The conventional wisdom has long been that, if there is to be a major war involving China and the U.S., it will be the result of either of a rising China initiating war to displace the failing U.S. hegemon, or a declining U.S. initiating a war to stymie a rising China. But this ignores the possibility that systemic or hegemonic war between China and the U.S. may not have anything to do with a rising power. It ignores the possibility that such a war might be initiated by what I will call a faltering contender, a once-rising power whose ascent is running out of steam and whose leaders believe that it must decisively reshape the global order now while it still can.
The logic linking a faltering bid for hegemony to systemic war is simple enough. Faced with the prospect that it is losing the demographic or developmental race with other potential challengers, or merely with non-hegemonic rivals, a faltering contender will sometimes launch what might be thought of as a war of desperation. In this kind of war, a faltering contender will initiate hostilities because, having realized that it has reached the peak of its relative power, it decides it must initiate war now, even under unfavorable circumstances, because if it doesn’t, it will not only fail to achieve predominance but will face the prospect of catastrophic defeat in the near future. Such wars are not caused by states leaping through open windows of opportunity created by the military advantage they enjoy over their potential rivals. Instead, they are caused by stalled rising powers, at a current or imminent military disadvantage, attacking despite this disadvantage because it is the least bad of several very bad options open to them.
Two 20th century historical cases are illustrative of this argument. The first is the case of WWI. In 1914, Germany did not go war against the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain because Germany’s leaders believed that they could easily cement their rise to regional hegemony by quickly and decisively defeating France and Russia and then bullying Britain into accepting German preeminence. Rather, as historian David Fromkin put it succinctly in his book Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?: ‘Germany deliberately started a European war to keep from being overtaken by Russia.’ The argument Fromkin and like-minded historians make are that German military planners, looking east, saw a Russia growing demographically, developing industrially, and building the kind of rail and road infrastructure necessary for rapid mobilization in time of war. And this terrified them. Indeed, it terrified them so much that they decided that they needed to trigger a war sooner rather than later because sooner they might have some chance of defeating Russia and its allies, whereas later, they would simply be crushed by them. This, against the backdrop of their racialized fear of conquest by Slavs, drove the Germans to issue the now infamous ‘blank check’ encouraging the Austrians to punish the Serbs for their role in the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to undertake concerted efforts to squelch British and French peace initiatives, and ultimately to launch an attack on France through Belgium that brought the wavering British firmly into the war on the Allied side. And they did all of this to bring about war with Russia before that country had completed its economic and military modernization and before population growth bequeathed the Tsarist empire a conscript pool that dwarfed that of the Kaiser’s. It was a war of desperation.
The second case of desperation war is the case of the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941. Again we have a rising power, this time already embarked on a regional hegemonic and indeed colonial war, looking to the relatively near future and having to make some hard decisions. The Japanese knew that ultimately their bid for regional predominance would eventually bring them into conflict with the European empires in Asia. But by 1940, these empires were in no state to resist Japan effectively. Nevertheless, Japan had two pressing strategic concerns. The first was the Soviet threat. Following a brief clash with Soviet forces at Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia, however, these two powers signed a non-aggression pact that effectively removed the USSR from the strategic picture, at least until 1945. The second threat was that posed by the United States. Again, the Japanese leadership was under no illusions regarding the military potential of the U.S.. In their eyes, America was beginning to rouse itself from its isolationist slumber of the 1930s. It mobilized industrially in support of Britain and China. It was waging an increasingly damaging economic campaign against Japan, and it was beginning to prepare its military for war in the Pacific. As a result, by 1941, Japanese power relative to the U.S. was peaking, that its bid for regional dominance was faltering. Going forward, Japan’s leaders realized that the region's strategic balance was only going to worsen: America would get stronger, while Japan would get weaker, at least in relative terms. This left the Japanese leadership with a stark and very unpleasant choice. Either try to come to an accord with the U.S. to preserve Japanese gains and ensure Japanese security or attack the U.S. quickly and decisively, knocking it out of the war before it could mobilize and crush Japan. The first option was not viable. The U.S. was simply not going to accept Japanese predominance in the Pacific, and Japan’s leaders knew that they wouldn’t. That left only the second option – an option that Japan’s leaders knew to be a desperate move that had very little chance of success, but that was less bad than the other options. Thus the ‘Hail Mary’ attack on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other U.S. possessions in 1941. As with Germany in Europe in 1914, the war in the Pacific was thus a war of desperation.
And that brings us to the current historical juncture. China’s explosive economic growth since the beginning of reform in 1979 is a unique success story, as is the concomitant growth of its military power and global influence. Few could have predicted that within one generation of Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, China would have risen to undisputed number two in the global pecking order. China now has the world’s second-largest economy, a world-class military with growing force projection capabilities, a worldwide network of ‘silk roads’ making it a central node in the global economy, and a diplomatic profile that makes it, if not an ‘indispensable nation,’ then something pretty close. And yet, at precisely the moment when its tide has reached heights not seen for centuries, the Chinese leadership has reason to believe that China’s star may not be in the ascendant much longer. President Xi’s failed One-Belt initiative, botched COVID-related ‘medical soft power’ play, abrogation of the ‘one-country, two-systems’ modus vivendi with Hong Kong, inconclusive border clashes with India, failure to sustain China’s economic momentum, policy-induced demographic time-bomb, and a growing sentiment that China is becoming less powerful and therefore less relevant player on the world stage suggest that China is no longer a rising power, but a faltering one. Viewed through this lens, the picture of the future that comes into focus is one of counterbalancing, containment, economic ‘decoupling,’ social turmoil, ethnic unrest, and general entropy culminating in collapse. Unless a forward-thinking Chinese leader might conclude, decisive steps are taken now to put things aright. And what might those steps be? Well, if history is any guide, they might include launching a war of desperation in the hope of securing the best geopolitical settlement possible before China is weakened to the point where it is simply condemned to another ‘hundred years of humiliation.’ What that war might look like – how it might erupt, whom it might involve, what course it might take – cannot be forecast with any certainty. But then neither could the war started by Germany in 1914 nor that by Japan in 1941. The point is that in those two earlier cases, the only rational course of action for the faltering challenger was the strategic Hail Mary pass. The question is, will a China whose rise is similarly stalling throw a comparably desperate strategic pass the early 21st century?
Professor Latham is a professor of International Relations specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars. He was formerly the Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament Fellow at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and a lecturer at the Canadian Armed Forces School of Aerospace Studies. Professor Latham has also been publiched in outlets such as The Hill, The Diplomat, Canadian Defence Quarterly, Public Discourse, First Things, Genealogies of Modernity, Providence, and Crisis.