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Is a military conflict between China and the United States possible in the future?

Question submitted by Josh Wartel, from Lake Braddock Secondary School, September 9, 2013

Answered by: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow

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There is almost never a time when people do not worry about war between major powers. The history here is not a happy one. But there are good reasons to expect a better outcome in the 21st century—as long as both sides are alert and careful.

The stakes are much too high for either Beijing or Washington to expect direct military confrontations. Two-way trade and investment are quite high. China holds almost $1.2 trillion in American debt. By contrast, during the Cold War, the United States had virtually no economic ties with the Soviet Union—and both sides still went out of their way to avoid war because of the dangers of escalation into nuclear war. The nightmare of nuclear war hangs over the Chinese-American relationship today. It is clear neither side wants to come anywhere near this ultimate danger.

None of this is to say that both sides will not continue to build up their military capability. No country is adding to its military punch faster than China. But it is still far behind the United States in usable military capability, that is, force that can be applied effectively and decidedly in various situations. Chinese military strength is limited almost entirely to lands and seas bordering its own territory. The United States is still the only global military power.

And it is difficult to see what Beijing might calculate is worth a war or even the risk of war. It has boundary disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the South China Sea, and with Japan up north. Troubles should be expected there, and China will certainly be testing Washington's will in both places. Chinese leaders, however, continue to focus on their nation's economic development, and war would certainly set that back.