The Bankruptcy of ‘Great Power Competition’

A militarized rivalry between the US and China will be costly and dangerous for all concerned, but the people most likely to suffer from it will be found in the countries that the two major powers choose to turn into their battlefields. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union split Europe down the middle, but it was in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that massive bloodletting took place during the so-called "Long Peace." Vincent Bevins, author of The Jakarta Method, recently observed, "If a new cold war is anything like the last one, it will not principally be American or Chinese citizens who suffer. During the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, huge numbers of people were reduced to collateral damage, far away from famous First World flashpoints such as Berlin, their deaths seen as acceptable, if not celebrated." As Paul Thomas Chamberlin documented in his history, The Cold War’s Killing Fields, tens of millions perished in the conflicts caused or exacerbated by four decades of superpower rivalry, including the genocides in Bangladesh and Cambodia and the mass murder in Indonesia. If the US and China go down the same road of confrontation, the casualties could well be even higher in the proxy and direct wars of the future. If we want to prevent such horrors from happening again, Americans must demand that our government stop pursuing the militarized "great power competition" that it has been embracing for the last several years.

Major powers always have divergent interests to some degree, but how they choose to manage those disagreements determines whether they can coexist as peaceful competitors or whether they condemn themselves to decades of fruitless militarism and strife. What these states decide to do has ramifications not only for their own people, but for many other nations that are caught in between them. Once major powers have decided on a militaristic, confrontational course, it becomes extremely easy for their political leaders to justify any number of atrocities against innocent people in neutral or contested countries in the name of preventing the rival from "advancing" in some peripheral theater. If the Cold War experience is any guide, the countries that end up in the sights of one or both rivals are devastated and take decades and sometimes generations to recover from what was done to them.

It is not surprising that almost all states in Southeast Asia want nothing to do with the militarized anti-China coalition that the U.S. is trying to assemble. Having endured some of the worst losses during the Cold War, the nations of Southeast Asia do not want to be forced to choose sides or to become pawns in someone else’s struggle yet again. The reaction of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments to the recently announced AUKUS partnership is typical of this aversion to heightened US-Chinese tensions. While China hawks in Washington cheered the new partnership, Malaysia expressed fears that it would provoke more aggressive behavior in the region and Indonesia worried about an intensifying arms race. As the US makes military efforts central to its approach to China and the surrounding region, it makes conflict more likely to happen and it makes it more likely that it will have very few other states willing to cooperate with the US otherwise.

One danger in any great power rivalry is that one or both rivals will conclude that they should interfere in the affairs of other states to gain an advantage against the adversary. If the US finds few states that want to join its anti-China coalition, there are always plenty of hard-liners eager to advocate for covert or overt regime change to install more pliable rulers. Great power rivalry worsens existing imperialistic practices and creates the excuse for new ones, because imperialists will claim that virtually anything is justified in the name of security.

Consider how much bloodshed and misery the US has helped to cause in the Middle East in the name of "countering" Iran: Yemen bombed and driven into famine, Syria devastated by almost a decade of war, and tens of millions of people in Iran collectively punished with sanctions. Now imagine what the result would be across Asia and farther afield from a full-blown militarized rivalry with one of the most powerful countries in the world. And that’s assuming that the US and China don’t directly come to blows and end up launching nuclear weapons at each other. It is not too late to back away from such a ruinous rivalry. Americans need to understand that it would not only be a huge gamble for our country, but it would also be a disaster for many other parts of the world as well.

"Far from restraining conflict, the superpower confrontation actually fueled greater violence around the world," Chamberlin wrote in the conclusion of The Cold War’s Killing Fields, and that is what rivalry with China threatens to do again. We do not have to turn more countries into new killing fields, but if the US continues down its current path that is what will very likely happen in the decades to come.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.