Zhou Bo: As the US focuses on ‘extreme competition’ with China, conflict is just a step away


  • Zhou Bo is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert

    The dust from the Afghan war has yet to settle but the fallout is clear. With the ending of the US global crusade on terrorism, the prelude to President Joe Biden’s “extreme competition” with China has begun. The question is: how long will it last?

    If the 20-year war in Afghanistan is a “forever war” for the United States, then its competition with China could be described as “forever competition”, because it will surely last longer. Gone are the days when China could “hide its strength and bide its time”.

    The second-largest economy in the world is simply too big to hide. And it is impossible for Beijing to bide its time when Washington takes it as its primary strategic competitor.

    But in the economic field, the die is cast. At the end of last year, China’s economy was 70 per cent of America’s. It is widely assumed that, by around 2030, China will overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy in terms of gross domestic product.

    According to Yale professor Paul Kennedy, this will be a situation that has not existed since the 1880s, when America’s economy overtook Britain’s. For the entire 20th century, the American economy was about two to four times larger than that of any other great power.

    When China emerges as the world’s largest economy, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd pointed out, it will be the first time since George III (1738-1820) that the world will have a non-English-speaking, non-democratic, non-Western state as its largest economy.

    This will be a seismic change for Americans, who have been fed the myth since they were born that America is “exceptional” or “indispensable”. They will have to come to terms with common sense: nations rise and fall; Americans are like everyone else.


    When the economy of an “authoritarian state” such as China surpasses that of the US, the influence of Western democracy will be looking at its nadir. According to Freedom House, democracy around the globe has been declining since 2006. Polls show that most Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the US.

    Winston Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. If this suggests that, in spite of its problems, democracy is still better than other forms of government, then the Capitol insurrection on January 6 showed how democracy can be virulent or even deadly violent.

    It is hard to believe the Capitol building – the supreme seat of American democracy – would be violently attacked by a mob of supporters at the call of former president Donald Trump and false allegations of election fraud.

    Until 2030, China-US competition will most certainly intensify in that the US will take it as the last chance to bring down a rising power. The recent “Aukus” agreement between the US, Britain and Australia allows the US to share its jealously guarded nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia, which meant scrapping Australia’s multibillion-dollar submarine deal with France.

    Such an unusual move, described by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as a “stab in the back”, shows how the US could resort to desperate measures against a competitor at the cost of an important ally.

    But while a few nuclear subs might indeed complicate decision-making in Beijing, they are not necessarily game-changers. For Australia, balancing is probably an art too delicate to learn. Historically, most of the wars that Australian soldiers fought are other people’s wars which they joined as junior partners.

    This time, the Morrison government has obviously decided to risk taking America’s side in a military conflict with China. Given Australia’s inevitable reliance on US and British nuclear technologies in the decades to come, the Morrison government has left succeeding Australian governments hostage to its decision.

    Even with some British and Australian help, time is not on America’s side. The Pentagon’s war games over Taiwan showed the US losing repeatedly to China. Of course, this is no reason for China to be complacent, but should a conflict occur in China’s periphery, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has all the advantages of being on home turf.

    Today, America’s armed forces are considerably smaller and older than they were in the 1980s. The PLA is just the opposite. By 2019, the PLA Navy had about 350 ships, outnumbering the US Navy’s around 293 ships. Although quantity is not quality, it has a quality all its own.

    Nothing speaks of a country’s security assessment more than its defence expenditure. For three decades, China’s military expenditure has stayed below 2 per cent of GDP. It speaks volumes about China’s self-confidence about its security challenges.

    If China feels threatened to the extent that it has to increase its defence spending, the second-largest economy could easily afford to double the defence budget; but can the US double its military spending, which is already three times larger than China’s?

    Biden said that US rivalry with China will take the form of “extreme competition” rather than conflict. But when competition becomes extreme, it is one step away from conflict. Contrary to the US, which emphasises competition, China has righteously called for cooperation. But it takes two to tango. A country cannot compete without strength; likewise, it can only cooperate with strength.

    The pendulum of US foreign and defence policy traditionally swings between assertiveness and pullbacks. The question is when will an America in retrenchment swing back, or will it swing back at all? The US pull-out from Afghanistan was justified as a means for America to focus on competition with China. Only time will tell if this is a wise decision.

    But if it is a boneheaded strategic blunder, then it is a monumental error more consequential than the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars combined. It will doom America’s hegemonic status, held since the late 19th century, for good.

    This article was originally published on South China Morning Post on Sep 28, 2021.

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