Visiting Washington last week, it was surprising how commonplace talk of war between the United States and China has become. That discussion has been fueled by loose statements from US generals pondering possible dates for the start of hostilities.
Those comments, though reckless, did not come out of nowhere. They are a reflection of the broader discussion about China taking place in Washington, inside and outside of government. Many influential people seem to think that a war between the United States and China is not only possible but likely.
The rhetoric coming out of Beijing is also bellicose. Last month, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, saying that “if the US side doesn’t slow down and continue down the wrong path. . . confrontation and conflict” between the two nations is inevitable.
As they try to stabilize relations with China, US officials now see the Cold War not as a warning, but as a potential model. Several cite the détente period of the 1970s as an example of strategic stability, in which two hostile superpowers, both armed to the teeth, learned to live together without going to war.
Detente was only achieved after going through the dangerous crises of the early years of the cold war. It was after what one US official calls the “near-death experience” of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—probably the closest the world has come to total nuclear war—that Washington and Moscow recognized the need to stabilize your relationship.
A “hot line” was established between the White House and the Kremlin in 1963. The Soviet and American militaries began talking to each other more frequently to allay fears about military exercises or possible missile attacks. The United States has called on China to set up similar “protective barriers” to prevent the risk of accidental conflict.
Beijing, however, is not enthusiastic. The Chinese foreign minister’s comments on the dangers of conflict and confrontation came against the backdrop of an explicit rejection of the “protection barriers” suggested by the United States, which, he said, are just a way of trying to force China to “not respond”. . . when he is slandered or attacked.”
The underlying objection from the Xi government is that the Biden administration is trying to institutionalize US military operations that China views as fundamentally illegitimate. The way the Chinese see it, the US has no business promising to defend Taiwan (a rogue province in their view) or conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which is almost entirely claimed by Beijing. As one Washington official puts it: “They think our conversation about guardrails is like putting a seatbelt on a speeding driver.”
The United States, for its part, sees China as the dangerous driver. US officials point to a decades-long Chinese military buildup, including the rapid growth of the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. China has also intensified its military exercises off the coast of Taiwan, which are looking more and more like rehearsals for an invasion.
The US assessment of the political and strategic intentions behind these moves is bleak. US officials believe that Xi Jinping has decided that the “reunification” of mainland China and Taiwan should be the centerpiece of his legacy. They also believe that he is prepared to use force to secure that goal, and that he has told his military that he will be ready by 2027. If that is true, putting “barriers” in place of him will not be enough to ensure peace.
So, in addition to trying to restart regular dialogue, the Americans are trying to change Xi’s calculations on the costs and benefits of the use of 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 substantial increases in Japan’s military spending; the signing of the Aukus treaty between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States; the growing closeness of the relationship between Washington and Delhi; the strengthening of the Quad, which unites the United States, India, Japan and Australia; and the Philippine decision to allow the US. access to bases near Taiwan. As one US official says with quiet satisfaction: “We have been putting a lot of points on the board.”
At the same time, the Americans are trying to minimize he fears they are trying to cripple the Chinese economy. The deep economic ties between the US and China are one obvious way in which today’s rivalries differ from those of the cold war.
However, preparations for the conflict continue apace on both sides. In this militarized rivalry, deterrence on one side is escalation on the other side. The obvious risk is that Washington and Beijing find themselves caught in 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 cooperate on global challenges facing all countries, from preventing the next pandemic to climate change to managing artificial intelligence. The potential military uses of this technology are so dramatic that both Washington and Beijing will be wary of sharing their knowledge, even if both sides can see the potential risks to humanity from the development of AI “like God”.
The people who guide US policy insist that their long-term goal is the achievement of “strategic stability” with China. It still seems a long way off.