China-US relations look set to worsen, and the endgame will probably be a lose-lose situation for both sides, said Harvard University political science professor Graham Allison recently. Allison’s 2017 book Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? is a regular feature on the New York Times bestseller list.
As a former assistant defence secretary and having been adviser to numerous defence secretaries, Allison clearly knows the thought process and modus operandi of the US military. He is worried over a possible Thucydides trap — the likely conflict that ensues when an emerging power challenges the existing dominant power — between China and the US as he does not really understand China. Judging from close to a century of developments between China and the US, I believe that the possibility of a direct military war between both powers is low.
This was not because China was weak then and thought it better to bide its time. It was because through wisdom accumulated over centuries, they knew that war-seeking behaviour would be defeated, and that tyranny would not find supporters nor last.
Firstly, the Chinese government and military do not wish to directly challenge the US’s military power. China’s national strategic goal is not to rule the world. In the 1970s, Chinese leader and founding father of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong had already set the tone for China’s development — to never seek hegemony. This was not because China was weak then and thought it better to bide its time. It was because through wisdom accumulated over centuries, they knew that war-seeking behaviour would be defeated, and that tyranny would not find supporters nor last.
Today, the Chinese leaders’ talk about a “dream of national rejuvenation” is but the pursuit of equal speaking rights to ensure that the history of being humiliated and bullied by Western powers is not repeated. The Chinese government has emphasised that it would not challenge the US-led international order and is willing to rank second. These actions illustrate that China is unwilling and unprepared to fight against the US.
China is telling the world that it has no wish of upsetting the status quo or challenging the US-led world order.
Secondly, the Chinese very much cherish the peaceful development opportunities that they currently enjoy. In July 1993, on allegations that China was shipping compounds needed to make chemical weapons to Iran, the US demanded an inspection, which led to China’s Yinhe container ship being stranded in international waters for a month. In 1999, the US bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, resulting in the deaths and injury of numerous embassy staff. This was a blatant act of war and an insult that no country would endure — but the Chinese government did.
In 2001, in what became known as the spy plane incident, a US intelligence aircraft intruded upon China airspace in the South China Sea and collided with a Chinese fighter jet, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the destruction of his jet. The US military aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airport. Upon landing, the soldiers on board the US aircraft were well treated by the Chinese and even had their intelligence aircraft returned to them eventually. China can be said to have gone the extra mile in offering help and extending kindness. China is showing the US through practical means that it does not wish to become enemies with the US.
Additionally, China adheres to a non-aligned policy. Different from the US and Russia, China does not have its own military alliance or garrison overseas. China’s assistance to and support for some third world countries comprise economic and trade cooperation that does not come with the condition that they become its allies. China is telling the world that it has no wish of upsetting the status quo or challenging the US-led world order.
Most importantly, China is one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the world’s third-largest nuclear power. It possesses a nuclear triad system of land, air and sea nuclear strike capability as well as a nuclear second-strike capability or the ability to respond in kind to a nuclear attack. Global Times editor Hu Xijin recently proposed that China needs to increase its nuclear warheads to 1,000 to “curb US strategic ambitions and impulses toward China”. His suggestion drew huge debate across China and the international community, but it was just a casual remark from Hu.
Is it not enough to annihilate the world once? Is there a need to destroy it a dozen or hundred times over?
China has never made public its number of nuclear warheads. No one knows how many nuclear warheads China has. Who knows? Perhaps China has long been in possession of over 1,000 warheads. I think that it is instead utterly stupid for countries like the US and Russia to have a few thousand nuclear warheads capable of obliterating the world a dozen or hundred times over. Not only is it extremely wasteful, but it is also a major risk to themselves. Is it not enough to annihilate the world once? Is there a need to destroy it a dozen or hundred times over?
China need only possess a few hundred nuclear warheads capable of destroying the US, and the latter would not want to declare war on China. There is certainly no need to target every other small city or bridge of the other party like what the US and Russia are doing. The US definitely does not wish to be destroyed together with China.
The US will be circumspect as well
Another important factor that is keeping the US from declaring war on China is Russia. As an ancient Chinese saying goes: “In the fight between the snipe and the clam, the fisherman has the best of it (鹬蚌相争, 渔翁得利)." The third party would ultimately benefit the most from fierce competition between two unyielding parties.
Our world is a very complex one. The US does not dare to declare war on China because it is worried over how Russia would react. While China and Russia are not military allies, Russia certainly does not wish to see China being harmed by the US as the relationship between China and Russia is represented by the Chinese idiom chunwang chihan (唇亡齿寒, lit. the teeth will feel cold without the lips) — they are intimately interdependent. Without China, Russia would have to withstand greater pressure from the US.
Many Chinese think that the US has many allies, but it is actually very difficult to judge if one is a friend or foe before a crisis actually happens.
Secondly, the US has too many enemies in this world. Many Chinese think that the US has many allies, but it is actually very difficult to judge if one is a friend or foe before a crisis actually happens. This is exactly what the Chinese saying “a true friend is revealed in times of crisis” (危难见真交, similar to the proverb, “a friend in need is a friend indeed”) means. Because of this, the US would not dare to declare war on China so easily. Too many countries in this world want to be enemies with the US. All is well if China and the US do not fall out. Once they have a falling-out, China would strongly support Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in their bid to exhaust the US’s strength, just like what happened in Vietnam, leaving the US with no means of escape.
The result of its suppression of and sanctions on China would not be as simple as a mere lose-lose situation, but an acceleration of its own decline.
China-US relations are worsening because the Americans feel that China’s development is a threat to its leadership role. They have been feeling this way for a while now. Trump’s trade war against China is not the starting point of their worsening relations. Some Chinese leaders wishfully think that China and the US are friends, and treat some American politicians as “old friends”.
In 2008, the US experienced a financial crisis. The Chinese government acceded to the demands of the US’s treasury department and bought over huge amounts of US distressed assets, losing a few hundred billion dollars as a result. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had openly said then that saving the US is akin to saving China. That is just a way of self-deception. To American government officials, China has always been its strategic rival.
Trump is initiating a trade war, boycotting Huawei, and blaming its coronavirus situation on China because its past strategies failed to hinder China’s rise. American elites have mistakenly thought that they were able to obstruct China’s rise. They do not have the ability to do so. They have tried doing so in the 1950s and 1960s, but even when China was still weak and incapable then, the US was already unable to contain it. Moreover, China has since grown and strengthened itself. The US would be overestimating its ability if it thinks that it can stop China’s rise.
The US’s decline is a result of its own policies and has no direct relation to China. The result of its suppression of and sanctions on China would not be as simple as a mere lose-lose situation, but an acceleration of its own decline.
Related: Escaping the new Cold War: Fostering understanding between China and the West | China-US conflict: Avoiding the unavoidable tragedy | Is China the 'big bad wolf' the US has made it out to be? | China: Sole preoccupation of US foreign policy | China wants 'co-opetition' with the US, but can that happen? | In a world split apart, where do you belong?