The creation of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States military alliance last week caused a tempest in a teapot, but the real action was elsewhere. In Washington last Friday the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’ for short) held its first-ever face-to-face summit, and defined the great-power confrontation that will dominate the next generation.
Nobody was willing to say ‘China’ out loud, but ‘containing’ China is just as much the focus of the Quad as ‘containing’ the Soviet Union was when NATO was founded 72 years ago. And like the NATO countries then, today’s Quad members collectively outnumber and outgun their adversary.
The United States, India, Japan and Australia have more than two billion people to China’s 1.4 billion, and economies that add up to around twice the size of China’s. Moreover, China’s economic growth rate has collapsed and its population will start falling fast by 2030.
It’s becoming commonplace to see claims in Western media that China now has “the world’s largest navy”, but that’s only if you count every rowboat and rubber dinghy. In terms of serious naval hardware, China has one-sixth of the tonnage of the Quad navies, including only two aircraft carriers to 15 for the Quad and twelve nuclear-powered submarines to 69.
So what’s this all about? The Chinese are not equipped for a bid at world conquest, and the country’s rulers are not interested in spreading their ideology either. Communism provides a rhetorical excuse for single-party authoritarian rule, but the economy is capitalism “with Chinese characteristics”.
The confrontation is superficially about minor territorial issues around China’s perimeter, but below the surface it’s about sheer power in an almost abstract sense. The United States has been the world’s paramount power for the past 75 years, and China is a challenger with its own sense of manifest destiny.
For Japan and India, lesser great powers that have minor border disputes with China, an alliance with the United States is a cheap insurance policy. For Australia, alliance with America has been the sole foundation of defence policy since the 1940s.
Great-power alliances like this are normal, and wars between them have happened at around half-century intervals for the last 400 years. What usually drives them is just differential growth rates in the power of great states.
Some grow faster, some slowly or not at all, and after half a century or so some formerly low-ranking state feels powerful enough to challenge the reigning top dog. The top dog always answers the challenge, and away we go again.
That’s what’s happening right now. It’s about the pecking order, pure and simple – and it doesn’t have to end in a great war. These cycles always used to end in that sort of war, but the last one didn’t, and this one may not either.
The last one ended peacefully because the challenger ran out of steam: the old Soviet Union just collapsed economically. China is unlikely to collapse, but it’s no longer growing very fast economically, and the threat of global warming might ultimately distract both contenders from this foolish contest.
It could also go another way, especially if President Xi Jinping invades Taiwan, but the other irritants that are being used to justify the militarisation of the Quad – Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China’s actions on the Indian border, etc. – do not threaten the international order.
And then there’s nuclear weapons, the other main reason that the 40-year US-Soviet confrontation did not end in a world war.
Cheer up. It may never happen.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.