Sino-US Conflict: How to Avoid a Cold War Turning Hot

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United States and China flags placed together (Image Credit: Uncutnews)

Before the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Yuval Noah Harari, a prominent academic, commented that such a conflict would shatter the convention of avoiding battle at all costs. As this struggle marks its one-year anniversary, the world’s attention has shifted towards the world’s two superpowers; war between them is no longer a laughable Doomsday prophecy, but a tangible issue which every government should strive to prevent. 

Many academics who doubt that war will break out draw parallels between China and the USSR; “if the Cold War superpowers avoided direct conflict,” so the saying goes, “then the chance that the US and China will fight is minimal.” Conversely, this analogy has two glaring flaws. Firstly, its premise is questionable; there were several occasions during the Cold War which almost led to all-out conflict, such as the Cuban Missile and Berlin Crises, and it is rash to assume that diplomatic talks will always resolve similar incidents between China and America. Secondly, the comparison between China and the USSR is dubious.  Although both have shown antagonistic views towards the US, China is far more powerful than the Soviet Union ever was, and thus China would be more emboldened to enter a conflict with Uncle Sam. It is forecast to match America’s GDP by 2031 and already boasts the world’s largest navy, whereas the USSR’s GDP (at its peak) was 40% of America’s and it possessed a substandard navy and air force.  In addition, the Mutual Assured Doctrine, the consensus developed during the Cold War that both sides would be annihilated in the event of conflict, was a key argument in preventing direct combat between America and the Soviet Union. Conversely, both China and the US are confident that the other will not nuclear weapons in war due to their no-first-use policies, which lowers the stakes of total war and makes it more likely. 

Others argue that these countries may cooperate when tackling global issues, which will reduce mutual hostility. This is improbable given their propensity to compete against each other rather than collaborate, which is best exemplified by the G7’s Build Back Better World attempts to replace, not complement, China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Another optimistic suggestion is that conflict would be avoided due to the economic damage that it would cause, but these losses would be marginal for two reasons.  Unlike in some wars, such as the Football War, neutral countries would not impose sanctions on America and China to persuade them to end a potential conflict, because the blowback from implementing penalties on the two largest economies would be devastating. And while the loss of $730bn in annual bilateral trade would hurt both sides, their self-sufficiency plans will mitigate the damage from the absence of crucial imports, especially computer chips. They could also make up for the shortfall by increasing commerce with their allies; Russian exports increased in 2022 year-on-year for this reason, despite dramatic reductions in trade with the West.

To understand why war is likely, one needs to understand its potential causes, the most probable one being a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The idea that the US would directly intervene in such an event no longer deters China, as it believes that there would not be enough American public support for a military campaign thousands of miles from home. It also doubts America’s military strength, since it currently spends a mere 3.3% of GDP on defense, close to its post-war low. Xi Jinping has personal incentives to invade Taiwan as well because he believes that forceful reunification, which is supported by most Chinese people, would put him on the same pedestal as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. His need to rebuild public trust is also urgent; his reputation has been tarnished by his disastrous reopening after the pandemic, overregulation of the technology industry, and destruction of the property market. 

Contrary to Chinese opinion, the US is also likely to respond to an invasion with military force. Some see its refusal to send crucial weapons to Ukraine, let alone offer troops, as proof that American intervention is out of the question, but it is important to note that defending Taiwan is infinitely more important to the US than aiding Ukraine. Firstly, America would be humiliated internationally if it did not as they have pledged to do so for decades, including by signing the Taiwan Relations Act, whereas it has no defense treaty with Ukraine. Backing down would therefore make them seem untrustworthy to their allies, a perception which many of them already have after Donald Trump neglected many of America’s partners during his tenure. Moreover, the global community would perceive a lack of US commitment as a sign that China had overtaken it as the world’s dominant superpower, believing that the US was deterred by China’s military might. History has shown that a change of superpower often leads to war, either because the new power wants to annihilate the old power before it is overtaken itself, or because the old power wants to destroy the power while it still can. Furthermore, Taiwan protects America’s geopolitical interests by hosting their bases to keep Chinese aggression in check, whereas the Ukraine does not play a similarly strategic role. The US also relies heavily on Taiwan economically, as it is America’s ninth largest trading partner (Ukraine is its 67th largest), and the island exports more than half of the world’s semiconductors. Lastly, if China believes that America would defend Taiwan, it may pre-emptively strike their Pacific bases in Japan or Guam, forcing the US to respond with military action.

The tensions caused by Chinese and American operations in the South China Sea may escalate into total war as well, since China fears being encircled by the American bases in the region. This is problematic because China tends to engage in conflict with whomever it feels threatened by, as shown in the Korean and China-Vietnam Wars, even if its enemies are stronger than itself. Beijing’s hope that “if we defeat one [of America’s Asia-Pacific allies], then we will bring the others to heel” also makes matters worse.  Moreover, given that both sides are more wary of each other than they were twenty years ago, any minor accidents that may occur, such as the collision between US and Chinese warplanes in 2001, would likely not be forgiven, but they would be seen as acts of aggression and would result in retaliation. This suspicion will not end soon; the trade war, anger over espionage, and arguments over China’s human rights abuses have led to the worst bilateral relations since the 1950s. Furthermore, public opinion would hinder each side’s ability to ease tensions, since a staggering 89% of Americans dislike China and two-thirds of the Chinese public view the US unfavorably.

The current outlook makes war seem almost inevitable, but the fact that humans cause conflict means that they can avoid it too. Therefore, China and America should reject a pessimistic approach to Sino-American relations because this would only cause further mutual demonization and shift policy from war prevention to war preparation. Furthermore, they should understand each other’s redlines and be more predictable so that miscalculation can be prevented. To this end, the US should continue abandoning its traditional stance of ‘strategic ambiguity’, which reassures China that America supports reunification while declaring that they will defend Taiwan, since China would see such dithering as a symbol of American weakness and thus a green light for reclaiming the island. The final goal should be to restore diplomacy between the two nations, which is currently in deep freeze; Xi and Biden have only met briefly at the 2022 G20 summit and they have closed many of each other’s consulates. Revitalization of such discussion would provide an avenue for the rapid resolution of any discontent before they become larger grievances, which has been a pivotal obstacle to negotiations in the past. For example, Japan has avoided bringing up reparations for its war crimes during World War II, which hampers collaboration between them to this day.

There is little time left to prevent conflict between the two hegemonies – it is estimated that Taiwan will be invaded by 2027. Rather than procrastinate, as bureaucracies often do, the US and China should choose to change course now, before a Sino-American war truly becomes unavoidable.

Written by Sean Tan

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