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. As with the Peloponnesian War or World War I, a rising power means trouble—and it is time that the United States recognized it. One can get behind Trump’s policy or search for an alternative. But either way, a new paradigm for the relationship is purportedly necessary. 

Grand concepts are sexy. But the hunt for new ones should not distract from the equally important search for the mundane precepts that will allow everyone to survive the current febrile atmosphere. The trade war is bad, but there is the potential for a far worse clash. Washington is so volatile that a situation that would be easily resolved in normal times could prove explosive. Sooner or later, there will be a genuine crisis. History offers no shortage of worrying examples. The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995–96, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, and the Hainan spy plane incident of 2001 each brought China and the United States to the brink of outright conflict. Reflecting on how the protagonists managed to find their way out of those sticky patches might

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