According to the theory of international relations, the world is constantly in a state of anarchy and countries always seek a balance of power to maintain their own security.
With China’s rise, the US and its allies fear losing the equilibrium that supports American domination of the global order. Considering China a “revisionist state,” they have raised concerns about Beijing’s unchecked attempt to change the status quo, to pursue military expansionism and follow a path toward hegemony.
From geo-strategic flashpoints in the South China Sea to Taiwan, to trade wars and technological wars, the likelihood of confrontations seems inevitable.
That raises a simple question. Will war between the US and China result from the current tension? If so, what form of war will that be?
If history is any indication, three speculations can be made for war between the US and China: World War III, Cold War 2.0, and regional proxy wars.
World War III would be the most extreme. When China is considered a security threat and that seeks hegemony through military expansionism, should one consider it as equivalent to Germany and Japan during the two World Wars?
Has China invaded and occupied any countries? Has China pursued imperialist colonialism? Has it committed a mass atrocity, or is it a terrorist state?
Similarly, if war is to happen between the two superpowers, then what might trigger the United States’ involvement? Events like the attack on Pearl Harbor?
The second form of war is Cold War 2.0, which is being hotly debated as the closest to the current realities. But this time it is not about ideologies, space war or nuclear brinkmanship. It is more about a trade war, currency war, technological war, cyber war or even hybrid war that combines elements of some or all of these.
Competition for the domination of multilateral frameworks is one of the possible fronts of Cold War 2.0, which has gradually divided nations along this polarity if it truly exists – for instance, the competition between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
But if Cold War 2.0 does exist, it would be a limited version of Cold War 1.0 with fewer fronts and features owing to China’s reluctance to take global leadership on every front as the former Soviet Union tried to do vis-à-vis the US.
Using the word “competition” on multilateral frameworks is not totally right either, because while China is increasing its contribution to multilateral system, the share is still low compared with the US.
It would not constitute a competition either if the US is withdrawing from every multilateral system that it helped built after the World War II. Modern China in fact has benefited from the system created by the domination of the US, and it has yet to create any global governance system, either politically or economically.
China has not tried or at least has not been seen as attempting to impose or spread its own system. Thus far, no country has proclaimed that it is adopting China’s governance system.
The next possible type of war is a regional proxy war in the Asia-Pacific, which is the main platform of competition between the US and China. Like in Cold War 1.0, the US-China rivalry could result in “hot wars” between peripheral states. Regional flashpoints such as the South China Sea and Taiwan could ignite such hot wars.
For the Mekong region, the likelihood of Vietnam War 2.0 cannot be ruled out while China and Vietnam keep confronting each other in the South China Sea.
Cambodia used to be a sideshow of Vietnam War 1.0. When Cambodia helped Vietnam by allowing it to use the so-called Sihanouk Trail in its territory to provide covert logistic support, the US bombed Cambodia with an estimated more than 2 million metric tons of bombs, leaving a minimum of 100,000 Cambodian civilian casualties and 2 million homeless.
The bombing was said to be one of the major triggers of the consolidation of the Khmer Rouge’s power and the genocide that followed. While other parts of Southeast Asia remained peaceful, half of the Mekong region experienced prolonged bloodshed during the Cold War until the late 1990s when the civil war finally came to an end in Cambodia in 1998.
It is true that China and the US do not want to confront each other in any direct war. As for China and Vietnam, even if they constantly confront each other in the South China Sea, they do not want direct war either owing to the strong ties between the two Communist parties and enormous trade relations.
However, one cannot ignore the fact that these two countries did experience multiple wars between each other after World War II, including a brief and bloody battle in 1974 over the Paracel Islands. Even if the US and China themselves do not want direct war, proxy wars could re-emerge, and small states would pay the price, as was the case during the Vietnam War.
These are the three speculations of possible types of wars between China and the US. Onlookers like Cambodia and other peripheral states can divide themselves in the new polarity at their own risk. Like in the previous Cold War, silence and neutrality would not be an option.
Few policy options would be left for small states. Like it or not, these few options often present risks to their sovereignty and independence. Countries can stay safe and secure only if they can learn from history, which can be horrifying, cruel and bloody, at least in the case of Cambodia, because Cold Wars are only cold for the superpowers.