The Possibility of Preventive War between the United States and China

The global power shift problem has been long-standing history in the modern state system for preventive war among states.  The growing relative power of a potential rival creates a serious inevitable preventive war. The rise of China’s military and economic power and the decline of the United States’ international system for the last decade is a fundamental question for American foreign policy. The dilemma this dynamic creates in a situation these two nations risk falling into what has been long known “Thucydides’ Trap” describes when a rising power threatens to displace an existing established ruling power. The uncertainty and intent of the rising power may aggressively use its new capabilities, so striking the potential rival in the early stage of the power shift would be much better off than facing a possible war in the future at a much higher cost.  However, some historical patterns and tools provide the two powers can avoid getting into a preventive war.

The preventive motive for war emerged from the fundamental background conditions of the world politics based on realists’ view in the international system, as a system of anarchy, which is no higher or central authority among the states to provide security (Mearsheimer, 2014).  The United States has long enjoyed its global power since the fall of the Soviet Union and the cold war. However, China’s rapid rise and its impact on the global order that was established after World War II dominated by the United States distresses the status quo of the United States’ international scene. Graham Allison’s article of 2015, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” demonstrates historical events when rising power like China demands a change to the global order and the U.S. maintaining its hegemony stance. As a consequence, the United States and its allies could fight to prevent such changes from happening. Allison’s study of shift power shows that 12 of 16 cases over 500 years resulted in war (Alison, 2015).

Realists view the growth rates among states as the main source for wars’ and suggests the declining power consider a preventive war against the rising power that could be a potential rival as a long-term security strategy (Fearon, 1995) The question one can ask if preventive war be justified as a legitimate act of self-defense. A military historian, Max Boot, argues that preventive wars are a morally repulsive mistake and sometimes a crime. He demonstrated a great example when Germany attacked France and Belgium in 1915, “motivated by fear of rising Russian power…” (Boot, 2017).  In practice, realists emphasize the international system as a power relative to the shifting balance of power.

The United States has been a global hegemon since the end of World War II. However, its withdrawal from Western-influenced multilateral agreements (South Asia Trade partnership, Iran Deal, and Paris Climate Deal) signals the decline of American influence and its desire to shape the world order. China’s economic and military growth and its image on the global economic scene demands power transition in the coming decades. Additionally, in 2018, China’s President Xi Jinping, at a military inspection, said, “We have to step up combat readiness exercises, joint exercises and confrontational exercises to enhance servicemen’s capabilities and preparation for war.” (Kristin Huang, 2018). Xi Jinping’s combat readiness sentiment with practical military exercises suggests that both countries may get into the “Thucydides Trap” situation. However, at the 2015 summit with President Obama, Xi’s words, “There are no such things as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.” Despite stress creates by China’s rise, President Obama reiterated at the summit that “the two countries are capable of managing their disagreements.” (Graham Allison, 2018).

Possibility of Preventive War

The possibility of preventive war between the U.S. and China is less likely due to the historical pattern of the U.S. response to rising powers. But that cannot dismiss the chance for military clashes for survival under realists’ view of anarchy of “self-help” international system. Establishing the correlation between democratic states and authoritarian regimes and their strategy to forgo preventive war, we must first consider analyzing their domestic structures and leadership, both the declining and potential challenger. This will allow predicting which strategy that will be employed to the declining power. Historically, a declining authoritarian regime has preferred preventive response to a rising power.

In contrast, democratic states preferred internal balancing to solve their impending decline and create defensive alliances (Levy, 2007). From the Constructivists perspective, U.S. and China case, legal and strategic rationale of preventive war would be breach of international norms that was set after World War II, an era (without war among great powers). These norms supports by Constructivists’ ideal views on an international system of social construction based on norms, ideas, and identity of the states (Fierke, 2007).

The United States is a democratic country with checks and balances in its government system (separation of powers). It prevents its leaders from engaging in an unnecessary war based on fallacious perception. In 1949, Soviet Union ended the United States’ nuclear monopoly by obtaining and testing its own nuclear bomb. In the National Security Strategy of 1955, President Eisenhower declared that “the United States and its allies must reject the concept of preventive war.” President John F. Kennedy also rejected preventive war during the Cuban Missile Crisis on moral grounds. The United States let China go with nuclear weapons and tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964. In 1993, President Bill Clinton was advised for a preventive attack on North Korea, but he also rejected to make such a move on moral grounds (Fareed Zakaria, 2017).  The United States learned a great lesson from the history of preventive war.  This pattern changed when the Bush Administration invaded Iraq in 2003 without any evidence that deterrence will not be successful against Iraq, the same way it worked against the Soviet Union. The United States knew that if it attacks Iraq, there will be no resistance to threaten the U.S. national security because of Iraq’s military capacity and capability. The United States has not attempted a preventive strike on any global military power, like China and Russia in the past; therefore, it is less likely a preventive war on China due to China’s relative strength with the U.S., its capacity, and capabilities. Any preventive strike against China will create a magnitude of retaliation or the risk of conflict that can create unintended and undesired consequences, including mass civilian casualties and the global economy.   

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