The relationship between the world’s two great powers, the United States and China, is in a dismal state, and it is getting worse. At the beginning of the century, there was hope that the strengthening of commercial ties between the two countries would lead to positive relations. But instead, it has given way to fierce competition — a rivalry that is causing alarm as it appears to move towards confrontation. So, is there a real risk that this negative spiral will descend into war? Could it even happen in this decade, as some experts have warned?
The experts who spoke to EL PAÍS for this report, in addition to the many studies on the issue, agree on one thing: a military conflict involving the two powers is not likely in the short- and medium-term, but the risk exists and is rising ― especially the possibility of accidental escalation given the tension, mistrust and poor communication between the two powers. This concern is present in nearly all reports, which warn that it would be a serious mistake not to take it into account when making political and economic assessments.
There are two sides to this analysis. One is a broader concern about the deteriorating relationship between the two powers. The second is focused on the question of Taiwan, the major source of friction between the U.S. and China, which could spark a war. In both areas, there are troubling signs.
In the former, “the most likely development is that the competition, rivalry, will probably intensify and broaden in scope,” says Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House think tank. “Before the balloon incident [where a Chinese balloon was shot down over US territory], both governments had shown a willingness to contain tensions. But then things have been happening, and this is symptomatic of a relationship with a lot of friction. Once certain forces have been unleashed within a society, in the political, economic, and media spheres, it is very difficult to go back.”
On the question of Taiwan, there is also cause for concern. “Peace and stability around Taiwan have been maintained because the three parties [China, Taiwan and the US] accepted a high degree of ambiguity. The problem is that the room for ambiguity is shrinking everywhere. And with it, so does the possibility of finding exit ramps [to deescalate],” continues Bland.
“The bilateral relationship is at a very low point. Tension is very high. This does not mean that either party wants war. But the higher the tension, the more likely it is that a conflict could break out both intentionally and accidentally,” says Helena Legarda, a lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies who specializes in defense and foreign policy. “At the moment I do not think it is a very high risk, I do not think it will happen imminently, but the risk exists and it is on the rise as the competition worsens.”
In this analysis, we examine the issue in greater depth: from the reasons behind the rising tension, the arguments that the conflict will be contained, and the risks that the friction will lead to a military conflict.
Faced with China’s rising power and concern over what it sees as Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian drift and Chinese expansionism, the U.S. has hardened its positions on its rival in recent years. Washington has backed this concern by pointing to China’s actions in disputed waters; its support of regime’s such as Russia and Iran; the growing repression of dissidents; the rise of internal surveillance; the country’s growing military strength and its increasingly nationalist rhetoric. The U.S. response to this has ranged from former president Donald Trump’s trade tariffs to the strengthening of alliances in the region, such as Aukus. It has also placed restrictions on technology exports, especially microchips. This last move has greatly upset China.
“The U.S. maintains that [the ban on selling advanced computer chips to China] is very focused. But speaking honestly, we must recognize that these products have a dual use [civilian as well as military], and are very present in various sectors of the Chinese economy, meaning there is an element of containment of China’s rise, of the Chinese economy as a technological power,” says Meia Nouwens, a senior analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who specializes in Chinese defense and security issues. “The objective of this is not only to maintain the current gap between the two, but to try to widen it. Obviously, this has provoked a redoubled effort on the part of China to ensure resilience in this area, to overcome its dependency [on the U.S.].”
China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, recently warned: “If the United States does not hit the brake, and continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailment, which will become conflict and confrontation.” Chinese President Xi Jinping also expressed his concern in unusually stark terms, stating: “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China.” The comments are reminiscent of those made by Russian President Vladimir Putin before he went down the brutal path of facts on the ground.
The rivalry between China and the U.S. has many fronts: from the arms race and race for critical technologies to the efforts to reduce mutual dependence and the struggle to win the support of non-aligned countries. Every day there are new sparks.
A review of the past few days highlights this rising tension. In the last week alone, the Aukus security partnership announced it will be equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines; Beijing carried out military exercises in the Gulf of Oman with Russia and Iran; Xi said he will visit Putin in Moscow; Washington warned TikTok that it will be banned from operating in the U.S. if Chinese parent ByteDance doesn’t sell its stake (the White House is concerned the Chinese government could gain access to U.S. user data); China appointed a Washington-sanctioned general as defense minister, making channels of dialogue difficult; and the Taiwanese manufacturing company Foxconn, which is a key supplier to Apple, announced that it intends to greatly reduce its activity in China.
At the specific level of Taiwan, there are also worrying signs. Beijing insists that the so-called “reunification” of Taiwan is an inalienable goal and, although it stresses that it wants to achieve this objective peacefully, it isn’t ruling out the use of force. “The concern is justified, it is evident. On the one hand, Xi has said that it is a matter that cannot be passed down from generation to generation. On the other hand, in Taiwanese society, an immense majority recognizes a feeling of local identity and less and less a Chinese identity. They are clearly moving in a direction that is far from the interests of the [Chinese] mainlaind,” says Xulio Ríos, emeritus adviser at the China Policy Observatory and author of Taiwan, a crisis in making.
