How the United States can chart a new path that avoids war with China

By Henry Bienen, Jeremiah Ostriker | February 3, 2021

The aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan transit the South China Sea in July 2020. (Photo credit: US Navy)The aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan transit the South China Sea in July 2020. (Photo credit: US Navy)

The Biden administration has said that it will conduct a full review of trade and economic relations with China. It needs, actually, to conduct a review of all aspects of Sino-American relations: trade; technology; cultural, student, and scientific exchanges; and above all, security. There is room for vast improvement in all these realms, but the most pressing (and potentially dangerous) area involves security.

Relations between China and the United States have degenerated so far that some foreign policy experts now believe that war between the countries is possible. While this is a minority view, it is a dangerous one. In the past, a US-China war was often considered unlikely for reasons of mutual economic interdependence and nuclear deterrence, not to mention the huge costs of war. Moreover, it has been said, ideological conflict and regional and international striving for advantage are not reasons enough for war. But now more pessimistic voices are also being heard. Citing pre-World War I analogies, in which it was (quite inaccurately) said that economic interdependence among European powers made war impossible, and noting what Harvard University’s Graham Allison has called the “Thucydides Trap,” in which there is a drift towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing leading power, some believe war between China and the United States is becoming more conceivable and even probable.

We are concerned with the current direction of US-China’s policies, but we believe that the pessimists both overstate the possibility of a US-China war and understate the consequences of possible armed conflict. The production of so-called “small” nuclear weapons is given as a reason for the possibility of war without massive destruction. Nuclear war among nuclear powers has not occurred since the spread of nuclear weapons precisely because destruction would be huge and ghastly. But even lower-yield nuclear weapons nonetheless are quite deadly; each has the destructive potential of thousands of WWII airplane bombs. We cannot tell how limited the use of such weapons would be in advance of armed conflict, and, since Chinese missiles can reach our shores, we do not know if such a conflict could be contained.

There are other reasons for thinking war between China and the United States not only should be but will be avoided. We have past experience to warn us. The United States and China fought in the Korean War when US forces pushed to the Yalu River on China’s border. We know how that turned out. We also note that the United States did not send a land army to North Vietnam after China warned that the first US troops in North Vietnam would be met by Chinese “volunteers.” Lesson learned.

What points of conflict does the United States have with China that could actually lead to war? We can find only one, and it has nothing to do with trade, economic competition, ideology, human rights violations by China, or struggle for relative power in Asia or elsewhere. Taiwan is the critical point of conflict. China asserts its historical right to Taiwan as an integral part of China. The United States is committed to the principle that Taiwan’s relationship with China cannot be changed by force. Thus, how much military assistance to give to Taiwan, if China uses blockades or applies military force, is a critical issue for US policy. How and in what way to defend Taiwan loom as large questions. To do nothing in the face of Chinese military threats would not only call into question US commitments everywhere but might well lead to nuclear proliferation in Asia. What lessons would Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, perhaps Vietnam and Indonesia take? Taiwan itself has the capacity to build nuclear weapons and could do so, if the United States made clear that it would not respond to threats against Taiwan.

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We do not minimize the difficulty of the Taiwan issue. There needs to be both clarity and ambiguity in how the United States deals with Taiwan. The United States needs to make clear that if China uses force against Taiwan there will be severe consequences. But we cannot in advance specify the consequences. We do not think war with China is probable over Taiwan. But we admit to the difficulties of finding the right policies in this area. We propose the following: As Joseph Nye noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, in consultation with China, the Biden administration should review policies for accident avoidance, crisis management, and high-level communications. Military-to-military relations already exist, and we do not know the details of them. But we suspect that the Trump administration let lapse, or weakened, constant communications and accident-avoidance protocols. These must be maintained and strengthened.

Arms sales to Taiwan are sensitive. Our aim is to avoid an invasion of Taiwan, and thus sales of missiles and technologies for defensive purposes seem right. We must make clear that we would work to circumvent a blockade of Taiwan. But obviously, Taiwan is not Berlin during the Cold War, and airlifts would have limited utility. Thus, it is the avoidance of a blockade that must be worked toward. And here, we need allies and friends in Asia and beyond to support the position that such a blockade would be disastrous for China’s economy and trade worldwide.

We can find no other issues where war could plausibly arise between China and the United States. And we reassert that any armed conflict could lead to a global catastrophe. In a more positive vein, the United States should be finding new paths to both cooperate and compete with China. The demonization of China—as per Donald Trump’s “China virus” and Secretary of State Pompeo’s bellicose language—are misguided and counterproductive. The two countries need to cooperate on climate and environmental issues and on the pandemic and other health matters.

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Decoupling the economies of the United States and China would be very difficult, very expensive, and very foolish, as the Trump administration found out. It continued to want to export agricultural goods to China, and where it imposed tariffs, they raised costs to US consumers and manufacturers. We need to challenge China over its trade policies, but the best way to do that is to strengthen the US domestic economy and invest in education and technology innovation and research. So much of our vaunted technological progress has come from government investment. We should renew our government support for advanced research and technology, rather than faulting the Chinese for imitating our past actions. For but one example, consider how the internet was developed in the 1970s.

The United States has benefitted from an infusion of Chinese undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Undergraduates pay tuition; graduate students and post-grad medical and science researchers have strengthened the quality of universities and research centers. Most universities do not host classified research on their main campuses. Of course, there are dual-use technologies that can be copied or stolen. But the United States has gained from having Chinese scholars and students and researchers come to our shores. Many stay as productive and important citizens. As was the case with students and researchers from other countries in the past, many who return home see themselves as friends of the United States and hope for a more positive turn in Sino-American relations.

We now should join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And we should form alliances and cooperative endeavors with China’s neighbors on trade, climate, health and regional conflict issues. And here we include Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, as well as India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea. China’s push into Asia and Africa via its Road and Belt Initiative has not been a huge success. But here too the US could be more active and constructive with its own health and development policies abroad. The most useful thing that we could do to combat climate change would be to help the underdeveloped world move from coal and oil to renewable energy.

Above all, a strong and confident United States can compete and cooperate with China without conjuring up new enemies, or creating a new Cold War.

Together, we make the world safer.

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