Commentary: How to stop a war between America and China
In the militarised rivalry between China and the US, one side’s deterrence is another side’s escalation, says the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman.
LONDON: Visiting Washington last week, it was striking how commonplace talk of war between the United States and China has become. That discussion has been fed by loose-lipped statements from American generals musing about potential dates for the opening of hostilities.
Those comments, while unwise, did not spring from nowhere. They are a reflection of the broader discussion on China taking place in Washington - inside and outside government. Many influential people seem to think that a US-China war is not only possible but probable.
The rhetoric coming out of Beijing is also bellicose. Last month, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, said that “if the US side does not put on the brakes and continues down the wrong path … confrontation and conflict” between the two nations is inevitable.
BEIJING NOT KEEN ON GUARDRAILS
As they try to stabilise relations with China, US officials are now looking at the Cold War - not as a warning, but as a potential model. Several cite the detente period of the 1970s as an example of strategic stability - in which two hostile superpowers, both armed to the teeth, learnt to live with each other without going to war.
Detente was only achieved after going through the dangerous crises of the early Cold War. It was after what one US official calls “the near-death experience” of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 - probably the closest the world has come to all-out nuclear war - that Washington and Moscow recognised the need to stabilise their relationship.
A “hotline” was established between the White House and the Kremlin in 1963. The Soviet and American militaries began to talk to each other more regularly in order to dispel fears about military exercises or possible missile attacks. The US has appealed to China to put similar “guardrails” in place to prevent the risk of accidental conflict.
Beijing, however, is not keen. The Chinese foreign minister’s comments about the dangers of conflict and confrontation came in the context of an explicit rejection of America’s suggested “guardrails”, which, he said, are just a way of trying to force China "not to respond . . . when slandered or attacked".
The underlying objection from Xi Jinping’s government is that the Biden administration is trying to institutionalise US military operations that China regards as fundamentally illegitimate. As the Chinese see it, America has no business promising to defend Taiwan (a rebel province in their view) or conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.
As one Washington official puts it: “They think our talk of guardrails is like giving a speeding driver a seatbelt.”
US ASSESSMENT OF CHINA’S INTENTIONS IS BLEAK
America, for its part, sees China as the dangerous driver. US officials point to a decades-long Chinese military build-up, including the rapid growth of the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. China has also ramped up its military exercises off the coast of Taiwan, which look increasingly like rehearsals for an invasion.
America’s assessment of the political and strategic intentions underlying these moves is bleak. US officials believe that Xi Jinping has decided that the “reunification” of mainland China and Taiwan should be the centrepiece of his legacy. They also think he is prepared to use force to secure that goal - and that he has told his military to be ready by 2027. If that is true, putting “guardrails” in place will not be enough to secure the peace.
So, as well as trying to restart regular dialogue, the Americans are trying to change Xi’s calculations of the costs and benefits of using military force. That means working with allies to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration thinks this is going well. They point to the substantial increases in Japan’s military spending; the signature of the AUKUS treaty between Australia, the UK and the US; the growing closeness of the relationship between Washington and Delhi; the strengthening of the Quad - linking America, India, Japan and Australia; and the Philippines’ decision to allow the US enhanced access to bases near Taiwan.
As one US official says with quiet satisfaction: “We’ve been putting a lot of points on the board.”
At the same time, the Americans are trying to play down fears that they are seeking to hobble the Chinese economy. The deep economic links between the US and China are one obvious way in which the current rivalries differ from the Cold War.
US AND CHINA ARE CLOSER TO THE BRINK OF DIRECT CONFLICT
Nonetheless, preparations for conflict continue apace on both sides. In this militarised rivalry, one side’s deterrence is another side’s escalation. The obvious risk is that Washington and Beijing are getting locked into a cycle of action and reaction that brings them closer to the brink of direct conflict.
That is dangerous in itself. It also makes it increasingly unlikely that Beijing and Washington will co-operate on the global challenges that confront all countries - from preventing the next pandemic, to climate change, to the management of artificial intelligence.
The potential military uses of this technology are so dramatic that both Washington and Beijing will be very wary of pooling their knowledge, even if both sides can see the possible risks to humanity from the development of “God-like” AI.
The people guiding US policy insist that their long-term goal is the achievement of “strategic stability” with China. It still seems a long way off.