Well into their second year in office, President Biden and his team are due to release their administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS). Since Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House, the first to issue an NSS following a statutory requirement under the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986, every U.S. president has issued an NSS to the during the second year of his first term. . Even with the delays and revisions reported in the upcoming NSS, Biden is unlikely to break with that tradition.
The impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on the future NSS is uncertain. But if the National Defense Strategy recently released by the Department of Defense is any indication – a post-invasion document that continued to maintain the “People’s Republic of China (PRC) as [its] most important strategic competitor and pace challenge for the Department” – we should expect China to remain at the forefront in the 2022 NSS. Borrowing the language of Biden’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Directions, the administration will likely continue to seek to “outperform a more assertive and authoritarian China over the long term…invest[ing] in our people, our economy and our democracy.
There’s a problem: Under a range of scenarios, our research team’s long-term forecast shows that China is set to overtake the United States as the world’s leading power by mid-century.
In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Contemporary China, Jonathan Moyer, Austin Matthews, and I illustrate that the only scenarios where this power transition does not take place involve continued economic stagnation in China or substantial U.S. economic growth and increases relative US military spending, a larger nuclear stockpile, increased fertility trading, greater trade openness, and a larger diplomatic corps. While the first scenario is plausible, the second seems highly unlikely.
If the Chinese economy exceeds the expectations of growth skeptics, the world is heading for a power transition between the United States and China. Even if China’s economic growth is lackluster, most plausible scenarios point to a substantial narrowing of the current power gap between the United States and China.
Predicting international power dynamics decades into the future can seem like a wild ride. Many will tell you yes, or that we are just as likely to be wrong as we are to be wrong. But long-term forecasting has a long history among social scientists, and success at it – at least when it comes to forecasting based on long-term structural drivers (as in fundamental demographic and economic trends which are the product of well-studied research). , relatively stable phenomena).
For example, a 1999 version of the forecasting tool around which much of our team’s work is centered, International Futures, projected 15 years ahead the exact year when China’s GDP at power parity purchase would be equal to that of the United States: 2014. Forecasts from a related tool, the World Integrated Model (WIM), provide another example. The WIM estimated in 1978 that the world population in 2000 would be between 5.9 billion and 6.2 billion (the actual number was 6.1 billion) and between 7.6 billion and 8.7 billion in 2025 (the world population in 2020 was 7.8 billion).
However, the purpose of these predictions is not to make one-off predictions, even though they may turn out to be accurate. It is about defining a range of expected results under a range of conditions. Uncertainty remains certainty. Here, we characterize uncertainty through scenarios that simulate alternate future worlds. For the United States and China, we looked at changes around our baseline forecast, simulating higher and lower than expected projections for GDP growth, military spending, number of nuclear warheads, volume of trade, the number of embassies abroad and total fertility rates.
There were two lingering results. First, in all but one of our 29 scenarios, the power gap between the United States and China continued to narrow, and in 26 of the 29 scenarios to close and transition, by the middle of the century. Second, barring long-term economic stagnation, China will continue to grow through the middle of the century, not reaping the negative effects of its population decline until later in the century.
In these scenarios, “power” is defined using an index of material capabilities that includes a country’s economic size, volume of trade, diplomatic representation abroad, military expenditure and stock. nuclear warheads. That said, the alternative measures tell a similar story, changing the timing of a US-China energy transition by about a decade earlier or later, but not its persistence in the scenarios.
If China is poised to overtake the United States in the coming decades, does that mean we are also ready for a US-China conflict? Are we trapped by Thucydides? The previous scholarship provides an answer: not necessarily.
As economist and conflict scholar Kenneth Boulding has argued, “it is a nation’s image of another’s hostility, not the ‘real’ hostility, that determines its reaction” to perceived threats. Policymakers will judge whether their countries’ impending power transition is the product of ill will, perhaps risking conflict, or simply the product of long-term structural changes in a largely anarchic world.
Anarchy is what states make of it, argues Alexander Wendt. Rather than viewing US-China relations through an adversarial, Hobbesian lens, policymakers can pursue their country’s interests while maintaining a Lockean culture of competitive and cooperative anarchy. With respect to the long-term national security threat of climate change, there may even be openings for fully cooperative Kantian relationships characterized by pluralistic interconnectedness and collective action.
Of course, as evidenced by Russia’s campaign of atrocities in Ukraine, contentious international relations will continue to exist. Wars of aggression must be fought by diplomatic, economic, informational and, if necessary, military means. However, constructivist research in international relations suggests that the more countries that engage in a more cooperative mindset, the closer the world is to a tipping point that transforms it into a more peaceful world. It happened in a formerly warring Western Europe. It could happen elsewhere, at least in part, if policymakers and their constituents reconcile national images with reality.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel good – as long as American and Chinese policymakers choose to feel good too.
Collin Meisel is a senior research associate and head of the diplomacy program at the University of Denver. Frederick S. Pardee Center for the International Future and subject matter expert The Hague Center for Strategic Studies. Follow him on Twitter @CollinMeisel.