the case that new military technology may be available to China or the U.S., such as “hypersonic weapons” or advanced cyber-attacks against nuclear assets, which could destabilize the idea of MAD, Matthew Kroenig argues that no side would take the chance of launching a nuclear strike.[x]

Trade and Peace

Different explanations abound regarding the improbability of any conflict taking place between the USA and China. One such explanation rests with liberal internationalist theories of global trade which emphasize peace amongst nations as a prerequisite for economic progress and financial stability. Between the U.S. and China, this has led to what Joseph Nye calls, “cooperative rivalry.”[xi]

The consistent expansion of trade between China and the USA provides another hurdle for the occurrence of war between them. It heightens the cost of war since the increased mutual trade has been responsible for benefitting both the countries in terms of national economic growth rate.[xii]

Various theoretical constructs attest to the importance of trade volume increases for reducing international conflict. McDonald (2004) argues in favour of the capability of bilateral trade for fostering better communication and financial links along with interdependence between different nations and societies.[xiii] Martin, Mayer and Koenig (2007) also argue in favour of increasing trade volume as having the capability of reducing risks of war. They write that, “Bilateral trade, because it increases the opportunity cost of bilateral war, deters bilateral war.”[xiv]

Trade was also, historically, one of the reasons for China’s turn towards opening up relations with the U.S. During the Deng Xiaopeng period, slow economic growth in China caused the government to seek economic cooperation with the U.S..According to Bingxi (2009):

“China-U.S. bilateral trade had increased by 305 times from US$0.99 billion in 1978, the year when China launched reform and opening-up, to US$302.08 billion in 2007; the total amount of U.S. direct investment in China had grown from US$210 million in 1978–82 up to US$58.44 billion by the end of July 2008.”[xv]

This situation has not changed, in fact trade between the two nations has increased, with the combined value of U.S. exports and imports from China reaching $636 billion during 2017.[xvi]

Maintenance of stability through bilateral trade could be jeopardised through hikes in trade tariffs by President Trump on Chinese exports. This could result in a substantial crisis and could be exacerbated through customs duty adjustments, with potentially disastrous consequences. The implications of such developments could have extensive negative ramifications for the bilateral relationship of both countries. As Obama had said in 2009, “if the two countries do not succeed in correcting deep economic imbalances, they will impose ‘enormous strains’ on their relationship”.[xvii]

Kissinger writes that this tension is the partial result of inadequate diplomatic contacts between the two countries, but not the result of a dearth in bilateral trade:

“The two countries adopted a number of steps, establishing a high-level forum for strategic and economic dialogue, which meets twice a year. The event was productive on urgent issues, but remains at the foothills of its ultimate mission to produce a truly global economic and political order.”[xviii]

Although the very high levels of trade between the two nations and their military capabilities makes war unlikely, there are a number of other situations which can increase risks. While the agreements on tariffs and intellectual property have contributed to some extent of reduction of trade tensions, by 2019 persisting allegations of industrial espionage and copying of U.S. technology by China have increased political tensions.

These tensions could combine with another crisis, such as the Taiwan crisis of 1996 and the Chinese ballistic missile tests, the crushing of Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989 and the territorial dispute between China and U.S. allies over 200 islands and coral reefs, such as the Senkaku Islands/ Diaoyu islands.[xix] However, such incidents could remain confined as sources of conflicts between regional countries such as Japan and China and may not involve the U.S.A.

Furthermore, recent history suggests that most disputes will be resolved for common gain. According to Roach, disputes over specific issues occur often, but on their own do not affect the major trade interdependence of the two nations:

“Frequent disputes over intellectual property rights, subsidies and monetary values will not be a major threat to bilateral flows of trade, investment, and the greater political relationship between the United States and China.”[xx]

The last major crisis over trade before the Trump-era trade war was the global financial crisis in 2008. However, this did not cause long term damage to bilateral relations between the USA and China.

