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Not Destined for War

If the United States maintains its alliances, invests in itself, and avoids unnecessary provocations, it can reduce the probability of falling into either a cold war or a hot war with China. But to formulate an effective strategy, it will have to eschew familiar but misleading historical analogies.

CAMBRIDGE – The great-power competition between the United States and China is a defining feature of the first part of this century, but there is little agreement on how it should be characterized. Some call it an “enduring rivalry” analogous to the one between Germany and Britain prior to the last century’s two world wars. Others worry that America and China are like Sparta (the dominant power) and Athens (the rising power) in the fifth century BC: “destined for war.” The problem, of course, is that a belief in the inevitability of conflict can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Enduring rivalry” itself is a misleading term. Just think of all the phases the Sino-American relationship has gone through since the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949. In the 1950s, American and Chinese soldiers were killing each other on the Korean Peninsula. In the 1970s, after US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the two countries cooperated closely to counterbalance the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, economic engagement increased, and the US supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Not until after 2016 did we enter the current phase of great-power competition, with one US official describing China as a “pacing threat” – meaning “the only country that can pose a systemic challenge” to America “economically, technologically, politically, and militarily.”

But even if enduring rivalry does not imply violent conflict, what about a “cold war”? If that term refers to an intense prolonged competition, we are already in one. But if it is a historical analogy, the comparison is inapt, and risks misleading us about the real challenges the US faces from China. The US and the Soviet Union had a high level of global military interdependence, but virtually no economic, social, or ecological interdependence. Today’s Sino-American relationship is different in all those dimensions.