Are the United States and China Headed for War?

Are the United States and China Headed for War?

Remarks to a January 2019 Conference at the Carter Center

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

January 18, 2019, Atlanta, Georgia


Let’s face it.  China and the United States are now not just rivals, but regional and global adversaries.  The United States is trying to push or at least keep China down economically, technologically, and militarily.  China is determined to continue to rise.

It’s interesting to consider how we got here.  Each side needs to understand the other’s grievances in order to be able to address them.  The problem is that explaining grievances in circumstances like these almost invariably degenerates into the self-righteous apportionment of blame.  That aggravates antagonism.  It doesn’t help cure it.

Like everyone else who wrote something for this gathering, I spent a lot of time thinking about this.  I stand by what I wrote, but I’m not going to recapitulate it.

Let’s just stipulate that each side thinks it’s right and the other is wrong.  And let’s acknowledge that Chinese have been slow to anticipate foreign reactions to their country’s bumptious return to wealth and power and that Americans have not adjusted their policies to reflect the end of the American monopoly on global leadership.  Neither country has dealt effectively with the shifting balances of power and prestige between them.

Let’s admit that China’s leaders underestimated the fickleness of American democracy, while Americans have overestimated the extent to which Chinese advances are the result of Chinese strategy.  Finally, let’s acknowledge that China has not Americanized itself and that there is no prospect that it will.  We must deal with each other the way we are, not the way we would prefer each other to be.

That about sums it up.  So, now that we’ve said what we need to say about the past, we should turn our attention to the future.  The United States and China have arrived at a stage of acute mutual distrust and hostility.  The operative question is or ought to be, where do we go from here?  Can we pursue our respective interests without inciting conflict?  Can we cooperate despite antagonism?  Or are we headed for a transpacific war?

These are questions for diplomats.  And the starting point for diplomats is always national interests and perceptions and their actual or potential overlap.  Diplomats employ empathy to figure out how to persuade the other side that doing what they want it to do would serve its interests.   In the case of the U.S. and China, there are people on each side who understand the other and who can enlarge the realm of the possible.  But will either side let those with empathy for the other try to turn rancor into realism so that our two countries can cooperate despite their differences?  Whatever the outcome of the Trump trade war, some of those differences are bound to widen.

In the United States, the policy process now begins with blowhards bloviating on our president’s favorite television talk shows.  Their passions are almost instantaneously translated by a very, very big brain into tweets that become policy until another tweet, or a cabinet member contradicts them.  There is not much room in this process for expert opinion to make a difference.  And, civility having largely disappeared from our democracy, anyone who argues for a serious dialogue with China about how to fix Sino-American relations is immediately labeled a panda hugger or worse.  In China, freedom of thought and expression is contracting.  Our two countries are mentally constipated and flirting not so much with a trade war as with a drift toward a real war provoked by mutual disregard of core and vital interests.

In one way or another both America and China now seek to reduce our interdependence.  The U.S. wants to avoid inadvertently aiding the rise of a rival.  China has just learned the hard way that it cannot continue to depend on the United States for its food supply, the high-tech components of its advanced manufactures, or much of anything else.

So, whatever happens, some elements of our economic and cultural relationship are going to be savaged.  I think we’ll regret this.  At the same time, I find it hard to sympathize with American farmers and manufacturers who supported idiotic policies aimed not at enhancing U.S. competitiveness but at crippling China’s.  And I do not admire those in China who continue to give lip service to “reform and opening” but don’t really mean it.  Those who – each in their own way – advocated turning away from cooperation must now live with the entirely predictable negative consequences of our having done so.

The possibilities before the two countries are clear.

One is that we call off the trade war and live with the damage it has done to both economies and to others.  Maybe China could use the crisis as a political justification for advancing overdue economic reforms.  Maybe the United States could collect a trophy or two, claim victory, and retreat to economic reason.  The two sides could then try to work out some sort of modus vivendi that alleviates the mutual animosity both are now nurturing, reduces objectionable Chinese economic and business practices, reenergizes the Chinese economy, and enables the U.S. to rebuild competitiveness.  Maybe.

More likely, we can expect one of two more consequential scenarios.

First, China could decide that its basic interests require the preservation of the rule-bound multilateral order represented by the WTO, IMF, and development banks even if the U.S. tries to trash them.  It could continue supplementing the existing order and try to hang onto what relationships with American companies and individuals it can.  It could continue to create new international financial institutions and regulatory bodies.  It could leave the light on and an empty chair in them for the U.S. to take up when it comes to its senses.

Second, China could retaliate aggressively.  It could impose reciprocal tariffs, quotas, sanctions, and regulatory barriers to reverse its integration with the U.S. economy.  It could rally others against the “exorbitant privilege” of the dollar and its abuse to enforce unilateral American sanctions against other countries.  It could try to bring down the American-led global economic order and substitute a new one. It could take advantage of U.S. strategic ineptitude to undermine the American presence in Asia.  It could reach into the western hemisphere to reciprocate the military challenge it feels from the United States.

Americans and Chinese need to talk to each other about these scenarios and their implications for us and for the countries that count on us to take their interests into account.  We have differences but they are manageable and should not become a casus belli between nuclear powers.  Regrettably, there are many speakers at the conference and almost no time to have such a discussion.  It will have to take place later.  Time’s running out.