China’s Real and Present Danger

Now Is the Time for Washington to Worry

Chinese soldiers participating in a drill (Courtesy Reuters)

Much of the debate about China’s rise in recent years has focused on the potential dangers China could pose as an eventual peer competitor to the United States bent on challenging the existing international order. But another issue is far more pressing. For at least the next decade, while China remains relatively weak compared to the United States, there is a real danger that Beijing and Washington will find themselves in a crisis that could quickly escalate to military conflict. Unlike a long-term great-power strategic rivalry that might or might not develop down the road, the danger of a crisis involving the two nuclear-armed countries is a tangible, near-term concern -- and the events of the past few years suggest the risk might be increasing.

Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing and Washington have managed to avoid perilous showdowns on several occasions: in 1995–96, when the United States responded to Chinese missile tests intended to warn Taiwanese voters about the danger of pushing for independence; in 1999, when U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO air assault on Serbia; and in 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and Beijing’s detention of the U.S. plane and crew. But the lack of serious escalation during those episodes should not breed complacency. None of them met the definition of a genuine crisis: a confrontation that threatens vital interests on both sides and thus sharply increases the risk of war. If Beijing and Washington were to find themselves in that sort of showdown in the near future, they would both have strong incentives to resort to force. Moreover, the temptations and pressures to escalate would likely be highest in the early stages of the face-off, making it harder for diplomacy to prevent war.

THIN RED LINES

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis