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US vs. China: 2 leading experts fear conflict awaits

Yan Xuetong: 'No war, but clashes possible'; Bonnie Glaser: 'Coexistence difficult'

An E-2D Hawkeye attached to the Tiger Tails of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 125 launches from the flight deck of the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- When a rising power challenges a ruling power -- as Athens did with Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did with Britain a century ago -- most such contests have ended badly, often for both sides.

Twelve of the 16 cases over the past 500 years have resulted in war, according to American political scientist Graham Allison. Whether the U.S. and China can avoid the so-called Thucydides trap, as Allison framed it, looks to be the preeminent geopolitical question of our time.

When Nikkei interviewed Yan Xuetong, one of China's top foreign policy academics, in February 2018, he said definitively that there was no danger of war between the two countries.

But much has happened since. In an interview this time, while repeating that there will be no war, Yan added a new footnote. He did not rule out a smaller-scale military conflict.

American expert Bonnie Glaser said she thinks it will be very difficult for the U.S. and China to coexist peacefully in the Indo-Pacific.

Edited excerpts from their interviews follow.

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at the Beijing-based Tsinghua University, left, and Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Photo source: Oki Nagai/CSIS)

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Beijing-based Tsinghua University


In its December 2017 National Security Strategy, the U.S. government portrayed China as a major strategic competitor. Since then, the nature of Sino-American relations has not changed. It is competition.

More recently, the competition has spread from trade to other fields including technology, finance and military, and has only intensified the rivalry.

The outcome of this contest will not be reached within the next decade.

That is because the U.S. will take all possible measures to prevent China from growing stronger, and China, meanwhile, won't be able to fully surpass the U.S. yet.

The pandemic has accelerated the speed with which the gap in national power between China and the U.S. has narrowed. The smaller the gap in strength between the two sides, the greater the intensity of competition. The competition is yet to reach the most intense level, and thus the competition will become even more intense.

Risk of war

Some worry about the so-called Thucydides trap that talks of the risk of war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as the international hegemon. But I still believe that there is no danger of war between the two sides.

War refers to the use of military means by both sides to conduct large-scale killing, which is different from military conflicts. In 1969, China and the Soviet Union had a border conflict on Zhenbao Island. In 1999, the U.S. bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In 2020, China and India had a border military clash in the Kalwan Valley. People died in each of these conflicts, but they were not three wars.

The presence of nuclear weapons can prevent wars from breaking out between China and the U.S.

But it does not prevent military conflicts. The "Thucydides trap" refers to war, not military conflict. Therefore, I think the concept of the "Thucydides trap" misleads people's understanding of the particularity of the Sino-American strategic competition.

The competition is mainly taking place in the cyber world, and cyberattacks are not wars in the traditional sense, let alone any "Thucydides trap." In the digital age, the competition between China and the U.S. is different from the major-power battles that took place during World War I and World War II, and is different from the Cold War. What China and the U.S. are engaged in is not a geopolitical competition, but a digital strategic competition.

It's not about understanding each other

The idea that deepening people-to-people exchanges will improve the strategic relations between China and the U.S. is a baseless pipe dream. Whether state-to-state relations become friendly or hostile does not depend on whether people-to-people exchanges are frequent or deep, but solely on whether the mutual interests match or clash.

There are people within one country that understand each other deeply but are nonetheless hostile. For instance, the Scots in Britain, the Quebecers in Canada, the Catalans in Spain and the Corsicans in France are all forcefully for independence.

A man and a woman can fall in love without knowing each other much. Scientific research has shown that it only takes a few minutes for people to fall in love. Meanwhile, couples who have lived together for a long time break up because of a deep understanding of each other's shortcomings.

Likewise, friendly relations between all countries are based on common interests, not mutual understanding.

America's allies are very aware of Trump's unfriendly policy towards them. That is why they remain cautious about his attempts to build an anti-China alliance.

World leadership

Some believe that China wishes to replace the U.S. as the world's leader. Since ancient times, all major countries have desired to become a leading country of the world. Small countries have no such idea. That is not because a small country has no ambition, but that it has no ability.

The question is not whether China wants to replace the U.S. as the world leader, but whether China has the ability to do so. China currently does not. Its military power is still far behind America's.

The gap lies in technology. The Trump administration acknowledges that the technological gap with China is shrinking and has stepped up suppression against China's 5G and other digital technologies. Indeed, this has caused certain difficulties for China to make progress.

