Historical analogies suggesting that zero-sum conflict between the United States and China is inevitable should be rejected.
Great power competition between the United States and China is a defining feature of the early part of this century, but there is little agreement on how to characterize it. Some call it a “lasting rivalry” analogous to that between Germany and Britain before the two world wars of the last century. Others worry that America and China are as Sparta (dominant power) and Athens (rising power) in the 5th century BC: “destined for war”. The problem, of course, is that belief in the inevitability of conflict can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Enduring rivalry” is itself a misleading term. Just think of all the phases that Sino-American relations have gone through since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949. In the 1950s, American and Chinese soldiers were killing each other on the Korean peninsula. . In the 1970s, after US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the two countries cooperated closely to counterbalance the Soviet Union.
In the 1990s, economic engagement increased and the United States supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. It was only after 2016 that we entered the current phase of great power competition, with an American official describing China is a “constant threat” – that is, “the only country that can pose a systemic challenge” to America “economically, technologically, politically, and militarily.”
But even if enduring rivalry does not involve violent conflict, what about a “cold war”? If this term refers to intense and prolonged competition, we are already there. But if this is a historical analogy, the comparison is inappropriate and risks misleading us about the real challenges the United States faces with China. The United States and the Soviet Union had a high level of global military interdependence, but virtually no economic, social, or ecological interdependence. Today’s China-US relationship is different in all these dimensions.
For starters, America cannot completely decouple its trade and investment from China without causing enormous damage to itself and the global economy. Moreover, the United States and its allies are not threatened by the spread of communist ideology, but by a system of economic and political interdependence that both sides regularly manipulate.
Partial decoupling or “de-risking” on security issues is necessary, but full economic decoupling would be prohibitively expensive, and few U.S. allies would follow suit. More countries count China rather than the United States as its main trading partner.
Then there are the ecological aspects of interdependence, which make decoupling impossible. No country can tackle climate change, the threat of a pandemic, or other transnational issues alone. For better or worse, we are locked in a “cooperative rivalry” with China, needing a strategy that can advance conflicting goals. The situation has nothing to do with the containment of the Cold War.
Meeting the China challenge will require an approach that leverages the alliances and rules-based system created by the United States. Allies like Japan and partners like India are assets that China lacks. Even as the global economic center of gravity has shifted from Europe to Asia over the past century, India, the world’s most populous country, is one of China’s long-standing rivals. .
Clichés about the “Global South” or about solidarity between the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are very misleading, because they ignore the internal rivalries within these categories. Moreover, the combined wealth of Western democratic allies will far exceed that of China (plus Russia) for much of this century.
To succeed, US strategy toward China must set realistic goals. If the United States defines strategic success as transforming China into a Western democracy, it is likely to fail. The CCP fears Western liberalization, and China is too big to be invaded or fundamentally changed through coercion.
This reality cuts both ways: The United States has domestic problems, but they certainly owe nothing to the lure of Chinese communism. In this important respect, neither China nor the United States poses an existential threat to the other – unless they engage in a major war.
The best historical analogy is not post-1945 Cold War Europe, but pre-war Europe of 1914. European leaders welcomed what they thought would be a brief conflict in the Balkans, but were instead treated to the four terrible years of the First World War.
Some predict that the United States and China will embark on a similar war against Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. When Nixon and Mao Zedong met in 1972, they could not agree on this issue, but they worked out a rough formula for handling the issue that lasted half a century: no de jure independence for Taiwan and no use of force against the island by China. Maintaining the status quo requires deterring Beijing while avoiding the provocation of supporting Taiwan’s de jure independence. War is a risk, but it is not inevitable.
The United States should expect low-intensity economic conflicts with China, but its strategic goals should be to avoid escalation – as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said. called “peaceful coexistence.” This means using deterrence to avoid hot war, cooperating when possible, leveraging U.S. hard and soft power to attract allies, and mobilizing national assets to compete successfully. The goal should be to shape China’s external behavior by strengthening the United States’ own international alliances and institutions.
For example, the key to advancing U.S. interests in the South and East China Seas lies with Japan, a close ally that hosts U.S. troops. But as the United States also needs to strengthen its own economic and technological advantages, it would be wise to adopt a more active Asian trade policy and offer assistance to low- and middle-income countries courted by China. Global surveys suggest that if the United States maintains its internal openness and its democratic values, it will have much greater soft power than China.
Investments in U.S. military deterrence power are welcomed by many countries that want to maintain trade relations with China but do not want to be dominated by it. If the United States maintains its alliances and avoids demonization and misleading historical analogies, “cooperative rivalry” will be an enduring goal.
Joseph S. Nye. Sketch: SCT
Joseph S. Nye. Sketch: SCT