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US-China ties: Averting the grandest collision of all

| Mar. 20, 2023

The Song-Liao treaty from Chinese history offers lessons on how fierce rivals can avoid war

If historian Thucydides were asked about what is happening in relations between the United States and China today, what would he say? That was the question posed to me at the Davos World Economic Forum in January. I responded that he would say that this is a classic Thucydidean rivalry in which the two parties are right on script, each competing to show which can best exemplify the typical rising and ruling power – leaving him on the edge of his seat anticipating the grandest collision of all time.
The debate that began in 2017 with the publication of Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is now in the rear-view mirror. No one can deny that China is the most formidable rival a ruling power has ever seen.

Over the past generation, China has risen further and faster along more dimensions than any nation in history. During President Xi Jinping’s first decade in power, China’s gross domestic product has risen from half to three-quarters the size of the US economy (measured in market exchange rate). China has displaced the US as the world’s No. 1 manufacturer, No. 1 trading partner, and become a source of the most critical items in global supply chains.

It has also strengthened its military capabilities, with a specific focus on contingencies along its border and peripheral seas, to the point that it now has significant advantages in potential conflicts, particularly Taiwan contingencies.

Meanwhile, what Winston Churchill called the “deadly currents” in domestic politics that drove Britain to war with Germany in 1914 are now running rife in the US.

As anyone who watched the opening hearings of the newly established House Select Committee on China saw vividly, Republican and Democratic politicians are rushing to show who can be tougher on China.
Presidential hopeful Mike Pompeo has already called for the US to recognise Taiwan as an independent country. The bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act – co-sponsored by Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez and Republican Lindsey Graham – initially proposed to designate Taiwan a “major non-Nato ally”. It is instructive to note that it was Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, not US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who appreciated the likely consequences of another visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House and proposed a less provocative alternative.

We see similar rumblings in Beijing, where Mr Xi accused the US and its allies of pursuing the “containment, encirclement, and suppression” of China in a fiery speech in March at China’s Two Sessions, the annual meetings of China’s top political advisory body and legislature, collectively known as lianghui. Mr Xi’s comments were echoed by new Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who said “hysterical neo-McCarthyist” politicians in the US wanted to cripple China in a “zero-sum game” of life and death.
Fortunately, in US President Joe Biden and Mr Xi we have two serious, sane leaders who recognise that war between their nations would be catastrophic. If a local war over Taiwan escalated to a full-spectrum war with nuclear attacks upon each other, it would risk the survival of both their nations.
However extreme the differences between the two rivals, if the alternative to co-existence really is to co-destruct, rational leaders in both Washington and Beijing will have to find a way to cooperate in some areas while competing ruthlessly in others.

About This Analysis & Opinions

US-China ties: Averting the grandest collision of all
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“US-China ties: Averting the grandest collision of all.” The Straits Times, March 20, 2023.