How to Avoid Military Conflict Between China and America? | 作者: Bai Lianlei | 时间: 2015-09-01 | 责编: 王嘉珮
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Recently the issue of the South China Sea is becoming a key topic of Sino-US relations. Whether accidental military clashes will occur between China and the United States has attracted close attention of the world. Accidental clash is actually not the most terrible scenario, but escalation to fierce or irrevocable war really is. History tells us the blasting fuse is not always the fundamental cause of war. If no side has the yeaning to make profit from war, even unexpectedly military conflicts could be controlled well; if one side decided to ignite a war, even all the other parties tried their best to appease it, the war will finally break out. Hence, even the Great Britain and France appeased Nazi Germany ahead of WWII, Hitler was never satisfied, because the latter has already embraced the ambition to conquer the whole world; on the contrary, although China and the United States plunged in the Korean war for more than three years in the early Cold War, the local war did not escalate to full-scale war between the two great blocks, the reason is the unwillingness of both the Soviet Union and the United States to launch WW. Therefore, willingness of war is far more dreadful than military conflicts, even between two great powers like the United States and China.


Mearsheirmer’s Prophesy vs the Popular Belief


As for the possibility of US-China war, it’s necessary to mention a war predictor of JohnMearsheirmerwho is a really prominent scholar of Chicago University and is famous as the major figure in offensive realism. He believes the war of great powers will finally break out and names this predestinated end aspolitical tragedy of great powers, of which China of course is no exception. Therefore, in the long run, peace will increasingly become a luxury when China grows to a super power. The prediction is mainly based on the five hypotheses: Hypothesis 1, the international system is essentially of anarchy; hypothesis 2, great powers take hold of offensive military capacity; hypothesis 3, there is absolute no security mutual trust between states; hypothesis 4, survival is the first priority of any state; and hypothesis 5, states will calculate rationally before actions.Prof. Mearsheirmerstill insists on his logic and believes China will be caught in the tragedy with the evolving world order.

What’s interesting is that nearly all five hypotheses could perfectly match the reality of the United States and China: Hypothesis 1, both the two countries are no doubt laid in anarchy in sight of both of them belonging nether to a common military alliance nor a FTA. And for a handful of multilateral organizations or mechanisms, like APEC and UN, that incorporate the two countries, decisions are either nonbinding or could be vetoed. Hypothesis 2, the United States and China consume the world’s first and second largest military budget respectively, possess formidable military capacity and are legitimate nuclear powers with devastating nuclear weapons. Hypothesis 3, mutual trust of the two countries is low considering the United States sparing no effort to advance pivot to Asia, further strengthening military alliances with neighboring countries of China, and even failing to take a fair enough gesture in the South China Sea just to rebuke the rising China. Hypothesis 5, China and the United States show the common trait of calculation and prudence.

The only mismatching comes from hypothesis 4. China actually suffers from threats of US-style ideology making China more vulnerable. The US threatens China by offensively expanding his ideology, while China who doesn’t draw line according to ideology, never imposes threats over US the same way. As is well-known, the United States upholds spreading American-style democracy as manifest destiny and pursues a unified political model across the whole world. This can be an offensive and conquest-oriented ideology. Whereas, China respects the diversity of civilization (including political civilization), advocates flexible design of national development path according to the particular development stage of individual countries, and believes in multivariant roads rather than a single way leading to democracy. This is an essentially tolerant and inclusive argument. China’s political model is so unique that China cannot even find his own kind across the world. The United States actually sees China as a heresy yet to be remolded. Therefore, on many occasions China has to resist alone the offensive ideology campaign launched by America (sometimes with his allies). Based on this analysis, it seems that China and the United States cannot escape the tragedy of great powers. Considering China’s sense of insecurity deeper than that of the United States, China will be more uneasy about America’s actions in the neighboring areas, and China seems more likely to wage a war first.

Fortunately, as endorsed by the popular belief amongst prominent scholars and officials, China would not challenge American hegemony by a war. The simplest reason is the huge power gap between China and the United States. And the somewhat indirect reason lies in that any Sino-US war, even when the power structure visibly favors China, would finally interrupt the uprising tendency of China, making the historic mission of comprehensively modernizing China by the mid of the21stcentury a fantasy.

From the US perspective, the popular views believe that the United States has no inclination to wage a war. First, China taking advantage of geological availability in the Western Pacific Region (including the South China Sea) could make a power balance with the United States; As China attaches more importance to its geopolitical interests, China’s stronger determination also empowers it to defeat any potential threats from the United States, and all of which the United States is aware. Second, the islands in East and South China Sea are never the core interests of the United States, hence America won’t wage wars against China for the trivial things. Both China and the United States are nuclear powers and their interests are intertwined with each other especially in economy, so if fierce war occurred between them, the results will be unimaginably detrimental to both sides.


