How to Avoid the Military Conflict between China and America?

Recently the issue of the South China Sea is becoming a key topic of Sino-US relation. Whether accidental military clashes will occur between China and US has attracted close attention of the world. Accidental clash is actually not the most terrible scenario, but escalation to fierce or irrevocably war really is. History tells us the blasting fuse is not always the fundamental course 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 him, 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; although China and America plunged in the bloody Korean war for more than 3 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 USSR and USA to launch WWⅢ. Therefore, willingness of war is far more dreadful than military conflicts, even between two great powers like the US and China.

US-Sino Tragedy from Offensive Realism

As for the possibility of US-China war, it’s necessary to mention a war predictor of John Mearsheirmer who 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 as political 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 of Prof. Mearsheirmer is mainly based on the five hypotheses: H1.the international system is essentially of anarchy; H2.great powers take hold of offensive military capacity; H3.there is absolute no security mutual trust between states; H4 survival is the first priority of any state; H5.states will calculate rationally before actions.

Prof. Mearsheirmer now still insists on his logic and believes China will be caught in the tragedy with the evolving world order.

What’s interesting is even though people always disagree with what Prof. Mearsheirmer predicts, nearly all the 5 hypotheses could perfectly match with the reality of US and China:

H1. 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;
H2. US 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;
H3. Mutual trust of the two countries is low considering the US 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;
H5. China and US show the common trait of calculation and prudence.

The only mismatching comes from H4. 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 US 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.

What’s more, the US actually sees China as a heresy yet to be remolded. China’s political model is so unique that except for Vietnam China cannot even find his own kind across the world. Therefore, on many occasions China has to resist alone the offensive ideology campaign launched by America (sometimes with his allies).
In the back of the above analysis, it seems like China and the US cannot escape the tragedy of great powers, and concerning China’s insecurity deeper than that of US, China will be more uneasy about America’s actions in the neighboring areas, which is more likely to brew risks of war.

Fortunately, as endorsed by the popular belief amongst prominent scholars and officials, China would not challenge American hegemony. The simplest reason is the huge power gap between China and US. And the somewhat indirect reason lies in that any Sino-US war, even when power structure visibly favored China , would finally interrupt the uprising tendency of China, making CCP’s historic mission of comprehensively modernizing China by the mid of 21st century a fantasy.

China as War Averter vis-à-vis America as War Favorer

It seems like we can optimistically believe the imagined US-Sino war could hardly come true, especially when referring to the popular opinions as following: firstly, China taking advantage of geological availability in the Western Pacific Region (including the South China Sea) could make a power balance with the USA; Concerning China attaching more importance to the neighboring interests, China’s stronger will also empower him to defeat any potential threats from US, and all of which the US is aware. Secondly, the islands in East and South China Sea are never the core interests of US, hence America won’t wage war against China for the trivial things. Thirdly, both China and US 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.

However, concerning the unpredictably changing situation in South China Sea, we should ask: “do the above reasons really work?” Fortunately, what we gain is not a desperate answer though never inspiring: the US and China possesses diametrically opposite preference for US-Sino war, with China as war averter while America as war lover.
It comes easily that the arguments for China won’t initiate wars against US are solid. Options of China are fundamentally decided by the national strategy and development stage of China. China now is still a comparatively poor and developing country, and unlike most countries of the world, she has yet to reunify the separated Mainland and Taiwan (both whom were born of the civil war of China in 1940s and inherently belong to the common entity of China), which in fact determines CCP’s historic mission of enriching all his people, reconciling and reunifying the two brothers of Chinese Mainland and Taiwan. On the other word, all the final targets of China’s ruling party by the mid of the century are on domestic rather than international level. And the inwardness of China’s development strategy decides the peace nature of China’s upgrowth if without external interference with China’s reunification and political development.

However, the justification for the belief that US won’t launch a war against China is far from fast.
Firstly, it’s quite doubtful whether a so-called power balance between China and US has taken shape in the Western Pacific Region. The US has obtained significant military presence in the region (Philippines) since 1898, and after the end of WWⅡthe US 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 binding China; Even though China benefits from the more convenient and reliable military logistics system in comparison with the US, concerning the combination of factors, it’s difficult to say the balance of power has formed in western pacific.

Secondly, the judgment of US’s reluctance to wage war against China is based on two preconditions. The first presupposition is the war between US and China must be large-scale war which means the loss is too high; the second is conflicts happening 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 set up unconditionally. On the one hand, conflicts over islands are not bound to escalate to full-scale war, just as the Sino-USSR 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 for tiny military friction could possible reserve tinder for the successive conflicts. What’s more, it’s difficult to imagine the loss of US hegemony just because of a short-term conventional war between US and China especially with the forward deployment of US military force.

