How America Can Stop Its Rivalry With China From Spinning Into War


How America Can Stop Its Rivalry With China From Spinning Into War

Two powerful forces are shaping the future of Sino-American relations: geopolitics and America’s liberal ideology. If managed, it is possible to keep even intense great power competitions from tipping over the precipice into war.

Here we see the influence of “offensive liberalism” on American foreign policy. At its core, Wilsonianism—American-style liberal internationalism—holds that the world is divided into “good” states (democracies) and “bad” states (non-democracies). The latter are deemed incorrigible, expansive, and aggressive. As Pence put it when speaking about China, “History attests [that] a country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there. And Beijing also aims to extend its reach across the wider world.” There is an eliminationist impulse imbedded in Wilsonianism: if “bad” states are troublemakers, regime change is—ostensibly—the path to peace because, so it claimed, democracies: don’t fight other democracies; uphold an open international economic system; and respect liberal values both at home and abroad. This eliminationist impulse was very much on display in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union: American intervention in the Russian Civil War; early First Cold War documents such as NSC 20/4; U.S. “psychological warfare” efforts in the Baltic States and Ukraine during the late 1940s/early 1950s; and, of course, NSC-68. American liberalism’s eliminationist impulse was a leitmotiv of Pompeo’s Nixon speech, which was a virtual call for regime change in China. Pompeo decried engagement because it has not brought political change inside China. That is, engagement did not result in China’s “evolution to freedom and democracy.” Echoing NSC-68’s hyperbolic rhetoric (“the world cannot exist half slave and half free”), Pompeo declared that if the United States does not change China, China will change the United States. “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said, “is the mission of our time.” American policymakers ought to have learned from the First Cold War that an important—and perilous—threshold is crossed when a great power competition is converted into a titanic ideological struggle. The former can be modulated with adroit diplomacy but the latter invariably become a zero-sum contest.

CHINA’S RISE has fueled doubts—seldom acknowledged openly—about the trajectory of the United States’ power, and, even more fundamentally, about whether America’s model of economic and political development remains superior to China’s. As the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer and David Gordon have argued, “China’s rise and state-capitalist model present the most significant commercial and geopolitical challenge that the U.S. has faced in two decades” and “China’s state capitalism challenges the future of democratic capitalism.” Indeed, as Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg argues, “For Americans the success of a mainland [Chinese] regime that blends authoritarian rule with market-driven economics is an affront.”

China is a problem for the American foreign policy establishment because it taps into their deepest fear: that a powerful non-liberal state will be able to close off the world (or a least its key regions) from ideological and economic penetration by the United States. This fear of “closure” is inextricably rooted in American liberalism and explains why the United States has such a difficult time co-existing with non-liberal states. The last thing we should want, however, is for the Sino-American relationship to degenerate into a new, highly ideological Second Cold War. When power transition dynamics are added to America’s liberal ideology, Sino-American relations are highly combustible. Security studies scholars agree that power transitions are powder kegs because of what is at stake: nothing less than the leadership, and nature, of the international (or regional) order are up for grabs. Power transitions, are about whether the status quo can prevail over the forces of geopolitical change (revisionism). When rising challengers near parity with the declining dominant power, invariably their dissatisfaction with the existing international order bubbles up (as it did in the pre-1914 Anglo-German rivalry, which has been compared to today’s Sino-America relationship). After all, the existing order was constructed by the declining dominant power during better days to privilege its own interests. Rising challengers, on the other hand, want to revise the existing order and bring it into line with what they perceive are the new relative power realities. They seek, as the political scientist Robert Gilpin said, “to change the international system in order to advance their own interests.”

If the United States really wants to avoid a head-on collision with China, it will have to make difficult—even painful—adjustments and adopt a policy that accommodates China’s rise. In this sense, the United States and China are rapidly nearing what could be called an “E. H. Carr Moment.” The Carr Moment occurs when the power relations that underpinned—and gave birth to—the prevailing international order have shifted in favor of the rising—revisionist—power. Carr analyzed the international political crisis of the 1930s caused by the breakdown of the post-World War I order enshrined in the Versailles Treaty (1919). The Versailles system cracked, Carr argued, because of the growing gap between the order it represented and the actual distribution of power in Europe.

At stake in the Sino-American rivalry is which power will be the hegemon in East Asia, where China seeks to supplant the United States. This competition is inherently dangerous. Aficionados of American Western movies will easily recognize what can be called the “Dodge City syndrome:” two gunslingers confront each other in the saloon, and one says “This town ain’t big enough for both of us.” We all know what happens next: the shoot-out on Main Street. For those inclined to physics rather than the cinema, there is the Newtonian Law of Geopolitics: there cannot be two hegemons in the same region at the same time. Chinese culture has its own way of making this point. As a Chinese expression puts it, two tigers cannot live on one mountain. Or, as the Emperor Wen-Di said, “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.”

Whether the United States can, or will, peacefully cede its dominance in East Asia is an open question. As is the question of whether the United States can, or will, acknowledge Beijing’s push to be accorded status and prestige equal to that of the United States. There is little reason to believe Washington is disposed to do this. As Dartmouth professor William C. Wohlforth reminds us, “U.S. decision makers value their country’s status of primacy.” Members of the American foreign policy establishment dismiss Beijing’s status claims because “China has not earned a voice equal to that of the United States.” As already discussed, since the end of the First Cold War successive administrations have sought to rein in a rising China by employing both carrots (engagement) and sticks (containment).

On the American side today, carrots are out and sticks are in. Even advocates of “restraint” in American grand strategy take a hawkish position on China. None more so than University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, who argues that: “Realism dictates that the United States should seek to remain the most powerful state on the planet ... and make sure that no other power dominates its region.”

Doubtless, going forward, many U.S. policymakers and analysts will agree with Mearsheimer, invoke fears about the balance of power, play up the ideological differences between China and America, and raise the specter of 1930’s-like “appeasement” of China. As will leading U.S. political figures—such as Senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley, and former un ambassador Nikki Haley—who have taken strong, ideologically-infused anti-China stands. Haley argues that “China is a dangerously different power because it is steadfastly committed to a Communist ideology that views its system as superior and seeks its advancement in every way.” For instance, Hawley warns that China has demonstrated “its eagerness to impose authoritarian principles on America...” He also has asserted that “the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic—and it knows it.” Cotton has declared that, “The Chinese Communist Party is our enemy.” And, for good measure, he says “China is a pariah state.” In a wonderful example of the psychological mechanism of projection, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster explained with unconscious irony why engaging China failed: “We had undervalued the degree to which ideology drives the Chinese Communist Party.” It is not China’s ideology that is propelling the United States and China towards a train wreck; it is America’s.

AMERICA’S ANTI-CHINA hawks wrap themselves in the mantle of “realism.” But this is a peculiar form of realism, and one at odds with the thoughtful forms of realism that opposed the Vietnam War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moreover, it is a potentially dangerous form of “realism,” because once the genie of public opinion is released from the bottle, it can be difficult to control. Both parties—the Democrats also are jumping on the anti-China bandwagon—will be compelled to out-bid each other in taking a hardline against Beijing. It will become increasingly difficult for the voices of pragmatism to be heard in American discussions about relations with China. And it will be ever more difficult for the United States to walk back from a conflict with China. 

“Restraint”—strategic self-discipline—is not a new concept. It has deep roots as an American foreign policy tradition that has counseled prudence, and the moderation of America’s external ambitions. It is a tradition that leaves open the possibility of accommodating the interests of rival great powers. After all, as the noted journalist and foreign policy commentator Walter Lippmann wrote at the Cold War’s outset: