Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

Book Excerpt: An important new work offers important ideas on how to defuse the emerging U.S.-China rivalry. 

Editors Note: The following is the introductory chapter from frequent TNI contributor Lyle Goldstein's new book Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging U.S.-China Rivalry. Copyright 2015 Georgetown University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Goldstein is the author of TNI's occasional essay series "Dragoneye" which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs​. You can read all essays from the series here

Reversing the Escalation Spiral: More than six decades have now passed since young Lieutenant John Yancey of the Seventh Marine Infantry Regiment watched half his platoon mowed down by Chinese bullets on an obscure ridge in Northeast Asia. He turned to his surviving men and said: “Stand fast and die like Marines.” More than one thousand fellow Americans would perish in the frozen onslaught of the Chosin Reservoir campaign in late 1950. That battle was not supposed to happen. Two weeks earlier, Far East commander General Douglas MacArthur had assured President Harry Truman in a face-to-face meeting on Wake Island that the chance of Chinese military intervention in the Korean War was “very small,” despite high-level warnings from Beijing that US forces crossing the 38th Parallel represented a “menace to the security of China.”1

As US-China rivalry continues to build a dangerous momentum in our own time, it will be important for those interested in the future of this crucial relationship to somberly reflect on the roughly 35,000 Americans killed in the Korean War—the first and only major US-China conflagration.2 They may also consider that in the fall of 1950, “no one in the Pentagon, the State Department, or the White House took [Chinese warnings] any more seriously than MacArthur did.” 3 Today, similar warnings are worryingly common in Chinese discourse on strategic affairs.4 The Cold War and related ideological struggles are now long past, of course, but the potential for a US-China military conflict has increased markedly in the past ten years and now encompasses scenarios ranging from the South China Sea, to the East China Sea, back to the Korean Peninsula, and even into the Indian Ocean and much further afield. In comparing the present era of geopolitical rivalry with the early Cold War, however, one difference is most prominent. In 1950 the United States was at the apex of its strength, and China had been gravely weakened by decades of war and internal turmoil. Today the United States confronts a China that is vastly strengthened. The concomitant risks, therefore, are that much greater. Indeed, given the strength of both powers, a military conflict today between China and the United States could resemble not so much the “limited” Korean War but the even graver tragedy of World War I, which has been the subject of so much discussion during its recent centenary.

Scholars who research US-China relations on both sides of the Pacific are nearly universal in concluding that such a catastrophic conflict today is far from inevitable. But what they have not done thus far is to provide concrete intellectual paradigms and accompanying policy proposals to lead this troubled relationship away from the brink of disaster. Therefore, this book seeks to be dramatically different from any other in the field in its treatment of US-China relations, by explicitly focusing on how to realize new paths to bilateral cooperation via “cooperation spirals”—the opposite of an escalation spiral. One hundred policy proposals are made throughout the chapters of this book, not because these are the only solutions to arresting the alarming course toward conflict, but rather to inaugurate a genuine debate regarding policy solutions to the most vexing problems in bilateral relations.