Image by David Saveliev
Essay by Timothy Yin
In his investigation into the causes of World War I, historian Christopher Clark cautions readers to distinguish between the objective factors acting on decision-makers and the “stories they told themselves” about their choices and rationales.
Objectively, military conflict between the United States and China appears to be highly unlikely. The two countries share a host of common interests ranging from trade and supply chain integration to environmental protection and global health. They are both key supporters of important international institutions like the United Nations, APEC, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the World Bank. The logic of assured retaliation and the dangers of information asymmetries and perceptual errors in the context of conventional war make military conflict especially risky and unappealing. Structurally, the US alliance system in Asia continues to ensure overall stability.
However, the causes of war too often only become clear in hindsight and there are unlikely but imaginable scenarios where a conflict between the two countries could escalate into nuclear war. Virtually nobody in the US is advocating for a Thucydides Trap style preventative war against China. However, the subjective nature of policymaking means that certain strains of self-fulfilling thinking could result in choices that position the two countries as enemies with irreconcilable differences. Sometimes these intractable differences are resolved through violence.
Firstly, inappropriate historical analogies can distort perceptions and strategic thinking. It is discomfiting how frequently Eurocentric memes like the “Thucydides trap” and a quote from Napoleon are used in American discussions about China’s rise when Asia has been dealing with a historically powerful China for millennia. Every case, save one, in Graham Allison’s Destined for War involves a European power (the exception being the US and Japan around World War II yet few compare contemporary China to Imperial Japan). Analogies are never perfect, but when our reference point for China is Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany or the Peloponnesian League, the search for parallels may lead to misattribution and condescension towards other Asian countries.
Bad historical frames of reference can bias our understandings of China’s current behavior. Asia’s history suggests that its regional order cannot be understood in terms of the rise and fall of a succession of hegemons. China’s return as a regional center of gravity for Asia is not unusual in historical perspective. Yet in the United States, China’s increased integration with the economies of Asia is often interpreted as a “challenge to American dominance” in the region and negatively framed as engendering “economic dependency”. This was reflected in the United States’ decision not to join the AIIB but it is also evident in recent characterizations of Chinese investment abroad as “empire build[ing]”. While America should always push for transparency and accountability in international development, it is condescending to diagnose the investment deals and infrastructure agreements of other nations as symptoms of Chinese neo-colonialism or victims of debt predation.
There are competing interests and substantive differences between the United States and China, but threat inflation and double-standards can mask real challenges and lead to unnecessary escalation. The labeling of all Chinese public diplomacy—certainly not a tool unique to China—as nefarious “influence operations” exaggerates their impact and distract from tangible threats to American democracy. For example, China Daily print inserts in American newspapers may be unfair because of the lack of reciprocal access, but they do not constitute interference in our elections. Legitimate public relations activities and illegitimate behavior by China are then often piled together and presented as evidence of a China-led illiberal order. Hyperbolic language about “whole-of-society” threats also conflates Chinese citizens with the Chinese party state, puts Americans of Chinese descent at risk of unfair treatment, and appears to have also driven problematic reporting.
Such coarse rhetoric and threat inflation ultimately drive a narrative that defines American national security interests as antithetical to China’s ambitions. They further damage US-China relations and paint a zero-sum picture where America must choose between confrontation and appeasement. But if policymakers do not assume every instance of deferential behavior is an example of Chinese dominance diminishing their sovereignty, the experience of Asian states helpfully suggests that there are options beyond balancing and appeasement for dealing with China.
Of course, this is not to absolve China of the blame for deteriorating relations. The condition of US-China relations has historically tracked political reform cycles in China itself. Xi Jinping’s adoption of a more personalistic style of rule and the authoritarian resurgence that has characterized his tenure are of serious concern to those who care about China’s future. On the foreign policy front, China has clearly engaged in revisionist behavior that has disrupted maritime status quo in the South China Sea. There are also recent signs of increased assertiveness in South Asia, on the Korean Peninsula, and with regards to Taiwan. Mirroring the zero-sum thinking of some policymakers in the United States, China also declared its preference for an Asian order excluding a security role for the United States. But public opinion and country behavior in Asia continue to suggest that the American security architecture in Asia is robust. The real risk of conflict comes not from fundamental insecurity but from overreaction.
Thirdly, heralds of the supposed return to “great power competition” between China and the United States imagine a collision between a rising challenger and a declining power. It comes as no surprise that a President decrying “American carnage” has pursued a hardline, if erratic and unilateral, policy stance towards China. Such anxiety-ridden narratives of national decline could feed into dangerous miscalculation and overreach.
Influential advisors to the current administration like Michael Pillsbury uncritically assume that China’s secret marathon strategy to displace the US and dominate the world will likely work absent American retaliation. That is essentially a bet on authoritarian development and top-down, state-led innovation schemes over an open society and competitive market economy. For the foreseeable future, the United States also enjoys significant advantages in terms of geography, business environment, innovative capacity, and human capital. As Michael Beckley aptly summarizes, China uses seven times the input to generate a level of economic output similar to that of the United States. Although it leads the world in population and PPP-adjusted GDP, it also leads the world in debt, border disputes, pollution, industrial overcapacity, and scientific fraud. Its authoritarian and intolerant political system means that it must spend more on internal security than projecting military power abroad while placing productive citizens in internment camps on an ethnoreligious basis.
It would be imprudent to predict collapse or significant downturn for China, nor should America root for such an outcome. In its current position, China already poses challenges to American preferences. But it is alarmist to assume that China’s plans to become a techno-superpower and overtake the US in technological innovation will work. Misguided notions that the US is falling behind and assorted myths of impending decline could justify policy choices that are overly bellicose and raise the risk of conflict.
Bad ideas like fallacious analogies, inflated threats, and populist insecurity are just ideas, but they can block out nuanced argumentation and dull policymakers’ strategic sensibilities. It is in such a context that leaders could sleepwalk their countries into a war that nobody wanted.
Timothy Yin is a graduate student in Political Science at Columbia University studying Chinese politics and comparative political behavior. This essay was an honorable mention in the John Quincy Adams Society’s 2019 Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.