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Foreign Policy

The Winner from China-US Conflict is…an Unknown Third Party

Aug 16, 2018
  • Wang Fan

    Vice President, China Foreign Affairs University


There is near-total consensus that neither China nor the US would escape from a confrontation with each other unscathed. Apart from that, China-US confrontation would likely lead to the rise of a third party.

History attests to this. Whenever a conflict has arisen among major powers, it has always been the case that those who avoided involvement benefited the most. Before World War II, Great Britain and France wanted to maintain peace with Hitler long enough for conflict to develop between Germany and the Soviet Union. To this end, they adopted an appeasement policy and balked at responding in force to repeated German violations of international agreements. In the end, however, the rock they lifted dropped on their own feet; both Great Britain and France would see their countries ravaged by the horrors of the Second World War. However, their strategic goal was clear: they hoped to cash in on conflict between other countries to improve their own security. The US more effectively avoided entering the war, at least initially. As a result, the US was actually, to some extent, the biggest beneficiary of World War II.

It is inherent to the evolution of global politics that no nation can remain a great power forever. In the past and in the future, emerging powers lie in wait to overtake major ones. Therefore, there are certainly countries hoping to see conflict between China and the US. The logic is fairly obvious: only when both China and the US are weakened by conflict will they have the chance to become superpowers. For China and the US, this is certainly a lose-lose scenario. As a Chinese saying goes, when a snipe and a clam are locked in a fight, it’s the fisherman who will benefit. Be it a trade war or another kind of confrontation, both nations will be harmed and a third party will reap the rewards. Though it’s impossible to figure out the identity of such a third party, its emergence would pose a risk to the existing global order and the stability of the international community, therein heightening potential long-term consequences. As the two largest economies in the world, China and the US should fully understand their responsibilities to both their own people and the world as a whole. Any attempt to escalate conflict is dangerous and doomed to fail.

China did not call for changes in handling bilateral relations between major powers nor stress the importance of avoiding the Thucydides Trap for its own benefit. Rather, it did so to prevent conflict that would jeopardize the peace and prosperity of the world at large.

While some certainly hope to see a China-US conflict, the majority would much prefer stable Sino-US relations. They know that further deterioration in relations would present great risk.

China’s reform and opening up in the past four decades, to some extent, was meant to be an opening to developed countries, in particular the US. China achieved economic gains by introducing technologies, capital, and management expertise from developed nations. In the drive to achieve the goal of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, China will need to open wider and further to the world. China has never gained from conflicts, nor does it want to get involved in conflicts. China achieved the goal of development through peace and cooperation, and also made its contributions to the world. Therefore, China does not want to engage in trade war or any other form of war with any country.

Cooperation leads to mutual benefit while conflict leads to mutual harm. This is the rule that has been repeatedly proven in history.

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