Will the US and China Go to War?

Amatai Etzionis, Avoiding War with China (2017, University of Virginia Press)

Jude Woodward, The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War? (2017, Manchester University Press).

China’s rise is often seen across the spectrum of Western politics, from Right to Left, to augur a new era of great power competition.  Now Trump’s belligerency has escalated speculation about a US-China conflict exponentially.  On the one hand, it seems clear that a major clash would be so completely disastrous for both sides, not least given their close economic interdependence, that the prospect is almost unimaginable.  On the other hand, the much cited ‘Thucydides trap’ suggests that when one great power threatens to displace another – as in the case of Athens and Sparta – war is the most likely outcome.  Such a scenario is heavily overlaid by the negative images of China which pervade the Western press.

Two new books on the issue – Amatai Etzioni’s Avoiding War with China and Jude Woodward’s The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War – stand out in offering an essential counter to arguments for the inevitability of conflict.  Both challenge the notion of a ‘China threat’, rooting the problem instead in the US belief in its ‘manifest destiny’ and its insistence on global leadership. It is this perspective that casts China as an existential danger.  Whilst liberals and neocons have their differences, both authors note their shared commitment to securing US position globally as the ‘indispensable power’.

The two books cover common themes of US militarisation of the Pacific and the ‘hot spots’ of Korea and the South China Sea.  Equally they share a view of China as an essentially peaceful power, which, far from seeking Pacific primacy let alone world domination, shows willingness to settle disputes through negotiation.  But their approaches are contrasting: Etzioni, a communitarian liberal, emphasises the role of diplomacy for peace, whilst Woodward, who worked in Ken LIvingstone’s London Mayor’s office, takes the angle of geopolitical economy.  Etzioni’s concern is with the failure of the US, even amongst those leaning towards engagement, to accept China as a legitimate power in the Pacific, whilst Woodward, for a wider anti-war readership, spells out the US strategy of containment towards a new Cold War in Asia.

Seeking peace?

For Etzioni, the danger of the US and China drifting into a major conflict is serious.  Already preparations are being made to launch war – an Air Sea battle of enormous proportions – against the Chinese mainland.  Given the absence of public debate, the Pentagon’s view of the ‘China threat’ has been allowed to prevail – a one-sided
demonisation which serves the interests of the military and the defence industries profiting from the capital intensive weaponry of nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and fighter jets required in the Pacific theatre.

So how aggressive is China? Etzioni asks. Island-building activities in the South China Sea are frequently held up as evidence that it is, but incidents, for example, of boat-ramming, are blown out of all proportion: no shots have ever been fired. China is indeed embarking on its own military modernisation, but with the goal of greater influence as a regional power in the Western Pacific. This should not be equated with aggression.

Etzioni sees the Thucydides trap as an argument that when a new power rises, the existing hegemon should make concessions to it in order to avoid war. A supporter of China’s integration into the liberal world order, he urges that accommodations should be made in what are after all rules designed by the US and its allies. On the contrary, he finds that the US has continually put obstacles in China’s way, whether it be in terms of more stringent requirements of admission into the WTO or limiting participation in the IMF and World Bank, or the attempts to block the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Viewing China through a liberal lens, Etzioni is certainly not uncritical.  From human rights abuses to industrial espionage to unfair competition, there is much of concern. Is China a responsible major power? No, but then who is? China’s transgressions are by comparison relatively minor and given that the US and China share many interests, Etzioni argues, there are bargains to be made. These are explored in various chapters for instance covering nuclear proliferation, preventing terrorism, the South China Sea question, and the issue of freedom of navigation, where for Etzioni it is for the US drop its insistence on acting, in outmoded Cold War-style, as the world’s policeman.

Etzioni’s key purpose is to present the notion of Mutually Assured Restraint (MAR).  There is much indeed to commend this tension-reducing diplomacy but his communitarian approach, placing conditions on sovereignty, leads him to some, to my mind, farfetched scenarios. It seems for example highly unlikely that in exchange for a US commitment not to support Taiwanese independence, China should renounce the right to use force to reclaim Taiwan.  China would simply not surrender sovereignty in this way.

Reshaping the global future

With US foreign policy turning from the transatlantic priorities of the 20th century, Woodward takes the US-China relationship as key in defining the shifting terrain of international power relations centring now on Asia.  As China’s rise increases the choices of other developing states, weakening US hegemonic influence, the US seeks to reassert its grip across the Pacific. This for Woodward is not a contest of superpower rivalry but one of a US-led, and increasingly militarised, unipolar order, and an emerging multipolar world.  In the balance is Asia’s future: as a region divided in a new Cold War or an increasingly interconnected continent gradually integrating around China’s new ‘Silk Road’ vision.

