China-U.S. relations are rapidly deteriorating on a variety of critical fronts, including trade and technology transfer, military-to-military ties, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Now in the midst of their deepening and widening trade war, the United States has — in quick succession — imposed sanctions against a unit of China’s Defense Ministry and its government director for purchasing Russian military equipment and announced a new sale of $330 million in military equipment to Taiwan. The United States also executed yet another freedom of navigation exercise against China’s maritime claims and stepped up its nuclear-capable B52 overflights of the East and South China Seas. To top it off, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence accused China of meddling in the upcoming U.S. elections.
This spate of aggressive actions has left some wondering if Washington wants to permanently damage U.S.-China relations.
China clearly considers this spurt of provocative actions a step up in the tension between the two and responded accordingly. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that Washington’s moves threatened the “total destruction” of four decades of gains in China-U.S. relations.
China protested these actions in word and deed. It cancelled a scheduled meeting in the United States between its head of navy and the U.S. chief of naval operations and postponed a military dialogue between U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and a high-ranking Chinese military official. China also refused permission for a U.S. Navy port call in Hong Kong and undertook live-fire drills in the South China Sea with fighter jets and bombers. And during the United States’ latest freedom of navigation operation, China aggressively trailed the U.S. Navy vessel in question, leading to U.S. complaints about the “unsafe” nature of the encounter.
Despite the deluge of disputes, Mattis downplayed the uptick in tensions, saying, “We’re just going through one of those periodic points where we’ve got to learn to manage our differences.”
In a similar vein, Wang said there is “no cause for panic… What is important is how these differences should be viewed, evaluated and handled.”
Maybe there is no cause for immediate concern. But a leaking status quo on all or most fronts could lead to spiraling escalation and reinforcement of mistrust and tit-for-tat belligerence. Indeed, some think Mattis was just “whistling by the graveyard” and that the two may actually be on the brink of an across-the-board cold war “with 21st century characteristics.”
One of the seminal unknowns of our time is how U.S.-China relations evolve from here.
There are many possibilities. In a worst-case scenario, the two wind up in a hot war — by accident or otherwise. This is unlikely in the near term. Neither wants this. China realizes the current superiority of U.S. military might and the United States realizes it would not win such a war quickly or easily. Moreover, the possibility of a conflict escalating to a nuclear exchange is a powerful mutual deterrent, as are their interlocking — but rapidly deteriorating — economic links.
At the other extreme is a scenario in which the two shrug off their current differences and carry on with business as usual. That means cooperating where possible and competing where they must — but within an expanding envelope of the current “international order.” This is the default option of doing nothing proactively to repair relations.
A leaking status quo may not hold because the U.S.-China struggle for domination of Asia is only a superficial manifestation of much deeper differences – in effect a “clash of civilizations.” The two have diverging visions of what the world should be like. The new U.S. National Security Strategy released in December 2017 characterizes the U.S.-China struggle as “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order…” It also labels China as a “revisionist power.” That means the United States thinks China wants to change the existing rules, norms, and values that govern relations between nation-states — the so-called existing “international order.” Washington views China as a potential threat to the benefits it enjoys as the leader and arbiter of that order. China’s President Xi Jinping has fed such fears by explicitly recognizing this fundamental divergence of cultural and ideological world views and encouraging a rejection of Western influence and implicitly of Western civilizational models.
Without pre-emptive action, the status quo could descend into a true world-polarizing cold war, with all the negative ramifications for the region’s peace, stability, economics, and internal politics. More worrying, this cold war could eventually tip into a “hot war.” There are many scenarios that could one day lead to a military confrontation between China and the United States that could escalate into war. Likely triggers include a Chinese attack on or blockade of Taiwan, or a Chinese attack on the Japanese-administered but Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands — known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu — which the United States has said fall under the Japan-U.S. security treaty.
Given this situation, U.S. policymakers need to address a series of fundamental questions regarding their China policy. The first: is the United States prepared to militarily confront China? If so then all bets are off and the U.S. (and China) should gird for war.
If the answer is “no” or “not now,” then the United States should work much harder than it has so far to find and negotiate compromises that it can live with to resolve some of the nonfundamental differences. China could also help by negotiating a resolution of the “trade war.” But Beijing could also let the trade disputes simmer and use its considerable holdings of U.S. debt or its influence in the U.S.-North Korea standoff to try to influence the upcoming U.S. elections in its favor.
The U.S.-China issue cluster centered around the South China Sea is actually rather low on the list of possible triggers or tipping points for a “hot war.” That is why it might be a good place to start looking for possible compromises.
In one compromise, China could refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed features. Beijing would also pledge not to undertake any new provocative actions like occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in the area, or declaring and enforcing an air defense identification zone over the Spratlys. It would also agree to a Code of Conduct for activities in the South China Sea – although it will probably not be as robust or as binding as many would like. The United States, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative FONOPs there and its close-in intelligence probes, which China says violates its national laws and threaten its security. It would also refrain from belligerent threats and actions like “blockading” China’s occupied features.
If the United States would even consider such a deal, it would indicate to all that Washington recognizes and respects China’s status as a dominant regional power. This is really what China wants – at least for now. Strategically, this would set the tone for the region – in essence a political and military stand–off and de-escalation. Indeed, such a compromise would go a long way toward reducing tension between the U.S. and Chinese militaries in general and could dampen tension in other spheres.
But similar compromises would have to be found in other significant spheres of dispute like on Taiwan and trade disputes. Obviously, even these compromises will not resolve the more fundamental dialectic. That can only come peacefully with time and mutual adjustments of the definition of national interest. But wise and cool heads on both sides must put the brakes on the rapidly unraveling relationship. As Australian analyst Nick Bisley says, “unless the U.S. and China can step down from the escalatory cycle they are on, we are sliding into another period in which great power rivalry, militarized competition and dangerous nationalism once again dominate the region.”
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.