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News & Analysis

The Modalities of US-China Tensions

Tahir Mahmoud

As China’s demonization continues to preoccupy headlines of the Western corporate media, speculation about direct military confrontation between the US and China often surfaces. Media headlines about possible military engagement serve primarily as bait to attract more viewers/readers and increase ratings.

At another level, conversation about US military conflict with China also serves the military industrial complex on both sides. It provides opportunity for military establishments on both sides to lobby their respective governments for bigger budgets and greater focus on military matters.

While it is a media fad to analyze the capabilities of China and the US when examining the question of military confrontation, it is just that, a fad. We will, therefore, refrain from analyzing the military aspects of possible US-China war. Economic and geopolitical reasons discount the possibility of direct war in the short to medium term. Tensions between Washington and Beijing are here to stay and will grow. It is, therefore, important to analyze key aspects of how this will evolve.

Let us understand the key geopolitical reasons why direct military confrontation between the two giants is virtually impossible. There is an ancient military proverb attributed to many military leaders which goes as follows: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals look at logistics. The primary reason why Washington will do its outmost to avoid direct military confrontation with China is because it is incapable of waging such a war on its own and will require some Russian support or at least Moscow’s neutrality.

There is no likelihood of Russia joining the US. Russia-China partnership is built on mutually beneficial strategic interests. There is nothing the US can offer to Russia to disrupt this relationship.

Also, the US would have to establish strong military logistical points in Central Asia to have diversified infrastructure to sustain the war with China. Politically, this is not possible since all Central Asian states, formerly part of the Soviet Union, today serve as Russia’s satellites.

They cannot dare cross Moscow’s geopolitical redline to empower the US at the strategic military level right at Russia’s borders. Even if they do, Moscow will immediately abort such a move, like it aborted Ukraine’s attempts to integrate itself into NATO’s security architecture.

Further, the pattern of US wars in the last 50 years shows that Washington only launches a conventional war against countries over whom it has significant military advantage. Unlike Syria, Somalia, Panama, or Libya, China’s military is strong. The US does not dare to engage in direct military conflict even with mid-level armies like that of Venezuela or Cuba. Last time the Americans took on a conventional military adversary of mid-level strength was Vietnam and we all know how that ended.

Also, by analyzing the US and its surrogates’ political narrative against China and specifically against its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it becomes clear what their objective is. They aim to disrupt China’s economic activities by provoking a series of conflicts along the BRI route.

War on the Rocks published an analysis last year that featured analysts from America’s political, security and academic establishments. They provide a framework for how the US will continue handling the rise of China. Philip H. Gordon, a former high-ranking US official, suggests that to confront China the US should invest in its own domestic economy, leverage alliances, bolster regional deterrence and continue engaging China diplomatically. The framework proposed by the former official of Barack Obama’s regime is already finding its way into US policy-making. President Joe Biden recently announced the “Buy American” policy for federal government purchases. He also emphasized engaging US’ European allies on China policy. It appears Gordon’s framework has been accepted by the Biden regime in dealing with China.

Bolstering deterrence is clearly a military component. Gordon proposed that focus should be on “hardening of US bases, logistics lines, and regional communications networks; and work with regional allies to bolster their resilience in the face of attacks, including cyber-attacks. Rather than trying to extort these allies for more cash, it should negotiate allied burden-sharing arrangements in good faith, recognizing the strategic benefits to the United States of forward deployed forces on bases largely paid for by the host countries. The United States will also have to do more to rebalance the American military’s global force posture away from large deployments in the Middle East — which Trump promised but failed to deliver — and enhance its posture in the Indo-Pacific region.”

It appears the deterrence aspect is rooted in America’s close relationship with countries like South Korea, Thailand, and Japan. While these are important regional players, the political playing field in Asia has significantly flattened over the past 20 years. Countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and even America’s loyal regional Asian platforms, all want to be on good economic terms with China.

Beijing knows that it has outperformed the US in its capitalist economic game and enjoys a geographic advantage. Its cultural influence is also increasing in Asia. Thus, both politics and economics favor China.

Large and active Chinese diaspora in many Asian countries provides Beijing with vast opportunities to influence political currents in East Asia. While Washington also has political influence, its role is viewed largely as that of an alien and exploitative force. The US is not part of Asia geographically, culturally, or intellectually. This puts the US at political disadvantage.

China’s BRI projects produce tangible infrastructure benefits to recipient countries. Thus, if through US-backed destabilization policies the visible BRI infrastructure projects are damaged or become dysfunctional, countries on whose soil the US-China battle for influence occurs will view China as the builder and the US as spoiler.

China will avoid direct or indirect war with the US. Beijing knows that time and geography are on its side. As it continues to make economic progress, China knows it can co-opt its immediate neighbors through economic incentives. Washington, on the other hand, has very little to offer. Its involvement in Asia has produced dictatorial regimes, corrupt business-political elites, and a destructive war in Vietnam from which the region has still not recovered.

If tensions between the US and China escalate, Washington will likely adopt its strategic-denial policy. That is, it will subvert the region’s progress unless it falls under US hegemony. This is what the US is doing in West Asia, a policy articulated by Charles Freeman, a 50-year veteran of the US State Department and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

From this perspective the US will have advantage over China as primary tensions will occur on China’s borders and even inside China, in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Realistically speaking, apart from cyberattacks, China cannot influence societal trends in the US. Demonstrators in Hong Kong engage in vandalism while waving US flags, it is unlikely to visualize Texan separatists waving Chinese flags!

By adopting a strategic-denial policy to contain China, Washington will aim to create serious threats for Beijing through direct and indirect proxies. This is the primary reason why the US is hyping up Chinese mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Anyone who harbors the illusion that the US which set up the Guantanamo gulag, regularly bombs Muslim countries, demonizes Islam, and supports the most brutal dictators in the Muslim world cares about the plight of Muslims in China is being naive. The Muslim card is, therefore, one of Washington’s leverages against Beijing hoping to mobilize Muslims as political and economic cannon fodder against China.

For now, the Salafi-oriented Muslim circles whose political compass is set by Saudi-backed “scholars” seem to have taken Washington’s Uighur bait. However, the success of utilizing Muslims as leverage against China will depend largely on Turkey’s participation in this project. In 2010, Crescent International pointed out that until recently, Turkey was simply an instrument of NATO’s policy in Central Asia.

Ankara was a pawn used by the US against China, Russia and Islamic Iran. Under the concept of Pan-Turkism, NATO aimed to foster separatism within the Turkic people living in Russia, China and Iran. This policy assumed that through Pan-Turkism, China would be diverted from the Taiwan Straits in the Pacific and be swamped with internal issues. The only way Beijing could avoid falling into NATO’s Muslim trap is if it stops adding fuel to the fire through its repressive measures against Uighur Muslims.

Overall, US-China tensions will continue to chip away at Western influence. Beijing will pressure Western countries by clogging their China-dependent economic supply chains and build a far closer alliance with Russia. Both policies are already being implemented by China. For Muslim societies it is important to realize that neither of these blocks has their interests at heart. Thus, self-empowerment is the only way Muslim countries can avoid being used as pawns in the unprecedented global US-China competition.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 2

Sha'ban 18, 14422021-04-01

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