The recovery from the after effects of the global financial crisis by both countries arose partly due to stimulus programs by the USA to restore growth and enhance demand and from the resumption of Chinese national economic growth to the rates of the pre-crisis period. This has ensured the continuation of positive relationships between the two countries. In the Trump era, how far trade tensions could escalate remains unseen, as China responded to U.S. tariffs by imposing 25 percent customs duties on 128 US goods, mainly pork and wine, hitting U.S. imports to the value of $ 3 billion.[xxi] The most likely outcome remains some kind of agreement between the two nations, to protect their mutual economic gains.

Risks of conflict

Alterations in the global status quo and changes in the global balance of power are a source of considerable concern for researchers and policymakers due to the possibility of a war between America and China. Richard Ned Lepo and Ben Valentino point out that the “transition of power” has become “an acceptable framework for many scientists and policymakers who focus on Asia.”[xxii] Rauch and Wurm (2013) describe how Power Transition Theory predicts how a hegemon is likely to come into violent competition with a rising challenger.[xxiii]

There is reason to believe that Power Transition Theory applies well to Asia, but it is arguably less useful when we consider that China’s rise could be slowing down. With the Chinese defense budget equaling one third of the defense budget of the USA and the fast pace of Chinese military capability expansion, the traditional advantage of the USA regarding the superiority of military strength is seeming to be slowly negated as time progresses. With Trump’s tough policy toward East Asia, China’s priority has become clearer, and might even extend to pushing U.S. influence out of the region. If China pursues this as a policy, it would confirm Transitional Power Theory as being correct, but until there is such a crisis, we will not know if this is the case.

Apart from the risk of territorial disputes leading to a miscalculation and increased conflict risk, there is also the danger of China suffering from internal instability. China, despite its pursuit of regional leadership and leading the world scene, has serious internal problems and must manage its social, environmental and economic issues in a way that allows it to play an international leading role. Susan Chirk says China is “strong abroad but fragile at home.”[xxiv]

Supporting this view, David Shambao argues how “the political system in China is badly broken.”[xxv] Political surveillance, suppression of freedoms and violations of human rights, as well as corruption, have increased during the era of Xi Jingping.[xxvi] Supporting this point, China’s spending on homeland security is said to be far more than spending on external security.[xxvii]

Another view is that despite internal problems, as long as China’s economy continues to grow and the middle class expands in China, pressure for greater economic and personal freedom could push the government towards making compromises with the people and possibly leading to democracy, a point argued by Hahm Chaibong.[xxviii] But all of these challenges to China’s internal stability could also lead to the risk of an internal conflict, and potentially, a regional war.

A final risk does not directly involve U.S.-China competition, but the potential for regional instability due to China’s neighbors, who are increasingly well-armed and cautious about China’s ambitions. This growing mistrust could provoke a potential conflict, which could bring in U.S. involvement. Henry Kissinger argues that China is probably aware of its weak military position, not only because of the U.S., but because it is surrounded by countries that are friendly to the U.S:

“China today faces Russia in the north; Japan and South Korea, with American military alliances, to the east; Vietnam and India to the south; and Indonesia and Malaysia not far away. This is not a constellation conducive to conquest. It is more likely to raise fears of encirclement.”[xxix]

To conclude analysis of the conflict risk, considering factors such as internal instability in China, Chinese military competition and territorial rivalry with its neighbors and growing U.S.-China military competition which is increasingly looking to new technology, both nations would still be extremely unlikely to go to war, most likely because of the nuclear balance of power. This will stay the case for many years.


As an overview, every risk examined here, including the breakdown of U.S.-China trade relations and the risk of new technology causing a military miscalculation, might increase the probability of conflict, but many other factors in China-U.S. relations mean that war remains unlikely. While the future is uncertain, both Donald Trump and President Jingping have expressed extreme views especially on trade and Taiwan. However, both Presidents are deal makers and both will probably compromise to support their country’s core interests [21].

A lot of shared interests have been identified by scholars between the U.S. and China; preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, combating climate change and countering piracy on the high seas.[xxx]

With regard to the risk of a regional clash between a U.S. ally and China, detailed analysis by RAND concludes that in the event of a clash between China and Japan, the first steps taken by the U.S. and its allies will be to de-escalate the crisis, as each side understands the cost of war is far higher than anything that could be gained from conflict.[xxxi] The RAND study also considers post WW2 crises involving the U.S. in the Pacific, arguing that even in the worst situations such as the Korean War or the end of the Vietnam war, the U.S. did not use its nuclear weapons. Therefore, even in the event of a major conflict in the Pacific region, nuclear weapon use would be extremely unlikely and de-escalation would be a priority.

