In recent months, much has been said and also much has been written about the United States and China heading toward war. Some say this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is largely a response to trends, but rarified by the brash language and aggressive tone of the new US president, Donald J. Trump.
Some of it also comes from President Trump’s foreign policy statements and actions that, among other things, have provoked China, plus the undeniable fact that China is no longer following the dictum of its former leader Deng Xiaoping that it should be humble and bide its time.
One of the arguments for a coming war is the Thucydides Trap theory that is based on the book The Peloponnesian War by the ancient Greek thinker Thucydides. The argument goes that the situation of a status quo power (in the original case Sparta in ancient Greece) and a fast rising power that challenges the former (Athens) creates a condition wherein neither can tolerate the other.
That indeed happened and wars resulted. Furthermore, it has occurred many more times in history since then. A study of the cases of it happening indicates that now the probability for war is high.
As Graham Allison, director of the Harvard School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in his new book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? argues, the current US relationship with China fits the bill. In fact, the US is very much a status quo power and China is a fast, very fast indeed, rising power that challenges America.
Another argument is that the decline and likely demise of Western liberalism has created a situation of the pending failure cum collapse of the international system and the collective hostility in the West toward China for causing this. Richard Haass in his book A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order and Edward Luce in his just published book The Retreat of Western Liberalism both give dash to this view.
Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said to be the conscience of officials running US foreign policy, wrote that the Western “liberal democratic global system” whose ingredients are free trade, almost universal economic and social development, progress in human rights, an active role for the United Nations and other global institutions, respect for international law, and nuclear non-proliferation, is now dying.
Luce presents a scenario of war between the United States and China in 2020. The sources: President Trump’s ultra-nationalist view that America must “start winning again,” areas of conflict that cannot be resolved such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, and advisors Peter Navarro convincing Trump that China must be punished for its harmful trade policies, and Steven Bannon telling Trump of an inevitable coming “civilizational showdown” between the East and the West.
Added to these arguments is the realist political philosophy that has long dominated the realm of thinking cum ideology among both international relations scholars and foreign policy officials. Realists contend that military power is the basis for the international system and that while arms races are not an existential cause of war, uneven ones definitely are.
What could be more uneven than China increasing its spending on defense by double digit figures after 1990 while the US and its allies cut their military budgets markedly, cashing in on the so-called end of the Cold War dividend? Then President Obama’s deep cuts in the military budget, known as sequestration, furthered this trend.
China’s military has also benefitted in spades from buying and acquiring military technology by other means to upgrade the level of sophistication of its military’s weaponry. In fact, US experts contend China has made progress faster than expected in almost every realm of its military advances.
Finally, the “Taiwan trigger” for a US-China conflict cum war has taken on new meaning since the opposition (pro-independence) party won a landmark election in January 2016 and proclaimed China would have to “come to terms.” China did not and instead launched a campaign to punish Taiwan — thereby making the Taiwan Strait again one of the world’s most volatile flashpoints.
Inevitably, one is reminded that Taiwan was the cause of US-China confrontations in the 1950s, an almost crisis in the 1960s, and a face-off of the two country’s militaries in the mid-1990s during the Clinton presidency. Also, it is critical that Taiwan is the only non-negotiable issue between Washington and Beijing partly based on the fact that both countries have in place conflicting laws about Taiwan’s status and its future. Plus, a change in Taiwan’s sovereignty would irreparably traumatize US’ China policy.
But how valid are these views? Has the election of Donald J. Trump certified them? Is President Trump going to be the immediate and necessary cause of a serious deterioration in US-China relations that will lead to war?
While the Thucydides Trap indeed seems a valid theory of war and has proven itself to be a good predictor of 11 of the 15 major wars since 1500 (according to Allison), it did not anticipate correctly the peaceful end of the most recent one: the Cold War.
Paulson asserts that the global order will be dysfunctional or worse without the US and China working together. Trump understands this.
