Are the United States and China Destined for War? Are Washington and Beijing fated to repeat the mistakes Britain and Germany made a century earlier?
But if it is unwise to dismiss the possibility of war, it must surely be at least as misguided to fixate on the prospect: the occurrence of a catastrophe does not preordain its repetition.
Concern about an armed confrontation between the United States and China is growing.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has stated that the United States should not be bound by the “One China” policy unless as part of a grand bargain of sorts, whereby China reduces taxes on U.S. exports, stops construction in the South China Sea, and cooperates more closely to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang has warned that if that policy “is compromised or disrupted, the sound and steady growth of the China-U.S. relationship as well as bilateral cooperation in major fields would be out of the question.” China recently flew a conventional bomber over the South China Sea to reinforce its claim to the “nine-dash line,” a demarcation that the United States claims is in violation of international maritime law.
Growing strategic tensions offer a useful occasion to revisit well-trodden terrain: are the United States and China fated to repeat the mistakes Britain and Germany made a century earlier? Given that the two countries account for roughly a third of the world’s output, a fifth of its trade, and a quarter of its people, observers cannot pose the question enough.
Merits of the Analogy:
No matter how forcefully the United States and China may avow that they will devise an enlightened model of interaction, they, too, are subject to structural dynamics dating back to ancient Greece. Political scientist Graham Allison has encapsulated those dynamics with his famous term “Thucydides’s trap,” which journalist David Sanger defines as “that deadly combination of calculation and emotion that…can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse.”
At least three sources of tension between the two countries merit attention. First, as the following contrasts suggest, it is hard to imagine a poorer foundation for the world’s most consequential relationship:
- The United States is not yet 250 years old; China’s history spans several millennia.
- The United States is undergoing demographic shifts that could render non-Hispanic whites a minority by 2050; China remains about 90 percent Han.
- The United States has two friendly neighbors and two security moats, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; China has 14 neighbors, some of which are unstable, and most of which fear its regional ambitions.
- The United States extols its values as universal and seeks to spread them; China rejects such proselytizing as a form of interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
- The United States seeks to advance the postwar order; China asks why it should be beholden to a system that it played so little role in constructing and molding.
Indeed, the only two self-evident similarities between the two countries serve to reinforce the multiplicity and complexity of their differences: both are convinced of their exceptionalism, and both are inexperienced in sustaining world order with an approximate equal.
Another source of tension is China’s self-perception: China considers itself not a rising power, but a returning one. It is accustomed not only to having the world’s largest economy, but also to being the center of an Asian-Pacific order in which its neighbors paid it tribute. It accordingly believes that its contemporary resurgence, far from disrupting world order, is merely redressing an historic aberration—Western preeminence since the Industrial Revolution—and enabling China to transcend the indignities it has suffered in recent centuries—including the Taiping Civil War (1851-64), the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1911), the Great Famine (1958-61), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
A third source of tension involves the scale of competition: where hostility between Britain and Germany threatened merely European order, rivalry between the United States and China has implications for world order. Henry Kissinger notes that the “case of China is even more complicated [than that of Germany]. It is not an issue of integrating a European-style nation-state but a full-fledged continental power.” China is the world’s most populous country and possesses what will soon be its largest economy.
Given the aforementioned sources of tension, we should be grateful that the United States and China enjoy robust economic ties. Two-way goods trade totaled approximately $600 billion last year, and China holds approximately $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. debt, more than any other country. Still, while economic interdependence can temper the dynamics that push countries to war, only human intervention can furnish the decisive restraint. In his (in)famous 1910 book The Great Illusion, British journalist Norman Angell argued that war “is futile…as a means of securing those moral or material ends which represent the needs of modern civilized peoples.” He explained that were Germany to attack Britain, the former’s credit would “collapse, and the only means of restoring it would be for Germany to put an end to the chaos in England by putting an end to the condition which had produced it.” “Germany’s [hypothetical] success in conquest,” concluded Angell, would only evince “the complete economic futility of conquest.”
