Could the United States and China go to war?


November 19, 2012

China selects its new leader much like the College of Cardinals chooses a new pope, albeit without white smoke (or mirrors). The Americans follow a different technique in choosing a president. The consequences of both processes this year, and the degree to which those selected are able to come to terms with one another, will be the most important determinant of global stability for the next four years.

The wraps were finally taken off China’s new leadership last week. China’s new leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping, is a “princeling,” the son of a prominent member of China’s old revolutionary guard. Though he is considered to be a pragmatist, the six other new members of the downsized Politburo Standing Committee are generally seen as conservative and non-reformers.

These are unsettling times for China’ new leaders. There is mounting social unrest against a regime that is widely seen to be corrupt, privileged and out of touch, even by its own admission. China has gone out of its way to bully its neighbors, notably Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, over its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, where many say it has overplayed its hand.

China’s new leadership also has to come to grips with the fact that no matter what it does, it will not be able to replicate the astronomical, double-digit growth rates China enjoyed over the past decade. Markets in Europe and the U.S. are neither big enough nor growing fast enough to fuel the Chinese juggernaut.

A bigger question is whether China and the U.S. can live at peace with each other until China’s own internal political transformation is complete. U.S. mismanagement of domestic affairs, which has tarnished its lustre as a world leader, is feeding a mood of global uncertainty. China has no desire to replace the U.S. (yet), but it should not be blamed recklessly for indulgence by the U.S. Corruption, cronyism and the lack of political freedom will put more pressure on China in time than sermons from without.

Here are five reasons why there will be war between the U.S. and China — and five reasons why there won’t.

The first is the historical curse of great power transitions. Since the times of ancient Greece, great power transitions in world politics have had deeply unsettling consequences. As Thucydides wrote about the origins of the Peloponnesian wars, it was the rise in the power of Athens and the fear that created in Sparta that led to war. Today, in an ironic twist, the United States is cast in the role of Sparta and China as Athens in what is the fastest rise of a new economic power in history.

The American strategic “pivot” toward Asia reflects some of the same fears about China’s rise that Sparta felt about Athens. Athens bullied its smaller Aegean Sea neighbors; China is doing the same in its own maritime neighborhood.

A second reason is public opinion. The overwhelming majority of Americans (60 per cent) see the rise of China as competition for the United States and they don’t like it. Never mind that China is underwriting much of the U.S. fiscal deficit (including the U.S. defence budget) and debt. America’s elites, who really ought to know better, feel that competition even more acutely.

The third reason is U.S. leadership and its own economic management. The prospect of a tit-for-tat trade war may be more likely and more ominous — especially if the U.S. drifts aimlessly down a sharp fiscal slope, even if it doesn’t immediately fall off “the cliff.”

Fourth, the United States is working actively to encircle if not contain China by reinvigorating its alliances in the region — notably with Japan and Australia, but also with other Southeast Asian nations, including former adversaries like Myanmar and Vietnam. The much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership is also part of this containment strategy.

Fifth, China in turn has taken to blaming America for inflaming regional tensions and creating problems that are largely of its own making. Its claims in the South China Sea are legally dubious and its actions could draw in the U.S. in defense of its allies, like the Philippines.

On the other side of the ledger, here are five reasons why there won’t be war.

The first is that China and the U.S. are two of the most highly economically interdependent economies in the world.

China is heavily invested in the U.S. economy and U.S. Treasury Bills. The U.S., in turn, is heavily invested in China. Any kind of major disruption in relations or escalation of tensions would cost both countries dearly. Unlike the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, or even the relationship between Germany and Britain prior to the First World War, China and the United States are joined at the hip by mutual trade and investment. They may be strategic rivals, but any kind of surgical separation would almost certainly kill off both of these Siamese twins.

Second, China is militarily in no position to challenge the U.S. Its military power and projection capabilities pale in comparison to that of the U.S., notwithstanding recent increases in Chinese defense spending and China’s acquisition of a blue-water navy. Nor is it at all clear that China wants to go head-to-head with the U.S. by challenging its global military supremacy.

Third, most countries of the Asia Pacific, including ASEAN, won’t join the States in a U.S.-led anti-China coalition. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why some countries are ambivalent about the security thrust of the TPP and go out of their way to pitch it as a trade deal.

Fourth, Americans have no stomach for opening up another military front. Beset by vast domestic challenges and still recovering from their bloody and inconclusive experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans in general will be disinclined to look for fresh conflicts. The Chinese have their own domestic worries to distract them; if hostilities open, expect to see them limited to trade disputes, or to bloodless (and publicly deniable) strikes in cyberspace.

The fifth is recent history. The record of Sino-American relations since the Kissinger-Nixon opening in the early 1970s has largely been one of cooperation. China and America cooperated on the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in the Paris Peace Accords of 1992. America was a strong supporter of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. American companies have invested hugely in China and now Chinese companies are trying to do the same in the U.S. (and Canada).

Although China and the U.S. have their differences on how to deal with the consequences of the Arab Spring, especially in Syria, they have shared interests in promoting stability in the Middle East and securing safe passage for the 20 per cent of the world’s oil supplies that pass through the straits of the Persian Gulf, much of it to China.

The U.S. and China simply have too much at stake to replay the war between Athens and Sparta. The rest of us also must ensure that history does not repeat itself. Canada, Australia, the U.S. and others, for example, might begin by adopting a common, not competitive, approach to investments by Chinese SOEs in their respective resource bases and to the shared threat from cyberspace, thereby making the “Asian pivot” more than a trendy pirouette.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.