Avoiding War Between America and China

The Lessons of Past Crises

A Chinese warship firing test missiles during exercises in the Taiwan Strait, March 1996. Xinhua / REUTERS

U.S.-Chinese relations, the current wisdom goes, are in need of a fundamental rethink. In October, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence trumpeted the United States’ determination to compete relentlessly in order “to reset America’s economic and strategic relationship with China.” But even before Pence’s speech, there were calls to reexamine U.S. assumptions about China. The hopes of liberalization on which previous policy was based, the former Obama administration officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner recently argued, have proved ill-founded. It’s time, they say, to search for a “better approach.” Even if U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping reach a deal on the trade dispute, pundits warn, the broader relationship is unlikely to improve much. China’s assertiveness, its conduct in the South China Sea, and its internal repression render a genuine détente with the United States difficult, perhaps impossible.

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