Could The United States Really Go To War With China?

The United States will also have to broaden its base of allies using the tools of ideology. The strongest argument that can be made to countries that trade freely with China is that Chinese hegemony would threaten their democratic freedoms… 


could-the-united-states-reaThe U.S. response to the changing geostrategic situation has been to signal increasing willingness to empower its regional allies, particularly Japan. The incorporation of a Japanese admiral as the second in command at last summer’s RIMPAC exercise, the world’s largest joint naval drill, was a signal that the United States views with favor a potential Japanese shift away from pacifism and toward a more active regional security role. And though U.S. President Barack Obama recently extended its agreement with South Korea to avoid its military nuclearisation, the option remains on the table.
But this regional response will not be enough. The United States will also have to broaden its base of allies using the tools of ideology. The strongest argument that can be made to countries that trade freely with China is that Chinese hegemony would threaten their democratic freedoms. Sen. John McCain’s proposed league of democracies  a kind of free-form alliance of ideologically similar States designed to leave out China and Russia  is therefore likely to be revived eventually, though probably under another name.
India is the leading candidate for membership. The originator of the Non-Aligned Movement is not in the same position as it was during the Cold War. Today, nonalignment risks letting China rise to regionally dominant status. India’s interest is to balance China in the realm of geopolitics while urging it to respect international law, especially the laws of intellectual property and trade. India must, of course, be careful not to push the Chinese too far. China could use border troubles with India to feed domestic nationalism. But India could potentially be increasingly open to joining a democratic league to help contain China. The natural ground for the alliance is democracy and human rights  the features that the United States and India share but China lacks.
China’s great advantage in the race to find allies is its pragmatism. Unlike the United States, which often struggles awkwardly with its autocratic allies, China typically makes no demands that its allies comply with international norms of human rights or other responsible behavior. China’s natural allies are, as a result, often bad international actors, as the examples of Iran, North Korea, and Syria make clear. Meanwhile, Beijing has an independent interest in opposing any form of humanitarian intervention or regime change based on a human rights justification  hence its opposition to any justifications by the U.N. Security Council for intervention in Syria.
So it is natural  and so far, cost-effective  for China to provide cover for such allies. Russia shares the same interests, and the once-chilly China-Russia relationship has been considerably warmed by overlapping interests in trying to limit Western regime change. Indeed, Russia may emerge as China’s most important geostrategic ally  a development signaled recently by Xi Jinping making Russia his first foreign trip after assuming the Chinese Presidency. Nothing of the kind had happened since Nixon’s opening to China created a 30-year rift between the former allies. If the United States reached out to China in the Cold War to weaken the Soviet Union, China may try to use Russia similarly in the Cool War. Certainly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems like he would oblige.
China has also been highly effective in creating alliances with resource-rich African States. China became Africa’s leading trading partner in 2010. Chinatypically opts to work with existing Governments  whether they are autocratic does not matter  to build infrastructure that is sorely lacking. The Chinese tout their own expertise in rapid development; they bring Chinese labor to do the job; and they promise to deliver the benefits of improved roads, rivers, and revenue streams for Government.
China’s pragmatic approach to Africa is free of any evangelical spirit and appeals to its interlocutors’ naked self-interest  and the Chinese make no bones about the fact that they are pursuing their own self-interest as well. They make little or no attempt to reform African governance or African ways of life. They may condescend, but they do not lecture. Unlike Western interactions with Africa, the Chinese encounter does not seem plagued by bad conscience. How much this will ultimately matter to Africans remains to be seen. Backlash has begun in some places, and there will no doubt be more. But a policy of pragmatic honesty may confer real advantages when dealing with countries and peoples who are accustomed to being met with self-serving lies. China aims to get the benefits of resource colonisation without paying the international price of being hated as a coloniser  and it has a reasonable chance of succeeding.
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Extensive cooperation in economics, intense competition in geopolitics: This new situation poses extraordinary risks. Yet economic interdependence also poses unique opportunities for the peaceful resolution of conflict. What’s more, it creates common interests that mitigate the impulse to domination. Trade is the area where cooperation can have the greatest transformative effects  and the greatest potential avenue for resolution of conflicts. Today, China is an active participant in the World Trade Organization (WTO) regime, which is the most effective expression of international law ever created. Countries obey the decisions of WTO tribunals out of straightforward self-interest: The cost of defection is outweighed by the benefits of staying in the international trade regime. This is not a route to world Government, utopian or dystopian, but rather a model of self-interested rule of law in an important economic realm.

Russia may emerge as China’s most important geostrategic ally  a development signaled recently by Xi Jinping making Russia his first foreign trip after assuming the Chinese Presidency. Nothing of the kind had happened since Nixon’s opening to China created a 30-year rift between the former allies. If the United States reached out to China in the Cold War to weaken the Soviet Union, China may try to use Russia similarly in the Cool War. Certainly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems like he would oblige.

To manage the Cool War, we must always keep in mind the tremendous gains that both the United States and China have achieved and will continue to experience as a result of economic cooperation. Both sides should use the leverage of their mutually beneficial economic relationship to make fighting less attractive. The positive benefits of trade will not render geopolitical conflict obsolete. But focusing on them can help discourage a too rapid recourse to violence.
The world is going to change under conditions of Cool War, and efforts to keep the conflict from heating up must take account of these changes. New networks of international alliances are emerging. International organisations like the WTO will have more power than before and should be deployed judiciously and creatively. International economic law can increasingly be enforced as a result of participants’ mutual self-interest. Global corporations will have to develop new national allegiances as part of a Cool War world, but they can also provide incentives to discourage violence and associated economic losses. Human rights, long treated as a rhetorical prop in the struggle between great powers, will still be used as a tool. But over time, respecting rights may come to be in China’s interests, with major consequences for the enforcement of human rights everywhere.
What unifies these conclusions is a willingness to embrace persistent contradiction as a fact of our world. We must be prepared to acknowledge both diverging interests and also areas of profound overlap. We must be forthright about ideological distance, yet remain open to the possibility that it can gradually be bridged. We must pay attention to the role of enduring self-interest while also remembering that what we believe our interest to be can change what it actually is.
The United States and China really are opponents  and they really do need each other to prosper. Accepting all this requires changing some of our assumptions about friends and enemies, allies and competitors. It means acknowledging that opposed forces and ideas do not always merge into a grand synthesis and that their struggle also need not issue in an epic battle to the finish.
It would be uplifting to conclude that peace is logical, that rational people on all sides will avert conflict by acting sensibly. But such a conclusion simply betrays the facts and possibilities  of this tense relationship. Instead I offer a more modest claim: Geostrategic conflict is inevitable, but mutual economic interdependence can help manage that conflict and keep it from spiraling out of control.
We cannot project a winner in the Cool War. If violence can be avoided, human well-being improved, and human rights expanded, perhaps everybody could emerge as a winner. If, however, confrontation leads to violence, we will all lose. (Concluded)
– FPM

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