LONDON: Tell me how this ends? was the despairing question attributed to American generals as they contemplated the quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq. The same question needs to be asked by US policymakers now, as they consider the escalating tensions between America and China.
The world’s two most powerful countries are locked into confrontations on a range of issues, including trade, technology, espionage and control of the South China Sea.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways of interpreting these clashes. The first is that Donald Trump’s administration is determined to reset the US-China relationship. The second is that the US has now embarked on an effort to block China’s rise.
The first approach focuses on objectionable Chinese behaviour; the second objects to the very idea of China as a rival superpower.
These two ways of thinking point to very different potential endings. The first approach — the reset — ultimately ends with a deal. The second approach — blocking the rise of China — points to a prolonged and deepening antagonism.
AMBIGUITY IN AMERICA'S APPROACHES
Even within the Trump administration, there remains considerable ambiguity about which of the two approaches the US is pursuing.
The president has recently tweeted about getting a “a big and very comprehensive deal” with China. That suggests that he is a “reset” man. In real estate terms, he is aiming for a comprehensive renegotiation of the lease rather than a demolition of the building.
However if you listen to some of Mr Trump’s senior officials — those who actually make policy on a daily basis — it is hard to avoid the impression that the US is settling into a long-term confrontation with China.
Their analysis is that, for decades, America has got China policy wrong, naively assuming that China would become less authoritarian as it became richer, and that a rising superpower could be safely integrated into a US-led rules-based order.
They argue that the consequences of these miscalculations are now emerging in a pattern of aggressive Chinese misbehaviour — on everything from the construction of military bases in the South China Sea to industrial espionage.
These deep-rooted US objections are not the kind of thing that can be fixed by China lowering car tariffs, or buying more soyabeans. Indeed a swift trade deal could actually be counter-productive.
The impression that a gap has opened up between Mr Trump and some of his advisers is strengthened by the current furore over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms company.
Mr Trump apparently did not know that the arrest was coming, and is rumoured to have been furious when he heard about it.
The fact that Mr Trump is talking about possibly intervening in the Meng case, as part of his mooted deal with China, will strengthen the belief in Beijing that this is no mere law enforcement action, but instead part of a broader policy of confrontation.
Huawei has been the subject of increasingly vocal warnings by western intelligence agencies which believe that it would be foolhardy to allow a Chinese company to play a central role in the introduction of 5G technology.
Law enforcement, trade disputes, counter-espionage and a competition for technological supremacy are hard to disentangle in the Huawei row.
Yet whatever the suspicions in Beijing, the Chinese government is clearly not resigned to the idea that it is locked into an escalating and unavoidable confrontation with the US.
For the moment, China is focused on trying to use a three-month truce in the trade war to achieve a broader settlement. Apparent “retaliatory” arrests in China have targeted Canadians, because Ms Meng was arrested in Vancouver, but not, so far, Americans.
THINKING ABOUT 'HOW THIS ENDS'
Over the next few months, Beijing will probably attempt to appease Mr Trump with some headline-grabbing “wins” that reduce the size of the US trade deficit with China.
Such a tactic might buy some short-term peace. But, over the long term, both Washington and Beijing must think more profoundly about “how this ends”.
The Chinese need to recognise that there has been a profound and bipartisan shift in American thinking. So trying to hoodwink Mr Trump or wait him out will ultimately not work.
Instead, China has to consider much more significant changes in its policies on everything from forced technology transfer, to the South China Sea. It could be its last chance to head off a long-term confrontation with the Americans.
The US also has some thinking to do. The hawks in Washington are relishing the more overt use of US power in their confrontation with China. But they too need to think about “how this ends”.
It is not realistic to think that the US can ultimately stop China’s rise. Indeed any effort to do that will lead to a dangerous surge in tensions. And that could easily end in war.
Equally, it is not realistic to think that profound changes in Chinese behaviour can be achieved in a grand bargain over the next three months.
The US needs to set ambitious but achievable goals in its current confrontation with China. It should accept that the chill in relations could last a long time.
But in the end, the approach should be closer to Mr Trump’s The Art of the Deal than Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd.