Are the United States and China Destined for War?

A U.S. Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon takes off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Flickr/U.S. Air Force

Are Washington and Beijing fated to repeat the mistakes Britain and Germany made a century earlier?

Concern about an armed confrontation between the United States and China is growing.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has stated that the United States should not be bound by the “One China” policy unless as part of a grand bargain of sorts, whereby China reduces taxes on U.S. exports, stops construction in the South China Sea, and cooperates more closely to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang has warned that if that policy “is compromised or disrupted, the sound and steady growth of the China-U.S. relationship as well as bilateral cooperation in major fields would be out of the question.” China recently flew a conventional bomber over the South China Sea to reinforce its claim to the “nine-dash line,” a demarcation that the United States claims is in violation of international maritime law.

Growing strategic tensions offer a useful occasion to revisit well-trodden terrain: are the United States and China fated to repeat the mistakes Britain and Germany made a century earlier?  Given that the two countries account for roughly a third of the world’s output, a fifth of its trade, and a quarter of its people, observers cannot pose the question enough.

Merits of the Analogy:

No matter how forcefully the United States and China may avow that they will devise an enlightened model of interaction, they, too, are subject to structural dynamics dating back to ancient Greece. Political scientist Graham Allison has encapsulated those dynamics with his famous term “Thucydides’s trap,” which journalist David Sanger defines as “that deadly combination of calculation and emotion that…can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse.”

At least three sources of tension between the two countries merit attention. First, as the following contrasts suggest, it is hard to imagine a poorer foundation for the world’s most consequential relationship:

- The United States is not yet 250 years old; China’s history spans several millennia.

- The United States is undergoing demographic shifts that could render non-Hispanic whites a minority by 2050; China remains about 90 percent Han.

- The United States has two friendly neighbors and two security moats, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; China has 14 neighbors, some of which are unstable, and most of which fear its regional ambitions.

- The United States extols its values as universal and seeks to spread them; China rejects such proselytizing as a form of interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

- The United States seeks to advance the postwar order; China asks why it should be beholden to a system that it played so little role in constructing and molding.

Indeed, the only two self-evident similarities between the two countries serve to reinforce the multiplicity and complexity of their differences: both are convinced of their exceptionalism, and both are inexperienced in sustaining world order with an approximate equal.

Another source of tension is China’s self-perception: China considers itself not a rising power, but a returning one.  It is accustomed not only to having the world’s largest economy, but also to being the center of an Asian-Pacific order in which its neighbors paid it tribute. It accordingly believes that its contemporary resurgence, far from disrupting world order, is merely redressing an historic aberration—Western preeminence since the Industrial Revolution—and enabling China to transcend the indignities it has suffered in recent centuries—including the Taiping Civil War (1851-64), the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1911), the Great Famine (1958-61), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

A third source of tension involves the scale of competition: where hostility between Britain and Germany threatened merely European order, rivalry between the United States and China has implications for world order. Henry Kissinger notes that the “case of China is even more complicated [than that of Germany]. It is not an issue of integrating a European-style nation-state but a full-fledged continental power.” China is the world’s most populous country and possesses what will soon be its largest economy.

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