Keeping Rivalry from Becoming War: Lessons from “China, the U.S. and the Risk of Nuclear War”

Peace activists everywhere should be concerned with the rising tensions between the United States and China. The two countries’ relationship has been worsening for some time and shows little sign of improvement. During the Trump administration, the United States and China were at odds, with trade policy and later the response to the Covid-19 pandemic being among the points of contention.[1] Now, the new Biden administration has taken a hard line toward China.

In a February speech, President Biden promised that the United States will “take on directly the challenges posed [to] our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China.”[2] Secretary of State Antony Blinken similarly described the US-China relationship as “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”[3] The administration’s new interim National Security Strategy warns of a “growing rivalry with China” and frequently discusses the need to counter Chinese policies and influence (the strategy document mentions China more than all other potential adversaries combined).[4] A recent meeting between top Biden administration officials and top Chinese diplomats was notable for the hostility displayed on both sides.[5]

While international cooperation is preferable to competition, a rivalry between the United States and China isn’t necessarily a serious crisis. As long as the rivalry consists merely of economic competition and harsh words, the risks involved aren’t extreme.

However, US-China tensions become far more serious if they threaten to lead to military confrontation or conflict. The current situation carries such a danger. US-China conflict could flare up in places such as Taiwan or the South China Sea. Further, the Biden administration’s statements imply that the US military will play a role in the competition with China. Biden’s February speech refers to countering China’s “aggressive, coercive action” while the National Security Strategy promises to “deter Chinese aggression and counter threats to our collective security” and to “position ourselves, diplomatically and militarily, to defend our allies.”[6] US Deputy Defense Secretary Katherine Hicks recently said that China has “adopted a more coercive and aggressive approach” and poses “a threat to regional peace and stability”[7]

Perhaps most concerning, US-China tensions spiked just this month over Taiwan, which continues to maintain its precarious status as a part of China that is practically independent and self-governing. Increased American demonstrations of support for Taiwan led to Chinese military exercises close to the island. These exercises were followed by US envoys visiting Taiwan and a warning from Chinese authorities that “we are determined to stop Taiwan independence, and stop Taiwan from working with the US…We do not promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures.”[8]

Military confrontation between the world’s two most powerful countries, each of which possesses nuclear weapons, is an outcome we must avoid. As with the United States’ hostile relationship with Russia, we shouldn’t expect current US-China tensions to disappear or to be replaced with a harmonious relationship. Both countries can at least strive to manage their rivalry so it doesn’t escalate into war.

Suggested Steps to Avoid Conflict

The Western Massachusetts branch of the Back from the Brink campaign (https://preventnuclearwar.org/) recently co-hosted the online seminar “China, the U.S. and the Risk of Nuclear War.”[9] Attending the seminar, I heard three experts offer their views on US-China tensions and the risk of nuclear war. Each expert’s comments explicitly or implicitly suggested some specific but valuable steps to avoid war, especially nuclear war, between the United States and China.

I will describe some of these comments and identify what I think are the practical steps that could help avoid a US-China war. I should emphasize that while my thinking is very much influenced by what I heard at this seminar, the precise list of steps below is my own.

Rachel Esplin Odell of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft reviewed various areas of the Asia-Pacific region where American-Chinese military conflict might flare up. One is the South China Sea, where China and other countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, are disputing control of various islands. Another is the East China Sea, where China and Japan are disputing control of what are known (to China) as the Diaoyu or (to Japan) the Senkaku islands. A third is Taiwan. The United States might well be drawn into one or more of these conflicts, either because of its close relationship with other nations involved (Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan) or because of the US military presence in the region.

From Dr. Esplin Odell’s analysis, I would draw two broad practical recommendation to prevent military conflict:

  1. To the greatest extent possible, the United States should be neutral on specific territorial claims involving China and other nations. As Dr. Esplin Odell pointed out, who controls the South China Sea islands doesn’t directly concern the United States and its interests. She further noted that US involvement might make the Chinese more aggressive and less willing to compromise, so as not to appear weak before the United States. I would add that taking sides may also embolden the other nations involved to act aggressively, since they might believe the United States will support them in a conflict. Taking sides in other countries’ territorial disputes with China simply increases the risk of the United States being drawn into a direct conflict with China. Except where doing so involves abandoning an existing commitment, the United States should stay out of these disputes.

  2. The United States should approach support, especially military support, for Taiwan with extreme caution—and strenuously avoid involvement in any Taiwanese effort to declare formal independence from China. Neither Dr. Esplin Odell nor any of the other seminar participants directly offered proposals for handling the question of Taiwan—probably the thorniest issue in US-China relations. I cannot offer much useful comment on the question except a general caution.

    If anything could provoke a war between the United States and China, it would be US involvement in Taiwanese secession. Whatever contacts the United States might pursue with Taiwan in the future, US policymakers should make it absolutely clear to the Chinese authorities that they are not seeking Taiwanese secession from China. US policymakers should make it equally clear to Taiwan that they should not expect US intervention on their behalf if they secede. Any future decisions about US support for Taiwan, especially military aid to Taiwan or a US military presence close to Taiwan, should be made with both these principles in mind.

    I should add that by offering this caution I am not taking any position on the wisdom or justice of formal Taiwanese independence as such. If the people of Taiwan can find a just and peaceful way of achieving independence while protecting themselves from Chinese retaliation, that is all to the good. Such a goal is for Taiwan to realize on its own, however: the United States should not get involved.  