Where Etzioni’s focus is on the points of potential conflict and how to prevent a ‘hot’ war, Woodward’s take is that US policy makers are more intent on squeezing China in a ring of hostile alliances, in order to stall its growth, inducing collapse as in the case of the USSR in the 1980s.  To persuade China’s neighbours to join its containment coalition, the US seeks to convince them that they are under threat by casting China as an aggressive expansionist power under a communist dictatorship.  But, the key question is: will the potential economic advantages offered by closer relations with China prove the more influential?

What The US vs China offers then is a strategic analysis which contrasts the ‘sword’ of the US encirclement of China with China’s ‘spirit’ of reciprocity and ‘win-win’ economic benefit. Opening chapters set out the relative positions and foreign policies of the two powers taken right up to date to early months of the Trump presidency.  Following chapters survey the particular historical, economic and political circumstances of each of the countries surrounding China, from the major powers of Russia, India and Japan, to the smaller nations of South East Asia, where relations with China have been sometimes rocky, and Central Asia, where US influence has been in decline.  Deftly setting out their strategic choices, Woodward finds that many prefer to face both ways as they manoeuvre between alliance with the US and developing their own independent relations with China.

In pinpointing the strategic positioning of the major powers, Woodward makes a significant contribution to analysing the global unipolar-multipolar dynamic. Determined to prevent China emerging as the leading nation of Asia and to secure its own future as the global hegemon beyond challenge, the primary goal of the US is to divide Russia and India from China. Whilst Japan is the main US ally, India is the chief hope of counterbalancing China in Asia.  But it is the US-Russia-China triangular dynamic that will be the single most decisive factor in shaping global politics in the coming years. Should the US succeed in shifting Russia’s orientation back from East to West, this would allow it to withdraw from the Middle East and concentrate fire on China, making a new Cold War an immediate reality in Asia under rapidly escalating US threats.

Diplomacy or strategy?

Whilst Etzioni finds no fundamental conflict between the two states’ core interests, for Woodward, their strategic differences are deeply embedded in political economy:  China after all maintains public ownership as the main pillar of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” in contradiction to US neoliberalism.  Nevertheless it is she who makes the bolder claim that armed conflict is not the most likely outcome. Yet clearly, the current Korean crisis shows how close the US and China can come to war if not by intent then by accident or through miscalculation. So whilst Etzioni can be faulted, as he himself admits, for dealing with symptoms rather than the strategic roots of US-China friction, he does have a very real point in defence of MAR about the value of reducing tensions whilst seeking a cure.

However Woodward, taking measure of the longer term shift in world balance of power, grasps the bigger picture of China’s rise as transformative, changing the very essence of global political economy from power rivalry to mutual benefit as it seeks a new type of major power relationship with the US as a means of brokering an agreement on the gradual peaceful emergence of a multipolar world.

What does China really want?

The question remains of how China’s activities in the South China Sea are to be understood if not as acts of a revanchist imperialism.  Woodward makes the crucial point that, had Russia and China been present at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan conference to assert their claims – Russia to the Kurile Islands and China to islands in the East and South China Seas – the international status of these territories would have been settled long ago.  China’s claim was recognised by the 1945 Potsdam agreement, an accord which marked the victory of China’s hugely costly 8-year war of resistance against Japanese aggression, and put a final end to China’s semi-colonial status.  As part of the Yalta system, it recognised China’s equal role as one of the four Allies in defeating Fascism and its equal stake in the new UN order of world peace. The Cold War froze all this out.  What China wants today then, as one Chinese scholar wrote recently, is ‘not to squeeze the US but to keep it to the Yalta system’[1] that is recognising China’s equal place as a major power in a multipolar world.

Dr Jenny Clegg, specialist in Asia Pacific affairs, is author of China’s Global Strategy: towards a multipolar world (Pluto Press, 2009).


[1] Zhang Wenmu, ‘The Yalta System and the 21st century Asia Pacific’, Peace, (Journal of the Chinese People’s Association of Peace and Disarmament), No 116, Sept. 2015, pp.20-26

Dr. Jenny Clegg, specialist on China and Asia Pacific affairs, author of China’s Global Strategy: Towards a multipolar world (Pluto Press, 2009).