While his conclusions were tragically prescient—three empires and some 20 million people perished during World War I—they did not prevent war. In view of that outcome, it is not surprising that many contemporary observers caution against exaggerating the restraining influence of economic ties between the United States and China. Some contend that, while strong, those ties are more asymmetric, in America’s favor, than notions such as “mutually assured economic destruction” would imply. Colonel Mike Pietrucha contended last November, for example, that “China is the disadvantaged partner in terms of trade volumes, maritime geography, alliance structures, and the makeup of goods exchanged.” More recently, journalist Keith Bradsher noted that Chinese exports to the United States “represent about 4 percent of the Chinese economy; American exports to China are only about two-thirds of 1 percent of the United States economy.”
Such observations invite two questions. First, are there circumstances in which the United States would conclude that it could confront China militarily without incurring unacceptable economic damage? Second, if there are, what triggers might introduce them? One of the most eerie lessons of World War I is that seemingly routine, manageable events can generate an escalatory spiral; no less than one of its leading historians, Margaret MacMillan, notes that observers “still cannot agree on why it happened.” One might object that we do, in fact, know its cause: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. MacMillan reminds us, however, that “there had been many political assassinations in previous years,” none of which “had led to a major crisis.” Why, then, did the archduke’s murder prove catalytic? Political economist Richard Rosecrance explains that “‘little things’—contingent features of the situation prevailing in Europe on the eve of the First World War—were more responsible [for its outbreak] than enduring structural characteristics of the European or international system….The Great War was by no means inevitable, because there were so many contingencies that might have gone another way.” One can imagine a range of tinderboxes in the U.S.-China case: a Sino-Japanese clash in the East China Sea, a Chinese declaration of a new Air Defense Identification Zone, regime collapse in North Korea, or a Taiwanese declaration of independence, to name but a few.
Deficiencies of the Analogy:
While there is much, then, to recommend the analogy under review, observers should not overlearn the lessons. The late historian Ernest May warned that “[w]hen resorting to an analogy, [policymakers] tend to seize upon the first that comes to mind. They do not search more widely. Nor do they pause to analyze the case, test its fitness, or even ask in what ways it might be misleading.”
It is important to appreciate, for example, that while Germany was an overt revisionist, China poses an incremental, nuanced challenge to today’s world order. While it often derides that system as an imposition, China has been its principal beneficiary for the past four decades. Moreover, as fiercely as it rails against U.S. interventionism, it would suffer from terminal U.S. decline. Beyond absorbing over a fifth of Chinese exports, the United States plays the decisive role in safeguarding the maritime commons through which energy flows to China; incidentally, China’s dependence on crude oil from the Middle East is projected to increase through 2035.
While the United States and China are, and increasingly will be, competitors in many arenas, they are not pure antagonists; witness the impressive cooperation they have achieved on issues ranging from macroeconomic stability to climate change. In the emerging crucible of world order, meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific, the two countries have demonstrated that they can think imaginatively to circumscribe their competition: China’s neighbors have thus far increased their diplomatic and military relations with the United States while boosting their trade and investment ties with China.
It also bears noting that U.S. and Chinese leaders communicate with each other regularly through a wide array of channels. While their current conversations may not be as candid or substantive as one might hope, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reminds us that even this limited dialogue improves significantly on that which existed in Europe a century earlier: “The various governments of Europe,” he explains, pretended that “their deep distrust of one another could be kept below the surface, masked by secret undertakings, and somehow papered over by the blood lines linking the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, and the House of Hanover.”
