Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


In the rivalry between the two powers, there will be a main zone of contention: South-East Asia. And although the region has drawn up no clear battle-lines, that only makes the competition more complex.

Managing Sino-US competition is now a top priority for nearly every nation on earth. Most countries are hoping they can continue to balance between the superpowers but circumstances could force them to make a choice.

Today, the “Thucydides Trap” is most often used to describe fractious America - China relations and where they may lead, even though the inevitability of armed conflict is a matter of hot debate.

We are witnessing resurgent nationalism, concerted military build-ups, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric on both sides: the most worrying is that of  U.S. Four-Star General Mike Minihan who warned his troops of China: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”

Wars never follow a predictable path, and it is wise to  refrain from spelling out detailed scenarios of how events might unfold but the characteristics of such a war could be terrifying. The use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out.


During their 45-year feud, America and the Soviet Union fought proxy battles all across the world.  The contest between China and America is different as the two sides armed forces are not glowering at one another across any front lines, although in Taiwan and North Korea each has an ally in a tense, decades-long stand-off with the other. Even so, in the rivalry between the two powers there will be a main zone of contention: South-East Asia.

People across South-East Asia already see America and China as two poles, pulling their countries in opposite directions.

The Biden administration denies that it wants to engage in a cold war even as prepares for one. The Department of Commerce’s October 2022 announced  ban on advanced semiconductors to China was a striking case in point. Denying advanced computing and artificial intelligence capabilities to the Chinese military means also denying them to Chinese medical researchers, agriculturalists, educators, supply chain managers, and transportation and communications specialists. Revealing that the US strategy is to hamper China’s further economic and technological development for the sake of security is a clear indicator of cold war conditions.

In 2022, China - a developmental state since the late 70s - made clear at its 20th Party Congress that it is now a highly ideological security state. It is isolating itself from the West and building a powerful, modern military on that basis. With distrust at an all-time high, the danger of a catastrophic collapse in relations due to war in the Taiwan Strait has increased.

China's quest for global leadership

Beijing has begun making a  case for an increased Chinese role in global rule making, and in discussions of common values and good governance. Beijing’s calls for absolute sovereignty, non-interference, more pluralistic international discourse, and rejection of American criticism have many adherents in the Global South. Many countries that have “signed on” to the Belt and Road Initiative, are also expressing interest in Xi Jinping’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI). China is making a claim to enhanced global leadership being the world’s greatest trading and manufacturing nation.

China is now the dominant global industrial power by many measures. In 2004 US manufacturing output was more than twice China’s; in 2021, China’s output was double that of the United States. China produces more ships, steel and smartphones than any other country and is a world leader in the production of chemicals, metals, heavy industrial equipment and electronics  (the basic building blocks of a military-industrial economy).

Critically, the United States is no longer able   to outproduce China in advanced weapons and other supplies needed in a war, which the current one in Ukraine has made clear. Provision of military hardware to Kyiv has depleted American stocks of some key military systems. Rebuilding them could take years. Yet the war in Ukraine is relatively small-scale compared with the likely demands of a major war in the Indo-Pacific.

The “Thucydides Trap”

In his 5th-century B.C. History of the Peloponnesian War, ancient Athenian historian and military general Thucydides posits, “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

It’s a musing that prompted American political scientist Graham T. Allison in 2012 to venture a theory known as the “Thucydides Trap,” noting that of 16 historical occasions when a presumptive power challenged an established one, no less than 12 resulted in war.

General Minihan’s comments are merely the most immediate of a worrying, emerging consensus that the US and China are destined to clash over Taiwan, the self-ruling island of 23 million that Beijing claims as its sovereign territory. It’s clear that a war between the world’s top two economies would upset the global economy at a scale utterly eclipsing the disruption wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the meantime, a military build-up by both sides gathers pace. While the US maintains a strong lead in aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and larger ships, China’s navy is now the world’s largest by raw numbers. And China is expected to expand its navy by nearly 40% between 2020 and 2040, according to the US Navy

In December, China and Moscow held joint military drills in the East China Sea close to both Japan and Taiwan. Beijing is also reportedly opening a new military base in Cambodia.

United States vs China

Chinese leader Xi JinPing, by winning his third five-year term as president,  has secured his grip on power quite possibly for life and is executing China’s grand plan to re-establish control over Taiwan. Indeed, so crucial is Taiwan that Beijing appears willing to tussle with Washington over its long-term fate.

Recently  US Space Force Chief Gen. Chance Saltzman revealed that over the past  months, China launched dozens of spacecraft to target US forces.  At the same time, the Chinese military is developing and fielding weapons to attack US satellites and  “blind and deafen” US forces. They include kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, electronic warfare systems, directed energy weapons and orbiting space robots.