But, at the same time, adding pressure on China does not accelerate America's technical development. The outcome of the Sino-American competition will depend on whose technological progress is faster.

I have advocated to change Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy of "hiding our capacities and biding our time" because China is already the world's second-largest country and cannot continue to do so. The key point of my argument is to adopt a foreign policy in line with China's current strength, not to replace America's global leadership.

In 2013, China shifted its foreign policy from "hiding one's capacity" to "be enthusiastic and press on." I believe this made sense and was in line with China's position.

The Belt and Road initiative, however, has elevated from a regional policy to a global policy and is above China's abilities. China needs to curb such overaggressive policies. But it cannot return to the policy of "hiding our capacities."

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies

The speeches

U.S.-China relations are at the lowest point since normalization. It has been building over the past decades. So, it really should come as no surprise that the U.S. and China are now engaged in a very intense strategic competition.

Trump administration officials have given a set of speeches that have been carefully crafted to emphasize very specific messages. One message is that China poses an existential threat to the United States and to democracies around the world. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular, in his proposal to create an alliance of democracies, is calling for like-minded countries around the world to wake up and to recognize the dangers that China poses.

A second theme, which has emerged in the past six months, is a veiled call for regime change in China. Nobody has used that phrase explicitly, but several speeches by senior U.S. officials have made clear that U.S. policy is not limited to changing Chinese policies. U.S. objectives now include empowering the Chinese people to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party and to induce change.

There are great risks in calling for regime change in China. First of all, this will be counterproductive, because many Chinese people might become more supportive of their system. It might result in more national unity, because this enables Xi Jinping to point to the threat from foreign countries, the risks of foreigners trying to impose their demands on China.

The Chinese have always valued a stable U.S.-China relationship. They have modified some of their policies in the past in order to preserve that bilateral relationship. If the Chinese think that the U.S. is really seeking to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, that could have profoundly negative consequences, not just for the relationship but for the nature of this unfolding geopolitical rivalry.

Deescalation measures not working

U.S. and Chinese forces are operating in closer proximity in many areas in the Pacific. Recently, in the South China Sea, both countries have been conducting very robust military exercises. We know that there was one instance in 2018 when a Chinese destroyer positioned itself right in the pathway of a U.S. destroyer conducting a freedom-of-navigation operation. 

The U.S.-China relationship is much more fraught today than it was in 2001, when the collision occurred between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. The ability of our two countries to manage such a crisis today is inadequate. We have some hotlines, we have a defense link, but because of the nature of the Chinese political system, those crisis communication mechanisms are unlikely to work.

If an accident or incident occurs, the ability to deescalate is quite limited. The problem is the systemic nature of the Chinese regime. It is unlikely that anyone would answer the phone if a senior military or political official from the United States were to call a counterpart, in a crisis. So, I am quite worried.

I am not concerned about a full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the near term. President Tsai Ing-wen is not pursuing independence. But Beijing is strongly opposed to the strengthening of U.S.-Taiwan relations. China is going to continue to ramp up military, political, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan. But I still think there are reasons why Xi Jinping will not resort to use of military force.

The Indo-Pacific

One of the main arenas of U.S.-China competition is the maritime Indo-Pacific. The United States is determined to maintain access and the Chinese are resolved to deny the United States that access. We have commitment to our allies and must ensure that those commitments remain credible. The United States is just not going to pack up and go home.

It is very difficult to coexist in the Indo-Pacific. And if the competition between the U.S. and China truly goes global -- and the trend is in that direction now -- then it will become even more difficult to manage.

It's not impossible, but it's highly unlikely that we will find a pathway to peaceful coexistence. Technological competition is really at the core. The U.S. is not going to cede its leadership in areas of technology, and the Chinese are going to use every means at their disposal to try and gain advantages and become dominant. And the nature of the civil-military fusion policy that Xi Jinping is pursuing is seen as really quite dangerous, by the United States.

There is ample room for strengthening cooperation among the four countries that comprise the Quad: the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. There's no doubt that Chinese policies towards India, Australia and Japan in recent years have hardened all three countries' policies toward China. With the recent skirmishes that took place along the Sino-Indian border, India's appetite to do more with the other countries of the Quad is certainly increasing.

Australia, at least under the Scott Morrison leadership, is willing to do more with these other countries. But I don't think that any of the other three countries, Japan, India or Australia, are really interested in forging a formal alliance against China. They don't want an Asian NATO. Yet quiet coalitions of like-minded countries, to push back against China, are absolutely necessary, and the Quad stands out as one of the most important.

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