One of the paradoxical elements of the new Cold War that is emerging between the United States and China is that even if the United States losses this confrontation, China may not win. It is far from clear whether China’s geopolitical circumstances would be improved if the United States retreated from its current superpower role in the Asia-Pacific and reneged on its alliance commitments in the region. And depending on how such a change in regional pre-eminence occurs, it could in fact make life much more difficult for China.
With or without a hostile America to worry about, China lives in a difficult neighbourhood. China shares 23 land and maritime borders with other nations or autonomous regions, more than any other country on earth. Of these neighbours, China has some form of territorial dispute with 15 of them. Four of China’s immediate neighbours have nuclear weapons, five are members of the G20 group of nations, five have been at war with China at some stage since 1945 and only one (North Korea) has a defence pact with China. Just three of China’s immediate neighbours (India, Russia and Japan) could, if united to do so, balance out China’s economic might, military muscle and population size, even without the United States.
Of course, none of China’s neighbours could singularly withstand an all-out Chinese economic or military assault in the way the United States can, and for this reason much of the region directly or indirectly relies on the American military umbrella for protection. American allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan directly rely on military support, and other regional powers like India or Russia need not worry too much about forming alliances to balance against China, as the United States serves that role.
But what if the United States was not the security guarantor of the region? Without American protection, China’s neighbours may feel compelled to take more radical steps to bolster their independent defence. This might include reconsidering their participation in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and acquiring an independent nuclear deterrence. It might include forming new regional defence alliances specifically targeted at containing China. Would China really be better off having multiple new nuclear powers and new military alliances on its doorstep rather than having to share the Asia-Pacific with another superpower?
In fact, the deliberate destabilisation of the region by a declining America might be a specific policy, depending on how it occurs and who is in charge at the time. For example, lets take the scenario (a nightmare one for many) that Donald Trump stands for office again in 2024 and returns to the Presidency. This is far from inconceivable, and he is the Republican front runner in the eyes of many. On foreign policy, Trump was isolationist by nature and was dismissive of the value of foreign allies, but he also had a belligerent streak, particularly towards China. He is unorthodox and prides himself on bucking convention, but is also combative, unstable and a poor loser. If during a future Trump II administration there were more American domestic economic and political disasters like we have seen with the global financial crisis of 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession, and the January 6 2021 attack on the Capitol Building, then the maintenance of expensive alliances and military commitments in the Asia-Pacific in the face of domestic calamities may increasingly start to look expendable. Donald Trump is precisely the sort of character willing to cut ties with long term allies in the region and leave them to their fate.
But if forced to do so, Trump is unlikely to go graciously (this was a man unwilling to acknowledge the election victory of his political opponent). In such a scenario, a Trump foreign policy might involve leaving some landmines in place for China, such as formal national recognition of Taiwan, withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and the willingness to supply American military technology, nuclear and conventional, on preferential terms to regional allies.
If a Chinese “victory” in Cold War II resulted in an American withdrawal from the region but left in place an empowered Taiwan, new nuclear powers and hostile new alliances, it would be a disaster for China. But it may ironically be good for regional peace. What is more likely to deter China from attacking Taiwan (or South Korea, Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam for that matter), American military promises, or an independent nuclear deterrent? The reality is that the loss of Taiwan is not an existential threat to the United States, and China knows it. If China can prevail with conventional weapons, the United States is unlikely to go nuclear to defend an Asian ally. But would China make the same bet against a nuclear armed foe whose very autonomous existence is at risk?
Rather than concede defeat in the 2020 American Presidential election, Trump treated Biden as illegitimate and ordered his Vice President to refuse to perform his constitutional functions to accept the election outcome. This has put the legitimacy of the entire American political system in question. Leaving a nuclear armed Asia-Pacific seems a likely way in which a Trump Presidency might handle losing Cold War II.
John Storey is a lawyer and military historian. His new book Big Wars will be released in October 2021 and is available for pre-order from Hybrid Publishers.