By Rob La Terza

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During a period when China faced a significant power imbalance with the West, Deng Xiaoping famously proclaimed that China needed to “hide capabilities and bide time.”1 Deng’s statement set the course for Chinese military development in succeeding decades and was reflected by China’s lack of global military presence and outwards foreign policy throughout the 1990s.2 As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) eventually gained strength under Chinese Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, however, the PLA has increasingly projected its power on a global scale. Importantly, the PLA’s increase in strength has developed not from a quantitative increase in size, but a qualitative improvement in its might. As China’s military-technological development has deepened, so have China’s tensions with neighbors and the United States.

Concern exists today that China and the United States are destined for war. For example, some scholars have invoked the “Thucydides Trap,” a theory based in historical pattern that a dominant power will inevitably start a war to stymy a rising challenger.3 Others fear that China will use its power to reunify Taiwan by force, which might draw in the United States.4 However, it is unlikely that China will seek war with the United States. Regardless of how powerful China becomes, a war with the United States would bring unbearable costs in lives and resources for both countries. Due to economic interdependence between the two nations, war between the United States and China would also be catastrophic for the global economy.

In this article, I argue that Beijing does not seek war with the United States despite its concerted effort to develop and modernize its military. I will begin by analyzing the development of the PLA since 1990, then analyze how these changes have influenced China’s relationship with the United States.

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  1. Rush Doshi, “Hu’s to Blame for China’s Foreign Assertiveness?” Brookings Institute. January 25, 2019.
  2. Doshi, “Hu’s to Blame for China’s Foreign Assertiveness?”
  3. Oriana Skylar Mastro, “In the Shadow of the Thucydides Trap: International Relations Theory and the Prospects for Peace in U.S.-China Relations,” Journal of Chinese Political Science 24, no. 1 (November 21, 2018) 25-45.
  4. Mastro, “In the Shadow of the Thucydides Trap,” 30.