The Future of US-CHINA
A Realist Interpretation
The Twenty Years’ Crisis by Edward Hallett Carr provides an early critical analysis of the structural challenges faced by states attempting to preserve the international status quo in the face of revisionist states. It gives a highly compelling account of how to manage change – peacefully or otherwise – when global power shifts. The current state of Sino-American relationship signifies that the international politics system is facing the “E.H. Carr Moment.”
What is E.H. Carr Moment?
In The Twenty Years’ Crisis, Carr explored one of the fundamental issues of statecraft: When the balance of power is shifting from an incumbent hegemon to a rising challenger, how can the former’s aim to preserve the status quo be reconciled with the latter’s goal of revising the international order in its favour? Rather than accede to the rising challenger’s demands, an incumbent hegemon may dig in its heels to maintain the prevailing order, and its privileged position therein. Yet here’s the dilemma: If the incumbent stands firm, it runs the risk of war with the dissatisfied challenger. But choosing accommodation with the challenger means coming to terms with the reality of its decline and the loss of its hegemonic position. This is the dilemma the United Kingdom faced in the run-up to World War I.
Lessons from Britain and Germany
It is tempting to conclude that war between Britain and Germany a century ago was inevitable. Yet, there was serious debate in London about whether to contain or conciliate its formidable rival. In a January 1907 memorandum, senior British Foreign Office official Sir Eyre Crow made the case for containment. Britain, he said, should oppose Germany’s attempts to increase its geopolitical influence, and to move up the ladder of the international hierarchy of status and prestige. Crowe argued that yielding to Germany’s demands would only serve to increase its expansionist appetite. Germany intended “ultimately to break up and supplant the British Empire,” in his words. He concluded that the Anglo-German rivalry resulted from a fundamental conflict of interests that could not be papered over by diplomatic fudging, which could only sacrifice British interests. War, Crowe argued, could be avoided either by submitting to German demands – which would mean forfeiture of Britain’s own great power status – or, as he counselled, by amassing enough power to deter Berlin.
Sanderson vs Crowe debate
Lord Thomas Sanderson, former permanent undersecretary of state of the Foreign Office, rebutted Crowe in a February 1907 memorandum. The key to understanding German diplomacy was that a unified German state was latecomer on the world stage, arriving only in 1871: “It was inevitable,” he observed, that a rising power such as Germany was “impatient to realize various long-suppressed aspirations, and to claim full recognition of its new position.” Sanderson understood that refusing to acknowledge Berlin’s claims for status and prestige was risky, because “a great and growing nation cannot be repressed”. This thinking reflects the logic of the Carr Moment: Britain’s choice was either to accommodate or to resist German aspirations – and the latter meant a high chance of war. For Sanderson, the choice was clear: “It would be a misfortune that [Germany] should be led to believe that in whatever direction it seeks to expand, will find the British lion in its path”. Rejecting Crowe’s argument that London should uphold the status quo, Sanderson famously remarked that from Berlin’s perspective, “the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.” Of course, Crowe’s views prevailed over Sanderson’s, and in August 1914 Britain and Germany found themselves at war.
Lessons for US and China
As was true for Britain and Germany before World War I, today powerful international and domestic forces are pushing the United States and China down the road to confrontation. Hence, the Carr Moment of our time: Will the declining hegemon in East Asia – the United States – try to preserve a status quo that increasingly will no longer reflect the prevailing distribution of power? Or can the United States reconcile itself to a rising China’s revisionist demands and the realignment of the international order in East Asia to reflect shifting power realities?
Whether Beijing and Washington will be able to bridge their differences through diplomacy in coming years remains to be seen. However, as long as the United States and China remain committed to their current strategies – and the respective ambitions that underlie them – the potential for conflict is high. Avoiding war will depend more, much more on Washington’s policy than on Beijing’s. Here, the debate between Crowe and Sanderson serves as an object lesson. Today, when it comes to China, Crowe’s spirit pervades the American foreign policy establishment. The United States professes the benevolence of its intentions toward China, even as it refuses to make any significant concessions to what China views as its vital interests – or acknowledge Beijing as its geopolitical equal. Like Crowe, the US foreign policy establishment believes that Beijing should be satisfied with what it has – or more correctly, what Washington is willing to let China have – and not ask for more. American foreign policy analysts correctly discern that Chinese leaders believe that the United States is determined to thwart China’s rise. Nevertheless, they advocate hard-line policies that can only confirm Beijing’s perceptions and reinforce its sense of insecurity.
What should the US do?
Washington has the “last clear chance” to avoid the looming Sino-American conflict by undertaking a policy of strategic adjustment in East Asia. America’s political culture and sense of national identity will make it difficult for the United States to do this. So will the tendency of US policymakers look to the “lessons” of the 1930s rather than the events that had precipitated World War I when invoking history as a guide? This is a mistake that could have significant policy consequences because the proper lesson to be drawn from the Great War’s outbreak is not so much the need for vigilance against aggressors, but the ruinous consequences of refusing reasonable accommodation to upstarts.” If the United States wants to avoid a future head-on collision with China, it must eschew Crowe’s counsel and embrace Sanderson’s. That is the real lesson of 1914.
What does the future hold?
