Why America won’t fight China
To put America’s dilemma in a few words, the problem is that the job is too big and the stakes too small. The job is too big because military power is a function of economic power, and China’s economy is enormous. In 1991 it was roughly the same size as Australia’s, yet by 2019 it was roughly two-thirds the size of the US economy. According to World Bank figures released in May 2020, in purchasing power parity terms, China’s economic output now accounts for 16.4 per cent of global output, while the United States contributes 16.3 per cent. That means Beijing can challenge American military primacy in Asia without bankrupting itself, unlike the Soviet Union. What’s more, China can focus all that military power on its region because, unlike the United States, it chooses not to spread its military resources across the globe.
Since the end of the Cold War, American military power in the Asia-Pacific has been built on its navy, which had the ability to roam the region and operate across vast distances with little fear of interference. In 1996, the Clinton administration’s sailing of a carrier battlegroup and an amphibious assault fleet through the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate its support for Taiwan and its opposition to Chinese military intimidation against Taipei was the material expression of this supremacy. US military leaders were clearly confident that, in the event relations with Beijing deteriorated into a military clash, the US Navy could not only defend itself against anything China could throw at it, but also use its fleet to project significant military power to the Chinese mainland.