On the diplomatic side, dialogue between regional powers has increased in recent years with the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit in May 2018, which involved Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling for much stronger relations between China and Japan.[xxxii]It has been suggested by the Carnegie Endowment that many more talks on security should be held.[xxxiii]

Regarding trade, the economic interdependence of China and the U.S. is likely to remain the case for the near future. Even in the worst situation, which might involve a major decrease in China-U.S. technology sector cooperation, both countries trade in many other sectors. For example, the car industry trade between the U.S. and China is worth tens of billions of dollars.[xxxiv]Other sectors, such as factory machinery and agricultural exports and imports make up large part of China-U.S. bilateral trade, even though trade in the technology sector dominates.[xxxv]

Because of this ongoing trade interdependence, Washington and Beijing would be better off avoiding any tension that could lead to a crisis in relations, including territorial disputes over the South China Sea and tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Beijing may take 10 years or more to match its military capabilities with the United States, but they will be wary of a military confrontation with Washington. Beijing would be critically inclined towards investment of the differential military capabilities which it has, towards achievement of a supporting measure of foreign policy implementation in a secondary nature and international diplomacy would be leading the charge of China global ambition fulfilment.

In the long term, U.S. and Chinese policy will be constrained by their shared mutual goals of economic growth, meaning that Donald Trump’s more aggressive statements represent only a period of U.S. policy and future U.S. governments in the near term could follow policies to build better relations.

Amitai Etzoni has written that, (2017) “I strongly believe that war is justified only when all other means for settling conflicts have been exhausted”.31 China and the U.S. are a very long way away from exhausting peaceful ways of resolving disputes. As previously mentioned, the internal challenges each country faces mean that economic cooperation is more likely to enhance political stability and international peace and security. As a former army officer, I believe that the devastating consequences of war must be avoided and the search for other solutions rather than war should be the most likely option.


[i] Kroenig, M. Will disruptive technology cause a war? Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. 12.11.18. Accessed 26.2.19. https://thebulletin.org/2018/11/will-disruptive-technology-cause-nuclear-war/

[ii] Knopf, Jeffrey W. Did Reagan Win the Cold War? Strategic Insights, Volume III, Issue 8 (August 2004)

[iii] Beckley, M. China’s century? Why America’s edge will endure. MIT Press Journals. 2012. https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/ISEC_a_00066

[iv] Ikenberry, John G. Power and liberal order: America’s postwar world order in transition. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1 January 2005, Pages 133–152. Accessed 27.02.19


[v] Friedberg, Aaron L. Implications of the Financial Crisis for the US-China Rivalry. 21.06.10. Survival. Vol. 52, Issue 4. Pages 31–54

[vi] Council on Foreign Relations. U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. Accessed 27.02.19. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/national-intelligence-estimates

[vii] Scweller, Randall. The balance of power in world politics. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. May 2016. Accessed 27.02.19. http://oxfordre.com/politics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-119

[viii] Heritage Foundation. U.S. nuclear weapons capability: an assessment of U.S. military power. 04.10.18 https://www.heritage.org/military-strength/assessment-us-military-power/us-nuclear-weapons-capability

[ix] Shifrinson, Joshua. The rise of China, balance of power theory and US national security: Reasons for optimism? https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01402390.2018.1558056?journalCode=fjss20

[x] Kroenig https://thebulletin.org/2018/11/will-disruptive-technology-cause-nuclear-war/

[xi] Nye, Joseph. The cooperative rivalry of the China-America relationship. Project Syndicate. 06.11.19. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-america-relationship-cooperative-rivalry-by-joseph-s–nye-2018-11?barrier=accesspaylog

[xii] Mcdonald, PJ. The Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 48, №4 (Aug., 2004), pp. 547–572. Accessed 18.01.19. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4149808?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Martin, P, Mayer, T., Thoenig, M. Make trade not war? Review of Economic Studies (2008) 75, 865–900. Accessed 18.01.19

[xv] Bingxi, Zhen. China-U.S. Economic and Trade Relations: A Win-Win Partnership. 21.08.09. Accessed 27.02.19. http://www.ciis.org.cn/english/2009-08/21/content_3815090.htm

[xvi] Statista.com, 2019. Total value of U.S. trade in goods (export and import) with China from 2006 to 2017 (in billion U.S. dollars) [online] Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/277679/total-value-of-us-trade-in-goods-with-china-since-2006/ Accessed 18.01.19.