The situation has also been worsened by moves and comments from the U.S., such as former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August. What’s more, U.S. President Joe Biden has departed from traditional positions by repeatedly stating that Washington would come to Taiwan’s defense if it came under attack.
The shift from traditional ambiguity to increasing clarity on the issue of Taiwan has destabilized U.S.-China relations, and sparked dangerous tension.
The prospect of China and the U.S. going to war over Taiwan is so frightening that it gives any rational mind cause for pause. The destructive power of the two armies is practically unimaginable. The global economic impact would be colossal. “Studies have been carried out that estimate that just a naval-air blockade could subtract $2 trillion from the world economy, without even taking sanctions into account,” says Legarda. Taiwan is a key producer of microchips, which are an essential component in many sectors of the modern economy.
China and the U.S. are also interconnected by a trade relationship of enormous volume. Unlike during the Cold War, this relationship has grown despite the bilateral tensions. In 2022, the U.S. and China traded around $690 billion worth of goods, with U.S. imports accounting for $536 billion.
What’s more, alarm over tensions must also be put into context. In the U.S., high-ranking officials have repeatedly expressed concern over what will happen in 2027, the date by which China hopes to modernize its armed forces. And last October, the US Navy’s chief of operations said a Chinese attack on Taiwan could happen as early as this year. But according to Nouwens, this rhetoric is partly aimed at ensuring investment in the defense industry.
Experts point out that there are many reasons to think that China has no interest in launching into a conflict now. “Although they have taken giant steps in recent decades, they still have a long way to go to completely modernizing the country. This is an absolute priority for them. To achieve this, they need stability. And, of course, a conflict over Taiwan would destroy that path of development,” says Ríos. China is now embarking on a campaign to increase its degree of manufacturing and economic self-sufficiency, and it stands to reason that it will want to develop it before making any risky moves.
Nouwens also points out that in military terms, China also still lags behind the United States. “This leads me to think that a war is not imminent,” she argues.
In a recent interview with EL PAÍS, Dan Smith, the director of the Stockholm International Institute for Peace Studies, also suggested that the war in Ukraine may also dissuade China from making any move on Taiwan. “I think China will be watching the development of that conflict very carefully,” he said.
According to Smith, the war in Ukraine has highlighted the great difficulties involved with an invasion, the united reaction of the West and how a global power may have modern force but not be effective in battle — lessons China will be paying close attention to.
Despite this, there is still a very real risk of conflict happening this decade. When it comes to the overall relationship between the U.S. and China, Nouwens and Bland are both concerned that efforts to improve relations — apparent at the Bali summit in November — have not succeeded.
On the question of Taiwan, the experts point out that Xi’s discourse on reunification has sharpened: he has clearly linked Taiwan to his grand plans for China’s “rejuvenation.”
“Xi is a leader who has shown he is willing to sacrifice economic interests in the name of political-strategic and ideological objectives,” says Legarda.
The rhetoric in Washington is also becoming sharper, especially among Republican ranks, but there is also bipartisan consensus on certain issues. Meanwhile, Taiwanese society is moving in the opposite direction to the interests of Beijing.
What’s more, the lessons from the war in Ukraine have not all been negative. “On the one hand, providing support to Taiwan, an island, would be much more complex [for the West] than what is happening in Ukraine. On the other hand, China has worked a lot on key deficit issues in the Russian campaign, such as logistics and maintenance,” says Nouwens.
The ideological drift of international relations is not helping matters either. The more the world becomes framed by the democracy vs autocracy debate, the more Taiwan will be seen as a symbol. It will become an emotional issue, not a pragmatic one, which could pose new obstacles.
Next year, there will be presidential elections in Taiwan and the U.S.. If Kuomintang — the party that represents the best option for a peaceful solution for Beijing — is defeated, it would send a very strong message to China. And experts are not ruling out the possibility. “Dynamics at the social level are clearly unfavorable to the mainland, but then there is the partisan dynamic, and that’s where the Kuomintang continues to have options,” says Ríos. But there are also chances that the party will suffer another setback. If a Republican hawk wins the next U.S. elections, tensions could be heightened.
The big question is, in the face of mounting evidence that achieving reunification peacefully is impossible, what will Beijing do – and when? All the experts who spoke to EL PAÍS say that there is no proof that China has made a decision to attack nor that it has planned a date to do so.
But beyond what action Beijing may take regarding Taiwan, there is also concern that the dispute may escalate unintentionally due to the current context of tension and mistrust. In other words, a conflict may break out not as a result of a considered decision, but from a spiral of actions and reactions.
“A full-scale military conflict over Taiwan remains unlikely. But considering the activity in the region, the risk of miscalculations and incidents is growing,” says Nouwens.
“Certainly there are concerns about unintended escalation,” says Bland. “Tensions are rising, there is no trust, there is no good communication. There are many uncertainties. When you start to have more exercises and military activity in the area, the risk of things going off the rails by mistake increases. There are fewer and fewer exit ramps. So the risk is high. We know that, in the past, some wars were started very deliberately and explicitly. In others, they started in a sleepwalking state. There is certainly a risk of that.”
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