America and China: Destined for Conflict or Cooperation? We Asked 14 of the World's Most Renowned Experts

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
July 30, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaTrumpIndo-PacificAsia-PacificXi Jinping

America and China: Destined for Conflict or Cooperation? We Asked 14 of the World's Most Renowned Experts

The National Interest asked 13 scholars and experts to respond to the following question: Given growing tensions between the United States and China, where do you see the overall relationship headed? Towards a permanent state of competition? 

Check out other comments in this series from: Graham AllisonGordon G. ChangDavid DenoonMichael FabeyJohn GlaserJames HolmesLin GangKishore MahbubaniRobert RossRuan ZongzeRobert SutterXie TaoXu Feibiao and Wang Jisi

James Holmes, J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan

Not too long ago we used to talking about ‘managing’ the rise of China, as though it's in an established great power's gift to manage what an aspiring great power does. China has risen, and is a great power in its own right.

China's leadership vows to make China into a ‘maritime power.’ It is a maritime power of note, and has been for some time. It has the power to attempt to make good on what President Xi Jinping calls its ‘Chinese Dream’ of national rejuvenation following what Xi, the Chinese Communist Party, and rank-and-file Chinese citizens regard as a long century of disgrace at the hands of foreign seaborne conquerors, dating all the way back to the Opium Wars starting in 1839. China's rise, and its evident desire to modify the liberal system of maritime trade and commerce over which the United States has presided since 1945, has set an interactive competition in motion. China wants to amend the system; the U.S. wants to preserve it.

Which brings about this question: how much flex is there in either side's policies and strategies? I see little on Beijing's side. You have to hand it to China's leadership. This is a very open closed society, and has put the world on notice time and again about its aims. The party leadership has also gone on record repeatedly promising to deliver certain goals such as a union with Taiwan. As any negotiations specialist will tell you, a public promise like that represents one of the strongest commitments any leader can make. Fail to follow through and you paint yourself as weak and ineffectual. Your constituents will hold you accountable for failing to keep your promise -- perhaps in gruesome ways.

Which makes the next question: how much tactical flex is there on China's side? Here's where we have some space. I believe China can be deterred. The Chinese are not irrational people. If the U.S. keeps deterring them one day at a time and convinces China they will keep doing so, perhaps over time both countries can come to some understanding that lets all of us coexist.

So the burden is on the United States, its allies, and its friends to mount an adequate deterrent to Chinese mischief-making. Restore America’s physical power, display the resolve to use it under certain conditions, and make believers out of Beijing in U.S. power and resolve, and the Americans might yet pull this off.

As far as America’s general attitude toward an accommodation with China goes, let's take our guidance from Theodore Roosevelt: speak softly and with humor; carry a big stick and show you know how to use it; be absolutely inflexible on things that are non-negotiable while being flexible on matters of secondary concern. Bottom line, we are in a long-term strategic competition, but relations need not degenerate into something really bad if we clear our minds, agree on our purposes, and resolve to compete with vigor.