The Confrontation between the US-led East Asian Alliance System and China


Are the above reasons justified? It comes easily that the arguments for China not initiating a war against the United States are solid. However, not all the arguments for the United States not waging a war against China are justified. The possibility that the United States would someday interrupt the rise of China by military means remains.

First of all, it’s quite doubtful whether a so-called power balance between China and the United States has taken shape in the Western Pacific Region. The United States has obtained significant military presence in the region (Philippines) since 1898, and after the end of WWthe United States has forged strong military alliances with nearly all China’s maritime neighboring countries who occupy most strategic passes of western pacific and form an islands chain; Even though China benefits from the more convenient and reliable military logistics system in comparison with the United States, concerning the combination of factors, it’s not easy to say the balance of power in the western pacific region has come into being.

Second, the belief of the United States’ reluctance to wage war against China is based on two preconditions. The first is the war between the United States and China must be large-scale war which means the loss is too high; the second is conflicts occurring in the South China Sea or East China Sea must aim at the targets from the origin region which means the gain is too low. However, both the two preconditions could not be established unconditionally. On the one hand, conflicts over islands are not bound to escalate to full-scale war, just as the Sino-Soviet war over Zhenbao Island (or Damansky Island) did not expand to total war; on the other hand, the local war not only has local implications but in the long run could have overall influence as tiny military friction could possible reserve tinder for the successive conflicts.

In the foreseeable future, China’s economic capability will unceasingly grow, while in contrast, that of the United States will relatively decline. Therefore, peace is the most significant opportunity for China. If the decision-makers of the United States uphold maintaining a complete super power status as the overwhelming priority and see the rising China as the major challenge to the United States hegemony, then it’s natural for the United States to terminate China’s rise with his advantageous tools. The so-called advantageous tools do not necessarily have absolute advantage but comparative advantage. The United States had comparative advantage over the Soviet Union in economic and political regimes, so the United States won Cold War mainly through economic and ideological competition with USSR; the United States has the advantageous tool of monetary hegemony over Japan in the 1980s (military tools are neither available nor necessary because of the presence of US-Japan military alliance), hence America ruthlessly undermined Japanese economy by compelling Japanese to allow yen’s appreciation. Thereby, the United States will eventually compete with China with his comparative advantageous tools. But, what’re the advantageous tools of the United States compared with China? Nowadays, a situation is emerging from US-China competition in the Asia-pacific, that is, when countries’ economy is increasingly intertwined with that of China, their security is largely dependent on the United States. Therefore, if launching geo-economic competition with China, the United States can hardly gain the upper hand as evidenced by his discreditable diplomatic setback on AIIB; but if carrying out geo-security confrontation, America taking advantage of Asia-pacific ally system will prevail over China, no mention to China’s inherent weakness from territory disputes with neighboring countries. Given all that, the advantageous tools of the United States over China mainly come from his geo-military capacity.

However, if asked “is the US war against China imperative?” the answer will be “no”. Now the United States is advancing his pivot to Asia on dual legs. One is TPP negotiation majoring in trade and economy; the other is relocation of military forces to Asia-Pacific region. If TPP negotiation de facto failed to reach a deal, the US hawks’ intention of intensifying conflicts between China and his neighbors would further increase. In contrast, a triumphant TPP negotiation would to a large extent alleviate the underlying US-China military confrontation, because in that case, US-China competition could be deployed in double ways of economy and security. However, concerning the general tendency of their comprehensive national strengths is an ascending China vis-à-vis a comparatively descending the United States, America’s motive to erase “China Threat” (imagined or imperative) by military means will heat up constantly.

The US-China confrontation is essentially between the US-led Asia-pacific allies and China. If without the support from allies, the United States would lose his pacific fulcrum against China. So, before eventually resorting to military solution, the United States will insist on his strategy of constantly alienating China from his neighbors, especially when China’s neighbors are also allies of America. Until gaining perfect result from the alienation strategy, the United States won’t or daren’t wage military conflicts against China. However, it doesn’t imply long-term tranquility of the West Pacific before face-to-face war over China. As the United States highly values his hegemony, it’s quite possible for it to painstakingly facilitate military frictions between China and the neighbors, which in turn will further irritate and horrify the East and Southeast Asian neighbors, and ultimately pave the way for the potential military solution against China.


What the United States and China Should Do?