To analyze the Sino-American relationship, we need to adopt a neoclassical realist approach that looks at both systemic, and internal, factors to assess US foreign policy options. The constraints of the international system surely are at play in today’s relationship between the two countries. But so are ‘unit level’ factors; especially in the United States where domestic politics and liberal ideology play an outsized role in shaping its policy toward China. It would take the equivalent of a strategic earthquake to shift the outlook of Washington’s foreign policy establishment toward the accommodation of Beijing’s tangible claims as well as its demands for status and prestige equal to that of the United States. With no evidence of such a shift occurring, we should be worried about where the Sino-American relationship is headed.
There is an awful lot of cognitive dissonance within the US foreign policy establishment today. Many still believe – or say that they believe that – that the United States possesses preponderant power. Yet, during the last three years, a near hysteria with regard to the implications of China’s rise has overtaken the foreign policy establishment. It is odd that immediately after taking office, top-ranking Biden administration officials have had to say over and over again that the United States is not in decline.
Comparison with the first Cold War
The magnitude of China’s geopolitical challenge eclipses that of the Soviet Union by an order of magnitude. At its peak during the first Cold War, the GDP of the Soviet Union was never greater than two-fifths of that of the United States. By contrast, as the second Cold War intensifies today, when measured by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), China’s GDP has already surpassed that of the United States. And, measured by market exchange rate, China’s GDP will overtake the United States by 2030. With the exception of nuclear weapons, on the other hand, the Soviet Union was never able to close the economic and technological gaps with the United States. While the Soviet Union was – as German chancellor Helmut Schmitt put it – “Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] with missiles,” China has emerged as a serious competitor in the realm of high technology.
Probable conflict scenarios
In many areas – such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, 5G technology, electric vehicles and green technology – Beijing is running neck and neck with Washington. China’s military modernization, and expansion, has been just as impressive. Although China is not yet able to compete with the United States globally, in East Asia, the military power gap between the two countries is disappearing fast.
The potential flashpoints that could spark a military conflict between the US and China are pretty well known: an incident in the South China Sea, a Chinese move on the Senkaku islands (which are administered by Japan and claimed by China), an implosion of the regime in North Korea, and – of course – Taiwan. The Economist recently described the island of Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on earth.”
“2034: A Novel of the Next World War” illustrates one scenario for the start of a Sino-American war: A confrontation in the South China Sea escalates into a major war between the United States and China. The status of Taiwan – a de facto independent country claimed by China as a renegade province – is especially fraught. President Xi Jinping has reiterated Beijing’s goal of establishing sovereignty over Taiwan by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Washington should not underestimate the importance of this issue to Beijing, or the depth of the irredentist and nationalist sentiment among mainland Chinese.
Strategic advantages the US and China have
If we are talking about a potential military conflict, China would have the home field advantage. It could also concentrate the full weight of its military power in the potential theatre of operations. The United States, on the other hand, must disperse its military forces to defend its (purported) interests in Europe, Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The United States has, of course, its traditional allies in Europe and the Anglosphere. How much help they actually would be in a war with China is questionable. Many US allies have extensive economic ties with China – relationships that they do not want to put at risk by supporting hard-line US policies toward China involving sanctions and trade restrictions. If the US and China become involved in a military conflict, it is likely that most US allies – the United Kingdom and Australia excepted – would remain on the sidelines. Moreover, if conflict breaks out over Taiwan, it is an open question of what Japan would do. In short, in the event of a Sino-American war, the European allies would be behind the United States – as far behind as they could get.
Although some well-known foreign policy commentators routinely predict that China will collapse, the country’s economy and state are a lot more resilient than these people want to admit. American policymakers and analysts don’t want to address this issue. In fact, if one is wagering on the respective brittleness of China and the United States, there is a strong case to be made that Washington is more at risk of being undermined by internal decay than Beijing is. The United States is so divided today – over race, politics, and more – that one wonders if it still is one country in any meaningful sense. A war with China could put the cohesiveness of US society to the test, and it is by no means assured the United States would pass.
What options do Washington and Beijing have to de-escalate the conflict? Will the structure of the international system force the United States to accommodate China?
China is seeking hegemony in East Asia – its home region. And it also wants to be accorded by Washington status and prestige equal to that of the United States. China’s pursuit of these goals, however, puts it on a collision course with the United States, for two reasons. First, hegemony in East Asia is contested. By virtue of its victory over Japan in the Second World War, the United States has been the incumbent hegemon in East Asia since 1945. There cannot be two hegemons in the same region at the same time. Or, per a Chinese saying, “Two tigers cannot live on the same mountain.”
Second, to reach an accommodation with China, the United States would need to acknowledge the former’s claim to a status and prestige equal to its own on the international stage. The American foreign policy establishment is aware of the Communist Party’s complaints about China’s “century of humiliation,” or the period from the First Opium War in 1839–41 to the Communist Party’s 1949 assumption of power. But it is doubtful that Americans really comprehend the depth of China’s sensitivities about this period, or the role that re-establishing China as a great power played in the Communist Party’s rise. Moreover, the US foreign policy establishment values America’s standing – or at least what it perceives to be US standing – as the preponderant power in the international system.
To manage the Sino-American competition peacefully, Washington would need to make important concessions to Beijing. Most important, the United States would have to recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. It would also need to come to an understanding with China over the status of the South China Sea. The United States would also need to stop interfering – as Beijing sees it – in China’s internal affairs. This would mean reversing course and ceasing to construe the Sino-American relationship as an ideological competition between democracy and authoritarianism.
The writer is a senior analyst and columnist.