[xvii] Reuters.com, 2003. ‘Obama Warns Strains Unless US, China Balance Growth’, [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-obama-china-idUSTRE5A85AQ20091111] [Accessed on: 18th January, 2019]

[xviii] Kissinger, H.A., 2012. The future of US-Chinese relations: conflict is a choice, not a necessity. Foreign Affairs, pp.44–55.

[xix] Thayer. Carlyle. The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Risk to U.S. Rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific? USNI News. 16.10.12/ Accessed 27.01.19 https://news.usni.org/2012/10/16/senkaku-islands-dispute-risk-us-rebalancing-asia-pacific

[xx] Roach, Stephen. The innovation dilemma. Yale Global online. 20.09.18. Accessed 27.02.19. https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/innovation-dilemma

[xxi] Reuters.com, 2018. Factbox: Tariff wars — duties imposed by Trump and U.S. trading partners [online] Available at:https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-tariffs-factbox/factbox-tariff-wars-duties-imposed-by-trump-and-u-s-trading-partners-idUSKCN1NZ2GB ] [Accessed in 1st January.2019]

[xxii] Kang, David C. Ma, Xinru. Power Transitions: Thucydides Didn’t Live in East Asia. May 2018

[xxiii] Rauch, Carsten. Making the world safe for power transition -Towards a conceptual combination of power transition theory and hegemony.Journal of Global Faultlines, 1(1), 50–69. theory.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258433770_Making_the_world_safe_for_power_transition_-Towards_a_conceptual_combination_of_power_transition_theory_and_hegemony_theory

[xxiv] Shirk, S.L., 2007. China: fragile superpower. Oxford University Press.

[xxv] Shambaugh, David. China’s Future. China perspectives. Issues 2016/4.


[xxvi] wsj.com, 2015. “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” Available at:https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coming-chinese-crack-up-1425659198 ] [Accessed on: 18th January, 2019]

[xxvii] Reuters.com, 2013. China Hikes Defense Budget, To Spend More on Internal Security Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chinaparliament-defence/china-hikes-defense-budget-to-spend-more-on-internal-security-idUS BRE92403620130305 ] [Accessed on: 18th January, 2019]

[xxviii] China’s future is South Korea’s present. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2018-08-13/chinas-future-south-koreas-present

[xxix] Kissinger, H.A., 2012. The future of US-Chinese relations: conflict is a choice, not a necessity. Foreign Affairs, pp.44–55.

[xxx] Etzioni, A., 2017. Avoiding War with China: Two Nations, One World. University of Virginia Press.

[xxxi] Dobbins, James, Scobell, Andrew, Burke, J. Edmund. Conflict with China revisited. Prospects, consequences and strategies for deterrence. RAND Corporation. 2017. Accessed 27.02.19. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE200/PE248/RAND_PE248.pdf

[xxxii] Hurst, Daniel. China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral (Finally) Meets Again. The Diplomat. 12.05.18. https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/china-japan-south-korea-trilateral-finally-meets-again/

[xxxiii] Schoff, James, L. Bin, Li. A precarious triangle: China-U.S. strategic stability. Carnegie Centre for International Peace. 07.11.2017. Accessed 27.02.19 https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/11/07/precarious-triangle-u.s.-china-strategic-stability-and-japan-pub-74628

[xxxiv] US-China trade dispute and its impact on the Chinese auto market. PWC Report. Accessed 27.02.19. https://www.pwccn.com/en/automotive/us-china-trade-dispute-impact-on-chinese-auto-market.pdf

[xxxv] Office of the United States Trade Representative. The Peoples Republic of China: US trade facts. https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/china-mongolia-taiwan/peoples-republic-china