Finally, observers should not go too far in dismissing the role that economic interdependence, even if imbalanced, could play in constraining U.S.-China rivalry. While it has become nearly axiomatic to claim that integration did not prevent war a century ago, political scientists Erik Gartzke and Yonatan Lupu explain that that conclusion mistakenly treats prewar Europe as a single unit of analysis. By instead deconstructing it into two clusters, they reach three compelling conclusions:
First, the turn of the century saw a series of intense crises among the interdependent states of Western Europe that nevertheless did not result in open warfare. Second, despite these growing tensions among the Western powers, the fighting in 1914 actually began among the less interdependent powers of Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Third, during the same period in which the highly interdependent European powers were generally able to resolve their crises without resorting to war, the less interdependent powers were typically unable to do so.
One could argue, as such, that World War I actually validates the judgment that greater economic interdependence reduces the likelihood of war; Gartzke and Lupu demonstrate, after all, that Europe was not nearly as integrated as is commonly believed. International relations scholar Amitav Acharya corroborates their assessment: “European economic interdependence in 1914 was narrow and regional; today’s interdependence is broader, deeper, and global in scope. Intra-Asian interdependence today is based not only on trade…but also on production networks, finance, and investments.” Focusing specifically on the United States and China, economic ties are sufficiently strong that, according to the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, one has to “look back to the period before World War I for cases of such levels of interdependence between great power competitors.”
Additionally, the present gap in aggregate power between the United States and China means that the former has a longer window in which to fashion an accommodation with the latter than Britain had with Germany. Japan analyst Robert Dujarric notes that while Kaiser Wilhelm II had to confront “a powerful Social-Democratic movement,” “the socio-political fabric of Germany was vastly stronger than that of the People’s Republic.” It was also “demographically dynamic”; had “two continental associates, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires”; and “was the most advanced country on the planet” in numerous fields.
China faces enormous internal challenges, beginning with separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as Taiwan’s longstanding quest for independence. With a growing middle class finding its voice, and with information technology becoming more pervasive, the leadership has been expressing increasing concern about threats to the Communist Party’s authority, and President Xi Jinping is cracking down ever more aggressively on media outlets and civil society.
China also plans to absorb some 250 million people—equal to roughly four-fifths of the U.S. population—into urban areas by 2025, a Herculean undertaking that will compound resource shortages and environmental degradation in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. The chief engineer of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning conceded this month that “China’s emissions of all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide are the largest in the world.” Water pollution is arguably an even greater long-term challenge: as of early 2014, half of China’s rivers were contaminated and three-fifths of its groundwater was unfit for drinking.
With the world’s lowest fertility rate (1.05), China also has a grim demographic outlook. Its working-age population is shrinking while its elderly population is exploding: “By 2055,” according to one projection, “China’s elderly population will exceed the elderly population of all of North America, Europe, and Japan combined.” These realities have significant implications for an economy that is already under significant strain: China is making a painful switch to a more consumption-oriented growth model, and with a debt of over $28 trillion, its “debt-to-GDP ratio stands at over 280 percent, exceeding that of many advanced economies and all developing economies for which data is available.”
China’s external difficulties are no less formidable. Whether one considers the danger of nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan or North Korea’s increasing atomic brinkmanship, it inhabits an Asian-Pacific region that is fraught with geopolitical risk. To satiate its burgeoning appetite for vital commodities, moreover, China will have to strengthen its footholds in an ever-growing number of politically unstable countries; Venezuela’s accelerating national crisis exemplifies the risks inherent in such an undertaking. Finally, despite its professed commitment to achieving a “peaceful rise,” China has few reliable allies—a deficiency that will grow more crippling if, as Anne-Marie Slaughter predicts, power in the 21st century will increasingly revolve around connectivity and networks.
A Policy Question:
Both the merits and the deficiencies outlined above point to the same policy question: how, if at all, can leading powers and rising ones discern each other’s strategic intentions? On January 1, 1907, Sir Eyre Crowe, an official with Britain’s Foreign Office, sent a memorandum to the country’s foreign secretary in which he proposed two hypotheses for Germany’s rapid modernization: either that it was “definitely aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendency, threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England”; or that, absent “any such clear-cut ambition,” it was merely “seeking to promote her foreign commerce, spread the benefits of German culture, extend the scope of her national energies, and create fresh German interests all over the world wherever and whenever a peaceful opportunity offers.” Crowe was unable to decide which hypothesis he found more persuasive (though, crucially, he deemed the answer immaterial; it was the fact of Germany’s naval expansion that concerned him, not the intentionality behind it).