People must comprehend that there’re significant differences of security ideas between the United States and China. Most western countries especially the United States believe in peace from democracy (mainly represented by that of the United States) or peace from balance of power. The former implies democratic countries (the developed and wealthier OECD countries as perfect representatives) naturally favor peace and incline to maintain peaceful relations among themselves, but wars with inherently bellicose non-democracies could not always be dodged; the latter signifies capacity rather than willingness is decisive, therefore whenever a country grow strong enough, seeking hegemony will be the priority, and according to this deduction, in order to avoid the war for hegemony, the rest of the world must join together to counterbalance the rising power or even resort to military means to restore ex-balance. What China did and does de facto accord with trade-causes-peace theory. China advocates making friends heedless of ideology but pays full respect to sovereignty, which is praised by advocates but is also notorious in the critics’ eyes. Moreover, China upholds win-win cooperation or even put morality ahead of interests, believes the world’s most urgent undertaking is to strengthen economic and strategic cooperation and constantly improve livelihood of every country, and then as the final result, mutual trust on politics and security will be reached.

For the sake of avoiding the potential US-China war, both the United States and China should make changes in their policies and thoughts:

On the US side:

1. The United States should be convinced that despite China’s unwillingness to change the status quo of disputed islands in the East and South China Sea, it never means China will refrain from making responses to unilateral actions such as nationalization of Diaoyu Islands by Japan and unilateral resource exploiting and reclamation work in South China Sea by some littoral countries. The changed situation implies China’s interests have actually been infringed, and China had to response with bold actions.

 2. The United States should understand that what decides the stability of world order is neither the number of super powers nor the state nature of the super powers, but the institutionalization level of global governance. The United States seeks to greatly and rapidly supplement the gap through allowing Japan to regain normal military capability like winners of WW. However, in the absence of unified security mechanism of East Asia, Japan’s military capacity building will undoubtedly intensify regional arm race and finally give rise to a US-China-Japan triangle power structure, or even lead to the retreat of the US influence from East Asia. The potential complex influences are obviously detrimental to regional security management, and would brew unimaginable implication for the whole world. Therefore, the cooperation between the United States and China over global issues like nuclear nonproliferation, maintenance of regional security, antiterrorism as well as global trade arrangement should be advanced further while conflicts between the two powers should be avoided. Because the improved global governance not only largely benefits the livelihood of world people, but also contributes to the peaceful restructuring of the world order, which is undoubtedly favorable to the world as a whole and the interests of the United States.

 3. The United States should pay full respect to China’s core interests including CCP-led regime. The America-style democracy is different from China-style democracy. The American democracy system is mature but Chinese democratic system is developing quickly, just like the American market economy is more complete but develops much slower than the emerging Chinese economy. However just as many US economists disagree with China’s economic development model, counterparts of America also incline to criticize Chinese political system for the characteristics enslaved to certain development stage. What’s more, the United States prefers China to undertake responsibilities corresponding to a great power rather than to enjoy the corresponding rights; the United States is more wary of China’s challenge to its hegemony and prestige than cautious of his brutal offenses to China’s political regime and dignity. So long as the United States fails to pay full respect to China’s CCP-led regime, conflicts between the United States and China will increase rather than diminish. 

On the Chinese side:

1. China should avoid ratcheting up tensions with somewhat anti-China countries to prevent interference from the third side. On behalf of its grand strategy including “one belt, one road”, China firstly should spare no effort to avoid military conflicts with other stakeholders, and in the medium to long term skillfully and reasonably move ahead on the resolution of maritime and territory disputes with relevant countries. China should not simply see allies of the enemy as enemies of China. Just as Chairman Mao told, a wise competitor always struggles for friends/allies as possible as they can even when who are members of the opposite block. China should keep in mind that its advantageous tools are from geo-economy rather than security arrangements, and only when China built up strongest possible economic relations with surrounding countries could China gain the springboard for avoiding troublesome episodes or helping damp down fuses of conflicts escalation.

2. China should develop a global strategy for the succeeding 35 years and make the outside world be fully aware. In such a strategy pursuing regional military power and global economic power rather than double global power should be the target. This is a pragmatic national goal inherently decided by China’s geographic location. Aware of the point, China should resist the temptation to pursue military predominance and clearly respect the worldwide status and influences of the United States despite never refraining from safeguarding significant interests and rights.

 3. China should enhance his regional military capacity as comprehensively, rapidly and thoroughly as possible. As aforementioned, the comparative advantageous tools of the United States over China are mainly from geo-security arena. The stronger China’s military ability grows the weaker hawks’ war impulse goes. What’s more, China must inform his bottom line of resorting to military means, such as equaling attacks on China-occupied islands or Chinese aircraft carrier fighting group to declaration of war against China, which is quite necessary to prevent face-to-face US-China conflicts or proxy war against China.



BAI Lianlei is an assistant research fellow at China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).