Even as U.S.-China ties have grown more fractious, there has been no bloodshed. Compare that to China and India, whose relationship dramatically deteriorated in the aftermath of a military clash along their disputed border last month.
So far, Washington and Beijing have kept their security competition peaceful. However, the hardening of attitudes increases the risk of conflict. With both governments growing more suspicious of the other’s motives, military considerations are taking a greater role in policy-making.
Moreover, opportunities for conflict are growing. For instance, as the People’s Republic of China more aggressively asserts its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific, risks of a naval confrontation between Beijing and both Japan and the Philippines are rising. Both have defense treaties with the U.S., which have been interpreted to cover contested territories.
Almost all Chinese consider Taiwan to be part of their country. With Beijing growing impatient for reunification, the possibility of military action inevitably increases. Washington has an ambiguous defense commitment to Taiwan, and Taipei’s supporters are pressing for a public promise to protect the island. U.S. freedom of navigation operations increase the chances of an inadvertent naval confrontation, which could quickly escalate given the heightened level of bilateral distrust.
The PRC views these issues as either internal or affecting only the other country involved. Moreover, given geography, China’s interest in such affairs obviously is greater than that of the more distant America. However, the U.S. will be drawn in by treaty, practice, history, and interest. No verbal lashing from Beijing will force Washington to abandon its commitment to Asia.
Which highlights the importance of serious discussions over security between the two nations—one an established superpower and the other aspiring to that status. Although few policymakers can imagine a war between the U.S. and PRC, plenty of conflicts began through inadvertence and mistake. An unexpected clash followed by mutual escalation, with a shared view that a small, short fight might discipline and humble the other side, could turn into something very different.
Both sides need to understand what issues are of greatest concern to the respective governments. What interests are implicated and how important are they? What concerns are most susceptible to negotiated solutions? What threats would result in the deadliest response?
Obviously, neither side would be inclined to be wholly honest with the other. You are more likely to win concessions if the other side believes a military response is more likely. However, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. So serious talks should help establish special sensitivities and necessities.
As important as bilateral discussions would be, equally vital would be undertaking an honest and rigorous internal assessment of the issues. Not everything said or done is important or matters equally. Not every criticism is backed by action. Most activities decried as threats are not.
Washington has a special obligation to engage in ruthless soul-searching. The U.S. is the incumbent great power which used its superior position to write many international rules while China was largely prostrated. In contrast, America upended the status quo when it emerged as a major player in the international system—most dramatically, the U.S. threatened Great Britain with war over the border with Canada and seized half of Mexico in a fight over the boundary with that nation. Washington is more likely to strengthen international support to preserve the current order if it accommodates some of Beijing’s concerns and demands.
Equally important, the PRC does not threaten American security in any essential degree. That claim might seem shocking, given the increasingly hysterical analyses of Chinese behavior. Some U.S. interests are at risk, and Beijing’s activities are eroding America’s once vast economic and military edge. Nevertheless, no one imagines a Chinese attack on the U.S., its people, territory, or liberties. Even a far stronger PRC with a military substantially superior to that of America at some point in the future would be ill-equipped to launch such a war of conquest.
It is China which currently worries about strikes on its homeland. The struggle in East Asia is over Washington’s ability to defeat the PRC in its own neighborhood and along its border. The problem for Washington is simple: projection of power is more expensive than deterrence. Beijing is focusing on anti-access/area denial to prevent U.S. intervention, in essence, to enforce a Monroe Doctrine with Chinese characteristics. That is undesirable from America’s perspective, but the country with the vulnerable homeland remains the PRC, not the U.S.
This should force Washington policymakers to consider what they are determined to protect and at what cost. Hong Kong? Inconceivable, since it is part of China and might as well be the mainland. Taiwan? Extraordinarily difficult given its proximity to the PRC. Assorted islands, reefs, shoals, islets, and other sundry bits of rock strewn about Asia-Pacific waters? They aren’t American, don’t necessarily belong to U.S. allies, and aren’t necessary for preserving the independence of the states which claim them. Navigational freedom? Important for America and not yet under attack, but dependent on the naval balance of power.
One could imagine a variety of deals emerging from such assessments to address issues of greatest importance to both sides. For instance, on Hong Kong, assurance by Washington that there is no contemplation of military action under any circumstance, but affirmation that U.S. law requires assessing the territory’s relative autonomy to preserve its trade preferences.
On Taiwan, a PRC reassurance of its commitment to peaceful reunification while Washington pledges to never station military forces there. Chinese withdrawal of missiles threatening the island could be matched by a Taiwanese retreat from independence-minded activities.
The U.S. could reduce Freedom of Navigation Operations in exchange for Beijing’s acknowledgment of American transit rights. China could engage in serious negotiations with its neighbors to set aside territorial claims while moving to joint resource development as Washington abjured military involvement in any future disputes.
One can criticize any specific compromise. Nevertheless, neither the U.S. nor China can afford war, whether cold or hot. And only compromise can maintain anything approaching a civil and cooperative relationship. Both nations need to consider the essential interests of the other. And make agreements accordingly.