US-China Relationship: Is war inevitable?

Published on 12 September 2020 at 20:31

It is 50 years on since the US rapprochement to China where President Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong on an eight day trip in China which began the first stage of  relations between the two countries and then in 1979 both countries officially established diplomatic ties. Since that time the US-China relationship has been relatively benign and one that was underpinned by strategic and economic engagement. In those 50 years the US-China relationship has become increasingly interdependent, according to James Kynge of the Financial Times it has been “the most important commercial relationship in history”. In that time US companies have invested billions in China and has been vital in China’s economic growth and poverty alleviation. Since 1980 China has seen its economy grow at breakneck speed at 10% a year and has successfully lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty and increased average per capita incomes from $193 to $8,100 today.  China was a country that was once sequestered from the world  has now insinuated itself so much into the depths of the global economy that last year it contributed 30% of global economic growth, making China crucial for the overall stability and wellbeing of the global economy. As former Prime Minister of Australia and China Watcher Kevin Ridd once noted  “It is like the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years, but 30”. Moreover he claims it was the  “embodiment of the great global transformation” and one which “the collective west is woefully unprepared for”.


This sentiment became clear in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, which marked a significant turning point in the US-China relationship. Throughout his campaign he incessantly attacked China on trade and whom he asserted “rape our country”. Upon his election success there has been a precipitous decline of Chinese investment into the US and in 2019 it was recorded as the lowest year of Chinese FDI. In 2018, the Trump administration announced a series of tariffs on Chinese imports worth $50 billion, in the same year China reciprocated with their own tariffs valued around $34 billion. A year later, this escalated into areas of technology, where the Trump administration aggressively campaigned to prevent countries pursuing deals with Chinese telecom giant Huawei over issues relating to security. Moreover in 2019, in response to the Democracy protests in Hong Kong, President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act after it secured bipartisan support in the US Congress, which authorised the US to sanction individuals complicit in human rights abuses in Hong Kong. A year later the CCP announced the new National Security Law that will allow Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong and will criminalise those who engage in acts of dissent and collusion.


Fundamental to these congressional and executive orders is a clear sense of fading American preeminence and failure on the part of the US to integrate China into western norms of democracy. Meanwhile, as China’s blueprint in global affairs have aggressively expanded, the two countries' cultural, political and historical differences have become more conspicuous and acute with time. Thus, There is now an agreed bipartisan approach to push back against a more assertive China in order to maintain American supremacy. The end of WWII the US committed itself to becoming deeply involved in international relations such as the establishment of economic and security institutions like the IMF and World bank and US-Europe Nato alliance. Pivotal to these institutions was creating an alliance that would be favourable to American influence throughout the world, thus these institutions served to expand democracy and free market capitalism. According to the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in his conversations with Chinese leaders he noticed they would persistently point out that when those rules were made they were absent and thus warns us “they are no longer absent from the world stage, and so those rules need to be renegotiated with them”. Since the US and China established official diplomatic relations, it has always been the intention for the US to integrate China into a liberal democratic order, on the contrary Chinese leaders according to Kevin Rudd “have a deeply held, deeply realist Chinese conclusion that the US will never willingly concede its status as the preeminent regional and global power, and will do everything within its power to retain that position”. This paranoia has been exacerbated in recent years since the Obama administration announced the ‘pivot’ to Asia and the sale of arms to Taiwan, support for democratic activists in Hong Kong and the failure to condemn separatists terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. 


In Graham Allison’s latest book ‘Destined for war: Can America and China escape Thucydides's trap’ which explores whether or not the inevitability of war between rising powers and declining powers apply to the US and China relationship. In his book he identifies 16 cases from the 1500’s and since then 12 out of the 16 cases ended in war. In his book he ominously states that “war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized”. While the odds may be stacked against the US and China, there is enough precedent of great powers avoiding world conflict that can impart us with a level of optimism. The Cold war between the Soviet Union and the US existed in a permanent state of preparedness to go to war with each other and engaged in strategic ideological competition through proxy warfare. With time however, both sides came to a common arrangement which aimed to help avoid a global crisis. The challenge of maintaining strategic engagement is quickly deteriorating, and according to US secretary of State Mike Pompeo it has failed. However, it has not reached the point of no return, however, both powers need to establish an agreed framework that allows for strategic engagement about areas that they fundamentally disagree on and engage and be constructive around common threats that affect both powers mutually, thus building a common purpose that will avoid global conflict and maintain peace for all of humankind.

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