War Prospect from Comparative Advantage

Instead of echoing with the popular viewpoints, it’s reasonable to believe the possibility of China’s peaceful development being terminated by US military interference.

In the foreseeable future, China’s economy will unceasingly grow, while in contrast, that of US will relatively decline. Therefore, peace is the most significant opportunity for China, and time favors China. If the decision-makers of US uphold maintaining a complete super power status as the overwhelming priority and saw the rising China as the major challenge to the US hegemony, then it’s natural for the US to terminate China’s rise with his advantageous tools. The so-called advantageous tools do not necessarily have absolute advantage but comparative advantage. The US had comparative advantage over the Soviet Union in economic and political regimes, so the US won Cold War mainly through economic and ideological competition with USSR; the US has the advantageous tool of monetary hegemony over Japan in 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 US will eventually compete with China with his comparative advantageous tools. But, what’re the advantageous tools of US compared to China?

Now a situation is emerging from US-Sino competition in the Asia-pacific, that is, when countries’ economy is increasingly intertwined with that of China, their security is largely dependent on the US. Therefore, if launching geo-economic competition with China, the US 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 US over China mainly come from his geo-military capacity.

However, if asked “is US war against China imperative”, the answer will be “no”. Now the US 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-Sino military confrontation, because in that case, US-Sino 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 US, America’s motive to erase China threat (imagined or imperative) by military means will heat up constantly.

The US-Sino confrontation is essentially between US-led Asia-pacific allies and China. If without the support from allies, US would lose his pacific fulcrum against China. So, before eventually resorting to military solution, US 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, US won’t or daren’t wage war against China. However, it doesn’t imply long-term tranquility of the West Pacific before face-to-face war over China. As the US highly values his hegemony, it’s quite possible for him 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 war against China.

How to Eliminate War Risks?

Firstly people must comprehend that there are significant differences of security ideas between US and China. Most western countries especially US believe in peace from democracy (mainly represented by that of US) or 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. What’s more, 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. However, kinds of facts imply seeking peace and friends from trade is rather slower than constituting anti-China alliances. For the sake of avoiding the potential US-Sino war, both the US and China should make changes in their policies and thoughts:

American side:

(1) the US should be convinced of China’s unwillingness to change the status quo that de facto facilitates China’s up growth. Up to now, China has solved border issues with 12 land neighbors accounting for some 90 percent of the total land boundary. China always advocates maintaining the status quo of disputed islands in the East and South China Sea, but 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’s responses are really hysteretic, passive and essentially defensive. If the ex-status quo could be restored, China certainly would like to safeguard it, because as aforementioned, time stands with China after all.

(2) The US should understand that what decides the stability of world order is neither the number of super powers nor the democratic degree of countries, but the institutionalization level of global governance. The US seeks to greatly and rapidly supplement the gap through allowing Japan to regain normal military capability like winners of WWⅡ.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-Sino-Japan triangle power structure, or even lead to the retreat of 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 US 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 pattern restructuring of the world order which undoubtedly favors the interests of the US.

(3) The US should pay complete respect to China’s core interests including CCP-led regime. The America-style democracy is different from China-style democracy. The American democracy is mature but Chinese democracy 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 politics 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 US is more wary of China’s challenge to his hegemony and prestige than cautious of his brutal offenses to China’s political regime and dignity. And so long as the US fails to pay complete respect to China’s CCP-led regime, the conflicts between US and China will increase rather than diminish with China’s development.

Chinese side:

(1) China should avoid ratcheting up tensions with somewhat anti-China countries to prevent US interference. On behalf of his grant 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 US 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 their 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: Island chains of the Pacific Ocean together with the western waste lands (like plateau, steppe and deserts) make up the insurmountable geographical limits for China’s rising to a complete super power like Roman Empire, British Empire and the United States. Aware of the point, China should resist the temptation to pursue military predominance beyond East Asia and clearly respect the worldwide status and influences of US 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 US 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 war or proxy war against China.


BAI Lianlei is an assistant research fellow at China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), the think tank in Beijing. He received Bachelor Degree and Master Degree on International Politics respectively in Sichuan University and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and then was honored the Doctor Degree in the same esteemed institution of CASS on Regional Economics. Now Dr. Bai is interested in China’s geo-economic policies and the political impacts. He constantly focuses on the neighboring situation of China and evaluates the effects of China’s responses. Readers and editors could reach him at bailianlei@ciis.org.cn or bill_white@163.com.

Author: BalticAsia

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