MAR: A Model for US-China Relations
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

MAR: A Model for US-China Relations


The United States and China, as well as the international community, would benefit significantly if both powers adopted a strategy of Mutually Assured Restraint (MAR). It would help them to move away from the current distrust both sides exhibit in their dealings with each other, cap the military build up, reduce the risks of unintended conflagrations, allow both nations to dedicate more resources to urgent domestic needs, and increase collaborations in many matters that concern both powers.

By MAR we mean that both powers adopt measures that would allow China to take the steps it holds are necessary for self-defense, without extending them to the point that they threaten other nations or the international commons. It allows for the United States to take the steps it holds necessary for self defense, while living up to its obligations to its allies in the region and maintaining the international order. MAR would fall in the category of the steps President Ronald Reagan defined as “trust but verify,” concepts very effectively embedded in SALT.

The application of MAR to the U.S.-Sino relationship can be highlighted by an approach to the Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons development, especially anti-ship missiles. China holds that it has developed A2/AD weapons for self defense;  the U.S. views them as a threat to its ability to discharge its obligations to Taiwan and Japan, as well as other nations in the area, and as a threat to freedom of navigation in the region. Both powers should agree to limit the number and range of these missiles; that these limitations should be verified by agreed methods; and that such short-range, defensive missiles could be provided to other nations in the area, such as Japan, thus curbing a major source of the current pressure to arm.

MAR should be extended to cyberspace. In effect, China has suggested a code of conduct in this realm that appears to provide a very promising base for MAR. Another approach would entail recognition that using cyber-space for the collection of information about another power’s military and economic base is a long-standing practice in international relations and may be unrealistic to try to ban. However, both powers could agree to restrain their preparations for using cyber tools for kinetic attacks, for instance by committing themselves not to plant malware in the other power’s systems. Such an agreed restraint could be vetted.

Instead of treating the nations on China’s borders as contested areas that each power attempts to pull into its orbit, under MAR they would be treated as neutral buffer zones, similar to Austria, and for a while Yugoslavia, during the Cold War. While both powers would be free to continue engaging these nations economically, MAR would prohibit military treaties, agreements, and exercises.

It is particularly important for MAR that the status of the contested islands not be changed by unilateral moves, and that their status be negotiated, arbitrated or adjudicated by an agreed international body.

MAR is not meant to be the only foundation on which to base a more cooperative US-Sino relationship. There is a long list of areas in which both powers have identical or complimentary interests, and in which they can work together. These include reducing the dangers of nuclear proliferation, climate change, counter-terrorism and financial/economic stability.

Calls on China to abide by the rules and norms of the international order should take into account that this order is subject to mutually agreed, negotiated revisions. For instance, the U.S., France and the U.K. have in the past supported armed humanitarian interventions under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect initiative, although that violates a long tradition of nations not using force to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, based on the Westphalia Treaty and UN Charter.

China has indicated that it might agree to such changes to the international order, so long as these interventions are not used to move beyond their humanitarian goal, and do not lead to coercive regime change, as they did in Libya. Under MAR, both powers could negotiate agreed changes in the international order, rather than one side de facto changing it, and demanding that the other power consider the change acceptable, as if it has been properly adjudicated.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

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