The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Last week a Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over Montana. A few days later, when the balloon had flown a few thousand miles to the south and east, the US military shot it down off the coast of South Carolina. The Chinese responded to this with outrage, claiming shooting down the balloon was an unprovoked attack by the US. This assertion is absurd. Flying a spy balloon over a large swath of the US was the provocation. Shooting it down was a reasonable response to that.
This event occurred in the context of what is usually referred to as “rising tensions” between China and the US. A week or so before the spy balloon incident, a four-star general in the US Air Force, Mike Minihan, predicted that China and the US would be at war within a few years. To be clear, General Minihan did not make this prediction on television or through a Tweet, but in an internal memo that found its way, as these things inevitably do, onto social media.
Naturally, politicians have sought to exploit this tension and show how tough they are on China. Most notably, Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State who distinguished himself in that job primarily through his unbending loyalty to Donald Trump, appears to be preparing a run for president based on the promise of heightening the conflict with China. Pompeo is not the only Republican seeking to ratchet up the tension between with China. Some Democrats are getting into the act too. Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last year is the highest-profile example of congressional Democrats’ posturing towards China.
Relations between China and the US are neither simple nor easy. Taiwan, trade, intellectual property, and human rights are among the major issues that divide the two countries. Underlying almost all of this is a larger struggle, at least as seen from Washington, for global primacy. The US is currently the most powerful country in the world, but Washington believes China is trying to unseat the US. This is the Thucydides Trap on which Minihan based his prediction.
The complexity of the relationship between the countries must not overshadow one very basic and important reality. War between China and the US would be devastating not just for those two countries, but for much of the globe. Both countries have very strong militaries including nuclear weapons, are deeply integrated into global trade, and are the two most powerful countries in the world. A shooting war between China and the US would lead to massive numbers of casualties, a global economic downturn, and other not quite foreseen, but very likely negative, consequences. Anybody on either side of the dispute who does not understand this is living in a bizarre jingoistic fantasy world-and that includes the likes of Mike Pompeo.
The most important task confronting American, and Chinese, foreign policy is to avoid a war between the two countries. This is so obvious it should not even need to be said, but so few in the American media or political class are saying it. Talking tough on China is, at least in the short run, good politics, particularly for Republicans. Because Republicans are not in power and have little impact on foreign policy decisions, there is the little immediate cost for them to criticize the Biden administration for not being tough enough on China. The Republicans don’t have to back up these words with actions, but their words also escalate the tensions between the US and China.
The challenge for the Biden administration is that while avoiding war is essential, there are also areas of genuine disagreement and competition between the two countries. The US cannot simply ignore a spy balloon over American territory, China’s saber-rattling towards Taiwan, or even the massive human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. However, allowing these issues to spill over into a war would be a grave mistake.
This is a difficult, but crucial, balance to strike, but has also long been at the center of US foreign policy. A combination of carrots, sticks, threats, compromise, and dialog is essential for an effective US policy towards China. That is never easy but is made even more difficult when the administration is being pushed towards increasingly more hawkish policies by the party out of power. Republican politicians and presidential aspirants have every right to criticize the administration on whatever issue they choose. There is nothing new about that. The real cause for concern is not hawkish GOP kibitzing, but the possibility that people like Mike Pompeo, or others who seem to want a war with China, will be in positions of power if a Republican gets elected president in 2024.
The US will not be able to get everything it wants from China, but negotiations and dialog are a much better alternative than the horrors of a war between two nuclear-armed superpowers. That is axiomatic, but it is an appalling insight into the state of American politics, that the foreign policy establishment consensus on this appears to be something different.