Reimagining the Future of China-US Competition

How governments imagine the future – including the future of war – shapes their responses and planning in the present.

There are relatively few points of substantive agreement between the Trump administration, the Biden administration, and the D.C.-based foreign policy commentariat. But the idea that the United States and China are entering an era of aggressive great power competition seems to be nearly universal, with the primary disputes arising over its dimensions and the correct terminology rather than the basic premise.

There is plenty of evidence to support that contention, to be fair. The United States and China have fundamental, potentially irreconcilable, differences in their views of the power balance in the Asia-Pacific region, the importance of democracy, the governance of the maritime commons, and any number of other issues. There are, as strategists are keen to remind us, a number of historical analogies suggesting that Beijing and Washington will not share global influence amicably.

But there is also an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. In trying to frame the future in order to prepare for it, we cast events in recognizable grand-strategic terms: military buildups, the development of spheres of influence, tense negotiations producing specifically delimited agreements, and the absence of a nation-state enemy capable of uniting rivals in common cause. This vision may indeed come to pass, but it would be a mistake to assume that this particular image of the future is prophecy rather than prediction.

Instead of adding to the crowded corpus of work examining the new era of great power competition, let’s look at things through a slightly different frame: Not one of power balancing and geopolitical strategy, but rather how the United States imagines the future and how that defines Washington’s view of the current situation.

Imagining Tomorrow’s War

The first key point is that the future rarely cooperates with our attempts to imagine it. “Visionary” tales of the future are noted in retrospect for getting only some things right. Jules Verne predicted the existence of deep-diving submarines and nuclear energy, but a modern re-reading of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” reveals a huge range of promising theories and hypotheses about technology and natural phenomena that simply did not pan out.

In the most basic terms, the fundamental problem in accurate projection is with worldbuilding. Think of prediction like additive manufacturing: The narrative is constructed from layers of prediction laid upon each other. A simple prediction about the near future – “trend X will continue” – can be relatively durable, but each additional step into the future requires a leap of logic. That, in turn, weakens the entire structure. If trend X does not continue, the subsequent assumption that trends Y and Z will occur collapses as well.

This is not necessarily an issue if the primary purpose of a narrative is entertainment or the delivery of a moral. We can still enjoy the original Star Trek series, for instance, even though its prediction of future events – the creation of genetically engineered humans leading to a world war with tens of millions of casualties in the mid-1990s – turned out to be wildly off the mark.

But trend projection as the basis of policymaking also relies on the same basic structure – with the same fundamental weakness – of worldbuilding, albeit in a more orderly and usually less fantastical way.

There is also a cognitive bias toward pessimism in matters of war and peace. The causes of war have been intensively studied for decades and are the subject of foundational texts in social science. The absence or prevention of war is much harder to study and consequently less well understood, especially outside academia. Violent, damaging black swan events are also easier to build narratives around than unexpected (if usually less sudden) positive developments. A recent example of the latter is the pessimism around the timeline for the successful development of a COVID-19 vaccine around this time last year.

That is not to say that pessimism is necessarily the only register in which policy forecasting occurs. Last fall, the U.S. Air Force ran a wargame that forecast a 2030 conflict with China over Taiwan. The headline was that the United States won, but it was not a complete victory, and not without substantial costs. The subhead, however, was that victory was achieved with the use of weapons systems that do not yet exist. A sixth-generation fighter jet, airborne deployment of palletized munitions, drone swarms, and other novel weapons provided the U.S. team with the tactical edge they needed to eke out at least a draw.

From the perspective of a policymaker sitting in Washington, D.C. or Taipei, this might be seen as an optimistic projection, or overly optimistic, given that the war-winning weapons don’t even exist as budget lines yet, and the length of time it usually takes for weapons to make the transition from plan to prototype to operationally deployed and effective. It contrasts with the drumbeat of pessimism that often pervades predictive texts. The enemy in novels and scenarios about The Coming War usually strikes by surprise, successfully uses novel technology to devastating effect, and is either victorious or – at best – fought to an inconclusive truce only after extreme and creative efforts by the protagonists.

There are historical examples of devastating surprise attacks, novel technologies changing the way wars are fought, and the defeat of an established power by a rising one, which support such narratives. But the future is more than just a set of disparate historical examples welded together to make a point, and our planning for it should try to reflect that.

Our Imaginations, Our Simulations, Our Limitations

Again, none of this is to suggest that the United States and China won’t – or shouldn’t – be at odds, or that there is no risk of potentially devastating conflict between the two. But to suggest that the power struggle between the two great powers – with everyone else implicitly along for the ride – will be the defining characteristic of the 21st century is also to ignore the other trends increasingly defining our world. A rapidly changing climate, an increasingly automated economy, the rapid proliferation of systemic vulnerability, and individual super-empowerment via connectivity are all hugely significant trends, and none of them invite straightforward historical analogies.

