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The main cause of a potential armed conflict between China and the United States will be a culmination of different pressing factors that are played out in changing contextual and normative realities.

In devising the right timeline for the first punch, both sides will risk missteps in trying to predict the perceived strength or weakness of the other side. However, with that said, despite heightened tensions, no immediate changes are to be expected regardless of the partisan divide in Washington or any leadership changes in Beijing.

The rise of one power to the existing power structure has predominantly been met with conflict, at least in historical terms. The case of the U.S. taking over the global role from the British was a different contextual scenario, with both being democracies in one form or another and the inescapable reality for Britain of not being able to mount a serious challenge to this transition.

Power parity still favors the United States for now, with relative unparalleled strength in almost all indicators. The U.S. remains unchallenged, especially in its military might and the capacity to project and maintain power globally, as well as its capability in compelling others to adhere to global norms. This reality seems far-fetched to China and its allies. China watchers and sympathisers have put a lot of faith into the downfall of the United States ignoring the resilience of the American system.

Players at the receiving end of Beijing’s new bellicose tactics have created new flexibilities of policy orientation in diversifying their foreign policy overtures, often discreetly inking and welcoming more concrete Western measures. The measures taken have sparked alarm and fears which have expectedly created new circles of an arms race and escalating security dilemma. China’s sabre rattling has created impetus for regional players to increase defensive actions and to seek greater assurances from the West.

In this next chapter of shifting norms and perception, the competition and conflict between the two powers will continue to harbour greater risks of declining deterrence impact with current conflict prevention measures. Urgent crucial triggering flashpoints in the case of Taiwan and missteps in perceptions and purposes will remain high, further enabling the fears of a Thucydides Trap.

China in its current power measurement lacks the fundamental facets and parameters in meeting this fulcrum. Consequently, the impact will be mixed and convoluted for both powers in opposing contexts. Believing that the decline of America is inevitable, Beijing might make riskier moves, born out of the illusions of growing confidence and overestimation of its capacity in challenging the United States.

For Beijing, Washington might be perceived as the wounded tiger given its domestic political problems, but inevitably that won’t last very long.

The path for Beijing’s Dream looks increasingly narrowed if it chooses to remain on the current hard-hitting orientation and its reluctance to embrace international law and norms. Until Beijing is ready for that, an unavoidable arms race and clash will be in the cards, as certainly as President Xi will cement his limitless grip on the country’s leadership in a few short months.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.