Are America and China Spiraling toward War or Peace?

For those who hold out the possibility of a cooperative and mutually beneficial U.S.-China relationship, the new book Meeting China Halfway will be a welcome shot in the arm.

Long gone are the days when the West’s most eminent scholars could debate whether or not China “matters” for world politics and U.S. foreign policy. China does matter—a lot. From those who argue that China is destined to “rule the world” to those who caution that China’s global influence will be limited in important ways, almost all experts agree that China’s rise will be one of the defining features of world politics in the twenty-first century. It follows that the question of how to respond to China’s rise is currently an animating puzzle of the U.S. foreign policy community. Should Washington pursue a strategy of containment towards Beijing or should the United States extend an olive branch to the world’s most powerful rising state?

In Meeting China Halfway, Lyle J. Goldstein—associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College—offers a frontal assault on the issue of U.S.-China relations. Contrary to much conventional wisdom and international relations theories, which tend to predict hostility between rising and established powers in world politics—a law-like dynamic that the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has called the “Thucydides’s Trap”—Goldstein portrays the emerging U.S.-China relationship as highly contingent upon human agency. Whether peace obtains between the United States and China, he argues, will be determined by strategic choices rather than structural forces.

Goldstein is firmly of the opinion that peaceful co-existence is possible for Washington and Beijing. Although wars between Great Powers and rising challengers have been common in international history, he concedes, adroit foreign policies can succeed in averting such a fate befalling the United States and China. Putting forth the concept of “cooperation spirals,” Goldstein argues that repeated iterations of reciprocal conciliatory behavior might just be enough to cement cordial relations between the two states and provide a bulwark against suspicion, fear, envy, enmity and the humanitarian disaster that would be a hegemonic war.

In this sense, Goldstein contributes to an extant literature that already has documented the theoretical possibility—and, indeed, the historical reality—of peaceful rise. In particular, his theory of cooperation spirals is very similar to Charles Kupchan’s model of how enemies can (and have) become friends in world politics. Goldstein’s main original contribution, then, is to put forward a series of specific policy proposals for how tensions could be lessened between the United States and China. One hundred such proposals are developed throughout the book, ranging from a downsizing of the U.S. base on Guam to greater Chinese involvement in the Middle East to a variety of arms control agreements between the two governments. Each tranche of suggestions is couched alongside a detailed study of U.S.-China relations as they relate to a particular issue-area or critical geographic space: namely, economic cooperation, the natural environment and overseas development; and Taiwan, the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Southeast Asia and India.

A major strength of Meeting China Halfway is Goldstein’s extensive use of Chinese sources—including both official documents and scholarly works. This addresses a major lacuna in Western scholarship on U.S.-China relations, which is often written by non-China experts or else otherwise fails to convey a meaningful survey of “what China thinks” when it comes to international affairs. In this book, Goldstein is effective at giving a balanced and judicious overview of Chinese thought on a variety of issues. He is an obvious master of the Chinese scholarly landscape, its intellectual history as well as its current shape of being.

Goldstein is also to be commended for his explicit engagement with contemporary public policy debates. Too often, scholarly work in general (and the international relations literature on the U.S.-China relationship in particular) can be divorced from the “real world” of foreign policy-making, preferring to analyze abstract theoretical constructs and thereby depriving decision-makers and opinion-leaders of concrete ideas for solving complex problems.

Goldstein can scarcely be held guilty of this charge. Indeed, Meeting China Halfway can be read as a clarion call to action: Goldstein’s clear intention is to nudge the foreign policy community towards grasping that leaders in the United States and China alike must take meaningful steps to defuse the rivalry that is fast emerging between them lest the likelihood of an unwanted armed conflagration grow ever greater and more grave.