Tong Zhao, of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, offered comments on differing Chinese and American views on nuclear weapons and their potential uses. From Dr. Zhao’s analysis, I would draw a further recommendation:

  • American and Chinese diplomats and military officials need to have regular discussions about nuclear policy and strategy. Communications between countries’ militaries are generally valuable because they avoid confusion, misinterpretation, and other situations that can lead to conflict. US-China discussions are useful for this purpose and specifically because they can help avoid one very significant type of misunderstanding. As Dr. Zhao explained, neither American nor Chinese decisionmakers have a good understanding of how the other side might interpret decisions about nuclear weapons.

    The United States recently developed and deployed relatively less powerful nuclear weapons, at least in part to deter countries such as Russia from using similar weapons.[10] However, developing these new, lower-yield nuclear weapons has been interpreted by the Chinese as US preparation for fighting a nuclear war. Such a perception is likely to increase Chinese suspicion and hostility toward the United States. Chinese policymakers are more likely to expect the United States to attack China with nuclear weapons, even if no such attack is planned.

    Meanwhile, the Chinese development of shorter-range nuclear weapons encourages suspicion and hostility on the American side. The United States might well view such weapons as intended for use against US forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Further, because the same type of shorter-range Chinese missile can be used with both nuclear and non-nuclear warheads, Chinese use of such missiles might be interpreted by Americans as a nuclear attack, even when it is not.

    The catastrophic potential of these kinds of mutual suspicion and misinterpretation are easy to see. Greater civilian and military communication between the two countries can perhaps give each side a better grasp of the other’s thinking and reduce the overall danger. Such communication might eventually pave the way for arms control agreements.

The third speaker was Zia Mian, the co-director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. He had several comments on US-China relations and drew parallels between the current situation and the Cold War. One of Dr. Mian’s parallels brings me to the last recommendation:

  • The United States and China should seek to negotiate a formal agreement or statement rejecting ever waging nuclear war against each other. Such an agreement has precedents. Dr. Mian mentioned the 1973 US-Soviet agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War. That agreement committed the two countries variously “to remove the danger of nuclear war and of the use of nuclear weapons,” “to avoid military confrontations,” and, should the risk of nuclear war arise, to “immediately enter into urgent consultations with each other and make every effort to avert this risk.”[11] The US and China could pursue a similar agreement. Along with the 1973 agreement, another model to consider is the 1985 US-Soviet statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”[12]

    Granted, such an agreement wouldn’t have the same practical impact as an arms control treaty. Even if the agreement was largely symbolic, though, it would at least be a public acknowledgment by the United States and China, to each other and their allies, that they don’t want nuclear war. Such acknowledgment might lower tensions.

Conclusion

For the foreseeable future, American-Chinese rivalry may be unavoidable. However, an American-Chinese war most definitely is avoidable. Both countries should strive to make sure current tensions never escalate to armed conflict. Guided by the recent seminar, I have suggested some steps that might make such escalation less likely. Peace activists should seek to identify other possible approaches to reducing the risk of war. Let’s find the best strategies for peacemaking and put them into action.

Notes

[1] On the trade disputes, see, for example, Ana Swanson and Neil Irwin, “Trump Starts a Trade War, but the Path to Success Remains Unclear,” New York Times, July 6, 2018, https://nyti.ms/32nZbYw. For disputes over Covid-19, see my essay, “Sickness is the Health of the State? Civil Liberties and Conflict during a Pandemic.”

[2] “Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World,” White House, February 4, 2021, https://bit.ly/3trpKYH.

[3] “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” US Department of State, March 3, 2021, https://bit.ly/2OXAYFp.

[4] “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” White House, March 3, 2021, https://bit.ly/3afz4aj.

[5] “Secretary Antony J. Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director Yang and State Councilor Wang at the Top of Their Meeting,” US Department of State, March 18, 2021, https://bit.ly/2QaU3Ez.

[6] “Remarks by President Biden”; “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.”

[7] Barbara Starr, “Classified US Military War Game Set to Take Place As Concerns about Threats Posed by China and Russia Increase,” CNN, March 27, 2021, https://cnn.it/3tExu9C.

[8] Associated Press, “Ex-US Officials Visit Taiwan amid China Tensions,” April 14, 2021, https://bit.ly/3sqEghW; Nicole Fallert, “China Warns It’ll Use Military Action to ‘Stop Taiwan Independence’ as U.S. Officials Visit Island,” Newsweek, April 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/2Q1Elf3; Matthew Impelli, “China Warns U.S. ‘Not to Play With Fire’ After Warplanes Descend on Taiwan Airspace,” Newsweek, April 13, 2021, https://bit.ly/3e81lRz.

[9] Back from the Brink of Western Massachusetts, “China, the U.S., and the Risk of Nuclear War,” YouTube, April 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/2P2ywNW.

[10] Ryan Browne, Barbara Starr, and Zachary Cohen, “US Military Deploys New Type of Nuclear Weapon Seen As Key to Countering Russia,” CNN, February 4, 2020, https://cnn.it/3x3kixm.

[11] “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Nuclear War,” US State Department (archived), accessed April 17, 2021, https://bit.ly/2OZihkE.

[12] “Joint Soviet-United States Statement on the Summit Meeting in Geneva,” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, November 21, 1985, https://bit.ly/3tvEOV9.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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