The harsh—one might even say hysterical—reaction to the Chinese balloon that crossed the continental United States last weekend was just the latest indication of rising tensions between the US and China. But the rhetorical tempest that ensued obscured and impeded what should be the most urgent issue on the agenda—preventing a war between the US and China.
Thankfully, President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday contrasted with the extreme rhetoric of the China hawks, who have seized on the balloon incident in an attempt to drive the American public towards confrontation with Beijing. Biden did speak of “modernizing our military” to deter China, but he also said that he seeks “competition, not conflict” and that the US was “committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.” He should follow up his words by quickly rescheduling Secretary of State Blinken’s trip to China, as a first step toward crafting a policy of constructive coexistence.
Yet if President Biden decides to adopt a more cooperative approach to US-China relations, he will face stiff opposition not just outside of his administration but within it as well. Just last week, four-star Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan caused a stir when a memo surfaced in which he predicted a US war with China, stating that “my gut tells me we will fight in 2025” and instructing his subordinates that “unrepentant lethality matters most.” Minihan’s statement is as irresponsible as it is misguided. Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, injected a note of sanity when he said of Minihan’s assertion that war is “not only not inevitable, it’s highly unlikely.”
No matter how likely one thinks a war between the US and China may be, the overriding goal of US policy should be to prevent it from happening. A series of recent war games—including those conducted by our organization, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and by the Center for Strategic and International Studies—indicate that a US-China conflict would inflict heavy losses on both sides, destabilize the global economy, and run the risk of a nuclear confrontation, all while devastating rather than protecting Taiwan. Engaging in an arms race with China in the name of a narrowly defined military deterrence—a US buildup designed to dissuade China from taking aggressive action—will not reduce these risks. What is needed is a policy that balances reasonable measures of deterrence with concerted efforts at reassurance, ultimately aiming to return the US-China relationship to a sound foundation.
One of the most important things the United States can do to reduce tensions with China is to clarify and revive its commitment to the “One China” policy that has kept the peace among China, Taiwan, and the US for five decades. The policy calls, among other things, for China to commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the question of Taiwan’s status, and for the US to forswear support for Taiwan’s formal independence and maintain only informal relations with the Taiwanese government.
China, in turn, has increased its threatening military moves around Taiwan, and each Chinese provocation is met by a US provocation in return. This spiraling cycle of escalation threatens to empower people like General Minihan and similarly aggressive figures on the Chinese side, who see no future in which the United States and China can peacefully coexist.
Unfortunately, in the name of strengthening deterrence against their rival, both the United States and China have been undermining this crucial understanding. On several occasions, President Joe Biden has promised US military intervention if China attacks Taiwan, throwing the US policy of strategic ambiguity into deep doubt. Although each time the administration has insisted that its commitment to the One China policy is intact, momentum in Congress to formally alter this policy has been building for some time.
But it is not too late to chart a different course. On the military front, the United States should adopt a defensive strategy rather than spinning out dangerous scenarios of how to win a war with a nuclear-armed power. US military spending is about two-and-a-half times that of China, and the US has major allies in the region of a sort that China does not, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. An active denial strategy that focuses on supplying defensive weapons to US allies and a lower-profile, more agile deployment of US forces in the region would raise the costs of Chinese military action without exacerbating China’s own sense of insecurity. By contrast, a dramatic expansion of the US military presence near Chinese shores and an arms race backed by aggressive rhetoric like that of General Minihan and others in Washington would increase the risks of war.
To be successful, however, a smarter approach to deterrence must be matched with a strategy to rebuild confidence on both sides that the United States and China can survive and prosper together. Even though the United States and China built a powerful record of cooperation on pandemic disease and climate change less than a decade ago, that recent history now seems forgotten and zero-sum thinking predominates on both sides.
The only way to rebuild trust is to devote at least as much effort to working with China on issues of mutual concern as is currently being devoted to confrontation. These issues—including climate change, nuclear proliferation, and stabilizing the global economy—would not only reduce the risk of a disastrous war; they would also help resolve some of the most threatening problems facing the world today, increasing the security of both the American and Chinese peoples. A war of words of the type exemplified by General Minihan’s statement or an overly militarized US government approach to the challenge posed by China will undermine any efforts in this direction.
None of the above should preclude the United States from speaking out against negative Chinese behavior, from its stamping out of the democracy movement in Hong Kong to its harsh repression of its Uyghur population. But war or threats of war do not improve human rights—they strengthen nationalists and militarists, on all sides, who are the greatest enemies of human rights.
The United States has a say in whether a catastrophic war with China happens or not. Our policy towards Beijing should reflect that reality.