On at least one important topic in Washington, duality is alive and well: China.
Most Democrats with influence over US foreign policy, and their Republican counterparts, agree that China is now the greatest national security threat facing the United States. They see a conflict between the two countries becoming more likely, with Taiwan the likely catalyst. President Biden met President Xi Jinping at a virtual summit last week, but afterward, a senior US official said “nothing new in the form of crash barriers or other arrangements” had been reached on Taiwan.
Compare the China policies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden and you will find many more similarities than differences. Four months after Biden’s inauguration, Kurt M. Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, stated that engagement, the approach US leaders have taken to China since the 1970s, had failed and that “the dominant paradigm will be disappearing competition.” An acclaimed book by Campbell’s top deputy, Rush Doshi, warns that China’s goal is nothing less than to supplant the United States as the world’s foremost power.
Unsaid by both officials is what this future “competition” between the US and China will look like, and what will prevent it from turning violent.
Both sides would suffer enormous losses of blood and treasure if their rivalry were to grow unchecked by any sense of shared interest and lead to war. Same for the rest of the world.
Trade between China and the US totaled $615 billion in 2020. Two-way FDI was $162 billion that year, $124 billion from the US side. The shockwaves generated by a clash between the US and China would quickly rip through the global economy as an estimated $3.4 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea each year – between a fifth and a third of global trade. by sea, including 30% of all crude oil trade, and that China and the US have the resources to carry out cyber attacks on each other’s financial systems.
The military consequences would be catastrophic. As the Ministry of Defense’s latest annual report to Congress on China’s armed forces shows, in recent decades China has acquired a range of advanced combat aircraft, warships, submarines, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, and cyberwarfare systems, which together serve one purpose: to prevent the United States maintains its military might, despite its battlegroups and bases in the region, in an area of the South and East China Seas stretching from Japan and South Korea to Vietnam and Taiwan, the so-called First Island Chain.
Even if US troops were to breach this bastion, the potential losses – within hours – could exceed those in all the wars the US has fought since Vietnam. China would also suffer major damage, but it has the advantage of proximity, while the United States would fight thousands of miles from home. Things would, of course, get infinitely worse if the war escalated and nuclear weapons were used.
Which brings us back to a two-way consensus.
The prevailing reports of growing rivalry between China and the United States have an air of unreality. They are full of similarities of each country’s power and goals in abstract terms: asymmetries, credible alliances, “anti-access/territory denial” strategies. You might wonder if there is talk of an international game of Go or chess. The visceral, human cost of war is curiously absent from these antiseptic analyses.
Meanwhile, the war of words from both sides continues, as does display of power.
China has repeatedly sent its military planes through Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone” (sometimes confused in reports with its airspace, let alone that Taiwan’s ADIZ overlaps with China’s and even covers part of mainland China). The government of Taiwan has announced that US military advisers are training Taiwanese troops.
Beijing insists that unification with Taiwan is a national necessity. US commanders are calling for financial support to bolster US forces in the Pacific. President Biden states that the United States will defend Taiwan, even though the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 contains no such firm commitment. Nationalist Chinese media claim the US would be defeated in a war over Taiwan.
How long will it take for this attitude and military twitch to lead to an incident neither side intended and to a place they really don’t want to be: the battlefield? China and the United States are at exactly this risk if one continues to expect the worst from the other through lack of confidence, both engaged in tit-for-tat demonstrations of determination, apart from adequate diplomacy.
The Taiwanese people understandably do not want to be annexed by China. They want to maintain their prosperous economy and democratic polity. And American policymakers basically support their ambitions. But because international politics involves rivalry between armed states, with war always in the background, the consequences of defending principles cannot be separated from real risks.
Would the American people really be willing to risk a war with China over Taiwan if their elected representatives took the time to explain exactly what that would mean in blood and treasure, rather than putting in some hard talk? Are China’s leaders really willing to attack Taiwan, betting the United States will eventually lose their nerve – or lose, period?
While Biden understands that real face-to-face meetings are not a panacea, he has also long believed in the value of face-to-face meetings between leaders. His virtual conversation with Xi is a start, but it’s time for US and Chinese leaders to meet in person – in a few days – to prevent military drills and verbal jousting from turning into war.
Each side may assume that it will prevail. But what would victory look like, and would it be worth the price?
Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at the City College of New York, and a fellow at the Quincy Institute and at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.