U.S. observers similarly struggle to divine China’s goals. Some contend that China will continue to focus on fulfilling domestic imperatives; others, that it will try to displace the United States as the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific, but will not contest U.S. preeminence globally; others, that it will attempt to achieve and sustain strategic parity with the United States; and, yet others, that it will seek to become the world’s preeminent power. If the two countries’ strategic aims and decision-making processes were completely transparent, one would expect their relationship to evolve in accordance with objective realities: for example, the balance in their power-projection capabilities. The less their national-security establishments understand each other’s thinking, however, the more likely it is that the United States and China will formulate policy toward each other on the basis of misguided conjectures, as opposed to considered judgments.
It is hard to imagine a war between the United States and China, at least if one’s conception of that phenomenon involves large-scale troop deployments and mass casualties. They both have nuclear weapons, whose unrivaled destructive power provides a powerful disincentive against contemplating confrontation, let alone provoking it. Unlike Britain and Germany, moreover, the two countries are separated by vast expanses of land and bodies of water; physical distance reduces strategic friction. And, as James Fallows noted recently, they “have become so intertwined economically, and so constructively collaborative in a range of scientific, environmental, academic, and even diplomatic spheres, that almost any measure that would ‘punish’ China would necessarily also damage the United States.”
Still, it would be imprudent to deduce from the seeming impossibility of a U.S.-China war that one cannot occur. Policymakers should consider the suggestion that the “most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency”: “Too many people…believed that because Britain and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners after America and there was therefore no economic logic behind the conflict, war would not happen.”
But if it is unwise to dismiss the possibility of war, it must surely be at least as misguided to fixate on the prospect: the occurrence of a catastrophe does not preordain its repetition. Still, the United States and China will have to make reciprocal sacrifices if they are to establish a foundation for long-term stability in their relationship. As the world’s preeminent power, the former must recognize the strategic and moral imperatives of accommodating the latter’s resurgence. More concretely, it needs someone to serve as a contemporary incarnation of Lord Thomas Sanderson; having just stepped down as permanent under secretary of state in Britain’s Foreign Office, Sanderson penned a rebuttal to Sir Crowe: “It was inevitable,” he explained, “that a nation [Germany] flushed with success which had been obtained at the cost of great sacrifices, should be somewhat arrogant and over-eager, impatient to realize various long-suppressed aspirations, and to claim full recognition of its new position.” In addition to advocating for greater Chinese representation within longstanding postwar institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the United States should welcome and assist in the development of Chinese-led initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road.”
But the quest for mutual accommodation, by definition, cannot be a unilateral undertaking. Given the unprecedented rapidity and scope of its ascent, China has a pressing responsibility to assure the world that it seeks to preserve order, not overturn it. It must also recognize that, unlike in centuries past, when its neighbors readily deferred to its authority, it now contends with several other strong, proud powers, including Japan, South Korea, and India; they will not quietly acquiesce to its strategic preferences.
As for the presumption that U.S. and Chinese leaders are incapable of transcending humankind’s innate belligerence, Angell has advice that they would do well to heed. In his June 12, 1935 Nobel Peace Prize address, he conceded that it might be impossible to:
“change human nature”—I don’t indeed know what the phrase means. But you can certainly change human behavior, which is what matters, as the whole panorama of history shows….The more it is true to say that certain impulses, like those of certain forms of nationalism, are destructive, the greater is the obligation to subject them to the direction of conscious intelligence and of social organization. But it can only be done if we believe that it can be done.
Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.
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