That, in turn, limits our imagination regarding how geopolitical considerations and security threats might interact with each other. The U.S. and the Soviet Union occasionally found common cause to manage global threats, but almost exclusively the global threat that their confrontation would cause. The major treaties negotiated between the two 20th century superpower rivals were largely designed to mitigate the threat of nuclear war. Those treaties were hardly products of altruism; amongst other factors, it was in both of their interests to reduce nuclear stockpiles, since it reduced their expenditure on maintaining the absurdly expensive nuclear weapons complex and freed up money for other priorities.

Notwithstanding the fact that the threat of catastrophic nuclear war is still with us today, the dimensions of global threats and responses have fundamentally changed. Reducing carbon emissions is a social and economic project that will require substantial buy-in and urgency from the state down to the individual level. And while the United States and China are the two largest emitters, every country has a role to play. This is a stark contrast to the matter of Cold War nuclear stockpiles, where the U.S. and USSR accounted for all but a tiny fraction of the world’s warheads.

Yet because those threats are still emergent and because there is an established model for the kinds of threats that emerge from great power competition, it is difficult to imagine either the ways the new challenges will impact geopolitics or how geopolitics might change in order to allow for some kind of solution – if indeed there is one.

Let me illustrate this point with a brief personal anecdote. In 2015, as part of a research project on potential fractures in the transatlantic relationship, my colleagues and I had to develop a series of policy simulations proposing scenarios that might test transatlantic unity. One possibility we considered – not least to contrast with the more traditionally geopolitical scenarios we had come up with – was a global pandemic.

But after consulting with colleagues working on public health issues, we couldn’t make the geopolitics angle work. In our imaginations, a pandemic ended up being a totalizing, unifying crisis wherein everyone’s interests would be the same: suppress the outbreak, manage the fallout, return to normalcy. We did not imagine a plausible scenario where the U.S. would withdraw from the World Health Organization, where border closures would happen so haphazardly that they would create disease clusters as expats rushed to return home, where the specifics of vaccine production and distribution would become nationalized, weaponized, and intertwined with existing geopolitics schisms and tensions.

Hindsight, as they say, is 2020.

Heat and Uncertainty

The obvious example of the “next” global crisis is climate change. Although the pandemic has hardly ended, attention is quite reasonably turning to the question of whether we will learn any applicable lessons from COVID-19 and apply them to the challenges to come.

The most obvious question in that category is whether the world’s most powerful states, particularly the United States and China, will be able to cooperate to reduce emissions and mitigate climate harms, given their escalating rivalry in other areas. There are some reasons to be optimistic. Renewable energy production can be severed, at least to a degree, from strategic considerations, especially as the former become increasingly cost-competitive with non-renewable sources.

But even if the U.S. and China are capable of compartmentalizing climate issues from other points of strategic competition and addressing them in a coherent and sustained fashion, there is a more fundamental problem: Large parts of the problem may simply not be feasible to control.

Take, for example, the significant carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. As cryptocurrencies proliferate and gain value – whatever that means – the amount of computer processing power dedicated to mining them will rapidly increase, and so too will the energy costs of running, cooling, and securing those computers. Although the precise amount is heavily disputed, much of that power still comes from traditional, carbon-intensive sources.

In theory, given that both the U.S. and China stand to lose a great deal from unchecked warming, and the high degree of skepticism that their financial officials tend to view cryptocurrencies with, it should be relatively straightforward for the two to find common ground to address the problem. But none of the solutions are simple: non-renewable energy is still crucial for the operation and growth of the global economy; there are disputes about what sources count as renewable (or clean); and attempts to suppress demand for cryptocurrencies on either environmental or economic grounds are likely to produce significant and unpredictable backlashes.

The point is not that cryptocurrency is going to single-handedly drive the global climate into an unrecoverable collapse and obviate great power competition. Instead, the Bitcoin mining/energy consumption/climate change nexus demonstrates that there are significant trends unrelated to the China-U.S. rivalry that are likely to intersect in unpredictable and potentially very significant ways. Instead of a straightforward contest of wills between Washington and Beijing, with a few other states as supporting players, the cast is likely to be far more complex and include networks and entities that do not follow the rules of state behavior: groups of speculative investors, multinational technology companies, affinity groups, hackers, and others. Groups that transcend state boundaries have always been a part of geopolitical realities, of course, but mass communications technology transmogrifies their shapes, permits them to interact directly, and increasingly mixes human social networks with partly or wholly artificial ones.

Do We Need to Imagine Differently?

All of this begs the question of whether our frameworks for conceptualizing this strange, complex future are fit for purpose. The ideal attitude for envisioning the future would combine the orderly, structured approach of social science with the creativity of storytelling and the understanding of emergent behaviors of cognitive science, while maintaining an openness to the deeply strange and unexpected. That attitude – containing numerous inherent tensions as it does – might be impossible to inculcate in a single individual, or even a single discipline or community. The way to imagine better, ultimately, may rely on different communities finding a shared language to combine and synthesize different visions. Call it a culture of strategic imagination.

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