It may be that the “balance of terror” feature of the US-Soviet relationship invalidated the “Trap” idea. Or, put another way, collaboration between the two superpowers to prevent the suicide of mankind made a war between them both unthinkable and unlikely.
There is no good reason to think that President Trump and President Xi do not understand the seriousness of nuclear war or that they are opposed to collusion to make the international system work and not fall into a serious war condition.
Luce and Haass agree that the demise of the liberal order and the collapse of a world system based on it have been long in coming. Donald Trump did not cause it. Some in the West seem to have come to the realization that it will be replaced by another system without war. Some may even think that China’s world order may not be a bad one; after all it kept the peace in East Asia for a couple of millennia and is a system based more on construction than destruction.
Worth mentioning in this connection is that President Trump has signed on to China’s mega-construction project, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, designed to connect the world and facilitate the development of many countries along the way. President Obama opposed the project and tried (in vain as it turned out) to get US allies to eschew participation.
Trump sent a representative to the opening forum of BRI in May 2017. He and President Xi are both builders. They see the benefits of building as opposed to making war.
The realists are no doubt correct in saying that an uneven growth of military power is dangerous. But Donald Trump is a realist and seems to understand this. Moreover, he is acting to fix the problem by restoring America’s flagging military might.
Trump’s reinstating American power is notably more prominent in Asia than elsewhere, with the US Navy getting more ships and more responsibility to keep the balance of power between the US and China. It is worth taking to heart the fact that the US military budget is now growing at a faster pace than China’s.
Taiwan is indeed a trigger that might ignite a war between the US and China. It has become more so with the 2016 election of the pro-independence party’s presidential candidate and a plurality of its standard bearers winning seats to the legislature. Cross-Strait relations took a nosedive afterwards.
But conditions have not reached a boiling point. In fact, the two sides are not that far apart in defining their relationship while Taiwan’s economy has grown more dependent on China’s. Also, its military is growing weaker relative to China’s, making Taiwan more reliant on the US to maintain the strategic balance in the region.
Meanwhile it is obvious that the residents of Taiwan are enjoying their peace and prosperity. As one of Taiwan’s American friends recently pointed out, the advocates of independence in Taiwan are not that committed. They are arguably not willing to sacrifice their positions, assets, and lives (as Americans did when they won their war of independence) in a war they would surely lose for legal separation (Taiwan is already de facto independent) from China.
There are some other facts that appear to instruct that President Trump will not start a war with China.
Shortly after the election and during the transition phase to the Trump presidency, when speculation was rampant that Donald Trump would demolish US-China relations, Henry Kissinger (who was advising Trump) went to China and talked to President Xi and other Chinese leaders. Kissinger told them Trump was brash, in-your-face, and provocative. This was his style and they needed to understand this and deal with it. But, Trump, he said, wants a good relationship with China.
Reportedly, President Xi (who was also known to be direct and at times provocative) said he could cope with Trump and also wanted good relations.
Trump also heeds the advice of former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson who put his ideas on paper in his book Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower. Paulson opines that the US and China must get along, in fact cooperate broadly, to ensure that the international financial system works, that nuclear proliferation is controlled, that the global environment is protected, that terrorism is dealt with, and much more. In fact, Paulson asserts that the global order will be dysfunctional or worse without the US and China working together. Trump understands this.
Another factor, which political theorists can appreciate, is a “convergence” in the composition of the leaderships in the US and China. Business leaders are now playing a larger role in decision-making and they are on the same page in many ways in both countries.
Finally, the notion President Trump will incite a conflagration with China is debunked by another significant fact: Trump’s granddaughter has been studying Chinese and is using it daily to the degree that she is able to entertain Chinese leaders, including President Xi, in Chinese. No other US leader has shown this kind of respect for Chinese culture. What could be a bigger compliment to China?
Hence, President Trump seems more likely to create the conditions for US-China peace than his predecessors or what many people think.