Sebastian Rosato on the US-China ‘Collision Course’

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Sebastian Rosato on the US-China ‘Collision Course’

Why the Notre Dame professor believes the U.S. and China cannot avoid security competition.

Sebastian Rosato on the US-China ‘Collision Course’

Chinese citizens wave the U.S. and China flags as the Liberation Army-Navy ship Qingdao (DDG 113) arrives in Hawaii for a scheduled port visit.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo

Sebastian Rosato, an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Political Science and Director of the Notre Dame International Security Program, famously theorized that the United States and China are on a collision course. He recently spoke with Zhang Juan of Dunjiao about the potential for a conflict between China and the United States and the future of the bilateral relationship.

This interview was originally published in Chinese by Dunjiao (formerly Consensus Net).

First, could you please explain to us your famous view that the United States and China are on a collision course. Why are you so sure about it?

I am interested in what is likely to happen if China continues to grow its military and economy at the current rate and eventually becomes a genuine peer competitor of the United States. If that happens — and no one knows for sure whether or not it will — the two powers will have the military strength to do each other enormous damage.

Whether or not they engage in security competition will then largely depend on what they conclude about each other’s intentions, which is to say their plans of action. If both states are confident that the other has no plans to do it harm — that it has benign intentions — then they will likely cooperate. But if they are uncertain as to whether or not the other has benign intentions, then they will look to protect themselves by building up their forces and alliances — they will likely engage in an intense security competition.

The reason that security competition is inevitable — in my words, the reason that the United States and China are on a collision course — is that great powers are condemned always to be uncertain about each other’s intentions. There are several reasons for this.

For starters, a state’s intentions are in the heads of a handful of its key decision makers, which means that they are virtually impossible to see and measure. And because a state’s intentions are national security matters of the highest order, those few individuals go to great lengths to conceal them. This is why there is next to no evidence in the historical record of a high ranking official revealing a great power’s intentions.

Moreover, although states can know a number of things about each other with confidence, these are only ambiguously related to their intentions. For example, states know for sure that other states want to be secure. The problem is that security can be achieved in two very different ways. A state that seeks security could decide to cooperate with other states (it could have benign intentions) or it could seek to destroy them (it could have malign intentions). In the early years of the Cold War, for example, the United States weighed the costs and benefits of cooperating with Moscow or rolling back Soviet power. In other words, knowing that another state seeks security tells you little about its intentions. Actions are also only ambiguously related to intentions. If a state arms, is this because it is malign and plans to attack or is it because it is benign and wants to be able to defend itself? This was precisely the problem of interpretation that the European great powers faced in the years before World War I.

In addition, great powers have, and know that others have, powerful incentives to deceive others about their intentions. Consider a great power that has aggressive intentions; it will hide these plans or try to appear to have benign intentions so that its intended victim will let its guard down. Adolf Hitler is probably the most obvious case — he went to great lengths to persuade the other great powers that he had benign intentions in the 1930s — but all great powers have at some time engaged in deception for strategic reasons. Because all great powers know this, they are suspicious of other states’ peaceful declarations or conciliatory actions.

Finally, states know that intentions can change. Even if a state has benign intentions today, its leaders can change their minds or new leaders with different intentions can come to power. No one knows who the next president of the United States will be and what his or her intentions will be. The same is true of China. And no one knows what crises, changes in the balance of power, or diplomatic realignments will crop up over the next few years, all of which have the potential to change U.S. and Chinese leaders’ intentions.

When you talk about the inevitability of conflict, does the word “conflict” include military conflict?

My argument says that if China becomes a peer competitor of the United States, then security competition is inevitable. Now, security competition can certainly take the form of military conflict. When states compete for power they sometimes become involved in military crises and even wars, which is to say, military conflicts. But competition is a broader category than military conflict. It also refers to other activities such as increases in military spending, force improvements, arms racing, and the search for allies. In short, I argue that competition is inevitable and that military conflict — which is a subset of competition — is possible.

China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the idea of a new model of great power relations a couple of years ago, aiming to avoid conflicts between a rising power and an established power. What are your thoughts about this idea?

As I understand it, President Xi Jinping’s new model of great power relations emphasized no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect for each other’s core interests, and mutually beneficial cooperation.

My view is that statements such as these do little to reassure the United States about China’s intentions. To be sure, the statement could be interpreted as evidence that China has benign intentions toward the United States and only wants to cooperate. But is could equally be interpreted as a Chinese attempt to create an international environment that will allow China to rise to great power status unopposed, at which point it will have the capability to push the United States and its allies around. To go back to the theoretical framework I laid out earlier, the statement is clear, what was said can be known with confidence, but what it tells U.S. officials about Chinese intentions is ambiguous.

Looking forward, what are your thoughts for the two governments to manage this relationship?

As I hope is clear by now, I do not think that this relationship can be managed in the sense that the United States and China can avoid an intense security competition. The key issue is that they cannot persuade each other that they have benign intentions today and will continue to have benign intentions tomorrow. This situation is genuinely tragic. It could well be that both the United States and China actually have benign intentions, but they cannot make each other confident of this fact and they certainly cannot make each other confident that they will continue to have benign intentions well into the future. Like all great powers, their statements and actions will provide ambiguous information about their intentions; they will know that the other has incentives to conceal or misrepresent its true intentions; and they will be aware that there are many reasons that the other side’s intentions can change.

Some scholars believe that the U.S. presence in Europe helps keep the European states from engaging in security competition with each other. A similar argument applies in Asia where the U.S. presence prevents competitions among China, Japan, and Russia. Does this mean that unipolarity is more stable than a bipolar structure?

Just to be clear, your question seems to equate stability with a lack of security competition.

If so, there is little question that unipolarity has been a cause of stability. The U.S. presence in Europe and Asia has surely served to tamp down security competition in those regions since the end of the Cold War.

That said, there is still plenty of security competition in unipolarity. Consider that the United States is currently engaged in security competitions with both Russia and China. India and Pakistan are engaged in their own security competition. So, too, are several states in the Middle East.

When we look at the volatile Middle East (Syria, ISIS, etc), the animosity between the U.S. and Russia, and China’s difficult relations with its neighbors, how would you explain these phenomena from a realist point of view?

I think it is important to be clear about what realism can and cannot do. Most important, realism is designed to explain relations among major powers. In essence, it says that those states will compete for power. So it does a good job of explaining the strained nature of U.S.-Russia relations and the U.S. pivot to Asia to balance against China. It is no accident that my research has focused on the European Community, which was formed at the height of the superpower rivalry, and U.S.-China relations today. At the same time, realism is not designed to explain other issues in international relations. So it has little to say about Syria and ISIS. To understand those issue, we need midrange theories of politics, not grand theories like realism.