Are America and China Spiraling toward War or Peace?

May 27, 2015 Topic: PoliticsDiplomacy Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAmericaBook Review

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.

To be sure, not all of Goldstein’s policy proposals will find favor in policy circles. Some suggestions, such as restoring diplomatic ties with North Korea, will appear undesirable to many in the United States, while other ideas such as facilitating an end to the Sino-Indian border dispute might easily be judged to be outside of Washington’s purview. Even the basic thrust of Goldstein’s argument—that peace between the United States and China is possible and that it is worth preparing for—will be rejected by those who already are convinced that a U.S.-China conflict is inevitable. But for those who hold out the possibility of a cooperative and mutually beneficial U.S.-China relationship, Meeting China Halfway will be a welcome shot in the arm.

Even so, Meeting China Halfway is not without weaknesses. Most noticeably, Goldstein’s engagement in the public policy debate comes at some cost to his discussion of international relations theory. This has important implications for the persuasiveness of his argument. For if peace is readily obtainable through a cooperation spiral, as Goldstein argues that it is, then why does cooperation ever fail to materialize, and why do states ever choose to wage war? Are all wars caused by errors of judgement and failures in foreign policy, or is the prevalence of war versus peace also contingent upon environmental circumstances?

Many scholars of international relations will argue that the very structure of Great Power politics is skewed against perpetual peace, and that cooperation between states—especially those witnessing a major shift in relative power—is much harder to routinize and rely upon than Goldstein allows for. For example, although Charles Kupchan develops a similar argument to Goldstein’s in his book How Enemies Become Friends, Kupchan concedes that conflicting geostrategic interests, cultural differences and incompatible social orders are all factors capable of derailing peace-building efforts. According to Kupchan—an avowed “optimist” when it comes to the possibility of peaceful rise—the United States and China might be able to broker a workable rapprochement between the two of them, but the prospects of a truly stable peace are bleak.

Meanwhile, bargaining theorists of war might point out that rising states like China simply cannot credibly commit to upholding their side of any international compact so long as their material power is rapidly increasing. For what rising state can promise today to keep an agreement that will look hopelessly outdated in five, ten or 20 years’ time? And what sensible leader would believe them if they tried? This basic “commitment problem” for China means that skeptics in the United States have good reason to be reluctant about pursuing conciliation over containment; a cooperation spiral looks suspiciously like a suicide spiral from the perspective of a state that is undergoing relative decline.

Finally, Goldstein gives relatively short shrift to questions of domestic politics. Instead, he tends to treat Great Power politics as a game played by elites alone. In his model, far-sighted and canny decision-makers are able to implement conciliatory measures without regard to how such actions will be interpreted domestically. But there is considerable literature and more than enough historical evidence to suggest that this is not actually the case; that, in fact, foreign policy elites must devote enormous amounts of attention and resources to managing domestic politics when attempting to achieve anything meaningful in international affairs. To his credit, Goldstein does lament the negative treatments that the United States and China receive in each other’s domestic debates, but a full appreciation of just how much domestic politics might militate against stable peace is lacking in this book.

Even so, Meeting China Halfway can be said to weather these potential criticisms fairly well. Goldstein makes the broadly sensible (even if woefully uncommon) point that decisive action must be taken to put the U.S.-China relationship on firm footing if peaceful bilateral relations are indeed what foreign policy elites in both countries desire, and develops this central argument in a methodical, thought-provoking and well-researched manner. The book moves the policy debate away from “if” peace is possible between the US and China towards a discussion of “how” peace might be constructed. This can only be a good thing.

Peter Harris is a Visiting Lecturer in Politics at Earlham College and is a frequent TNI blogger and feature contributor. You can follow him on Twitter: @ipeterharris.

Image:Flickr/UK Ministry of Defence