Beyond space defenses, China is already looking to implement nuclear lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war. The threat of nuclear annihilation breeds fear in US leaders, preventing Washington from deploying forces into active theaters of war. In recent years, Beijing has accelerated the modernization of its nuclear forces. By 2035, China will likely triple its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 warheads, according to the Pentagon.

A recent report from the Department of National Intelligence warns that if Beijing feared an imminent conflict with the US, it would “almost certainly” target “US homeland critical infrastructure and military assets worldwide” with crippling cyber strikes. The goal is to impede US decision-making and induce social panic, thus interfering with the deployment of US forces.

The February-downed Chinese spy balloon demonstrates Beijing’s investment in low-tech devices that could potentially deliver high-impact results. Such balloons, in the future, could be adapted to rain all types of weaponry upon the US.

The US, meanwhile, continues to spend more on its military than the next 9 countries combined -   the defense budget was recently approved to hit a record high of $858 billion this year - and it has been busy beefing up regional alliances such as the Quad and AUKUS.

In January, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to new cooperation on thwarting potential threats from space, developing uninhabited islands for joint military drills, and reconfiguring US troop deployments on Japan’s island of Okinawa with a new $8 billion base opening on Guam. The US is also reportedly negotiating for enhanced access to Philippines military bases.

So what?

Since World War II, the US military has won many battles, but few wars. Korea was a draw at best. In Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter how proficient the U.S. military was, America failed. 

If Taiwan is seized, US must confront the real prospect of Beijing using tactical nuclear weapons to defend their newly won territory. Is the United States prepared? Or, to put the question another way, can China be deterred? A United States that was ready to wage a major Asian war would be the single greatest deterrent to Beijing, a classic instance of peace through strength. But US is badly unprepared in both the military and economic domains.

Already, after one year, the war in Ukraine has divided the American people, with a growing chorus of Republican elected officials, like former President Donald Trump calling for scaling back support for Ukraine and ending the provision of what they speciously call a “blank check.” How much more would the United States be split by a bloody war with China, as American casualties mounted, as the economic costs deepened, and as the war dragged on?

This picture stands in contrast to the united populace that is almost certain to stand behind the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - willingly or otherwise - in China.  The country has been hardened so that politically and psychologically the party and the nation can better ride through the extreme pressures and privations that the leadership anticipates in a major war. In contrast, the endurance of the American polity is an open question.


China has produced a missile called" Guam killer": there is little doubt as to who will be the adversary in the coming war against the US.

Australian historian Christopher Clark published "The Sleepwalkers" in 2021, in which he recounts the sequence of intimidation, levity, whimsy and miscalculation that resulted in World War I. An avoidable conflict, because none of the future contenders wanted it but all of them were marching  to the precipice like sleepwalkers.

Today, we are witnessing the same scenario: for years now and with increasing intensity Washington and Beijing have been exchanging provocations convinced that the risks of a possible direct confrontation are so apocalyptic that they will convince the adversary to give in first.

At this stage neither Biden nor Xi can afford to show signs of yielding to the home audience : especially XI, who, by losing domestic legitimacy, would drag into the fall his regime and perhaps even his own country, which is 70 % supportive of the use of force for Taiwan's reunification with the motherland.

Biden also has the presumptive support of almost half the population, with 4 in 10 Americans considering China an enemy of their country.

Both presidents are prisoners of both the ideological monsters they created and the fact that the vital interests of the US and China are incompatible. 

China wants to obtain the same freedom of movement, enjoyed by its adversary, in front of its shores where a chain of islands controlled by rival countries constitutes a permanent sword of Damocles in its trades with Taiwan being the central link in this chain. 


Today China is in the condition Japan was in 1941: if it wants to continue its development it must be able to move freely in the Pacific. But the US is also in a similar position: as in 1941, being weakened - or driven out - from the Pacific is not an option because it would mean being enfeebled and confined to the western hemisphere. The success of one of the two contenders would cause the downfall of the other.

In the summer of 1941, President Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in America and decreed a total embargo on exports to Japan: confident in American superiority, he was not only ready for the Japanese reaction, but would have knowingly provoked it.

Today China's economic strength is considerably greater than that of Japan in 1941: then Japan was a potential competitor, today China is a real competitor. America's GDP in 1941 was 5 times that of Japan, while today it is 70% of China's.

All this while the leaders of the minor powers, when they do not join one of the two contenders, dream of being able to opt out of a possible conflict between the United States and China.