As images of destruction and death emerge from Ukraine, and refugees flee the country in their millions, the world’s attention is rightly focused on the horror of what many once thought an impossibility in the 21st century: a large-scale modern war in Europe. In this grim moment, however, it is all the more important to think through and coldly reassess the dangers presented by other potential conflicts that could be sparked by growing geopolitical tensions. The most significant among these is the risk of a war between the United States and China. The salutary lesson of our time is that this scenario is no longer unthinkable.
The 2020s now loom as a decisive decade, as the balance of power between the US and China shifts. Strategists of both countries know this. For policymakers in Beijing and Washington, as well as in other capitals, the 2020s will be the decade of living dangerously. Should these two giants find a way to coexist without betraying their core interests, the world will be better for it. Should they fail, down the other path lies the possibility of a war many times more destructive than what we are seeing in Ukraine today – and, as in 1914, one that will rewrite the future in ways we can barely imagine.
Armed conflict between China and the US in the next decade, while not yet probable, has become a real possibility. In part, this is because the balance of power between the two countries is changing rapidly. In part it is because, back in 2014, Xi Jinping changed China’s grand strategy from an essentially defensive posture to a more activist policy that seeks to advance Chinese interests across the world. It is also because the US has, in response, embraced an entirely new China strategy since 2017, in what the Trump and Biden administrations have called a new age of strategic competition. These factors combined have put China and the US on a collision course in the decade ahead.
We have arrived at a point in the long evolution of the US-China relationship when serious analysts and commentators increasingly assume that some form of crisis, conflict or even war is inevitable. This thinking is dangerous. The advantage of diplomatic history – if we study it seriously – is that the risk of talking ourselves into a crisis is real. The discourse of inevitability takes hold, mutual demonisation increases, and the public policy response, ever so subtly, moves from war prevention to war preparation. The sleepwalking of the nations of Europe into war in 1914 should remain a salutary lesson for us all.
In my view, there is nothing inevitable about war. We are not captive to some deep, imaginary, irreversible forces of history. Our best chance of avoiding war is to better understand the other side’s strategic thinking and to plan for a world where the US and China are able to competitively coexist, even if in a state of continuing rivalry reinforced by mutual deterrence. A world where political leaders are empowered to preside over a competitive race rather than resorting to armed conflict.
Indeed, if we can preserve peace in the decade ahead, political circumstances may eventually change, and strategic thought may evolve in the face of broader planetary challenges. It may then be possible for leaders to imagine a different way of thinking (the Chinese term is siwei) that prioritises collaboration over conflict, in order to meet the existential global challenges confronting us all. But to do that, we must first get through the current decade without destroying each other.
I have been a student of China since I was 18, beginning with my undergraduate degree at the Australian National University, where I majored in Mandarin Chinese and Chinese history. I have lived and worked in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei through different diplomatic postings, and have developed many friendships across greater China. I have travelled back to China and Taiwan regularly in the past 40 years, including in my role as prime minister of Australia, personally meeting with Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders. I admire China’s classical civilisation, including its remarkable philosophical, literary and artistic traditions, as well as the economic achievements of the post-Mao era in lifting a quarter of humanity out of poverty.
At the same time, I have been deeply critical of Mao’s depredations of the country during the Great Leap Forward of 1958, which left 30 million dead from starvation; the Cultural Revolution, which led to millions more deaths and the destruction of priceless cultural heritage; and human rights abuses, which continue to this day. I am still haunted by the thousands of young faces gathered in Tiananmen Square in late May 1989. I spent the better part of a week walking and talking among them – before the tanks moved in on 4 June. I have simply read and seen too much over the years to politely brush it all under the carpet.
That’s why I could not avoid the whole question of human rights when, in 2008, I returned to Beijing as Australia’s prime minister on my inaugural visit. On the first day I delivered a public lecture in Chinese at Peking University, where I argued that the best classical ideals of friendship within the Chinese tradition – the concept of zhengyou – meant that friends could candidly speak to each other without rupturing the relationship. With those ideals in mind, I raised human rights abuses in Tibet in the middle of my speech.
The Chinese foreign ministry went nuts. So, too, did the more supine members of the Australian political class, business community and media, who did what they always do and asked: “How could you upset our Chinese hosts by mentioning the unmentionable?” The answer was straightforward: because it happened to be the truth, and to ignore it was to ignore part of the complex reality of any country’s relationship with the People’s Republic.
Just as I have lived in China, I’ve also lived in the US, and have a deep affection for the country and its people. I am intimately aware of the differences between the two countries, but I’ve also seen the great cultural values they have in common – the love of family, the importance that Chinese and Americans attach to the education of their children, and their vibrant entrepreneurial cultures driven by aspiration and hard work.
No approach to understanding US-China relations is free from intellectual and cultural prejudice. For all my education in Chinese history and thought, I am inescapably and unapologetically a creature of the west. I therefore belong to its philosophical, religious and cultural traditions. The country I served as both prime minister and foreign minister has been an ally of the US for more than 100 years, and actively supports the continuation of the liberal international order built by the US out of the ashes of the second world war. At the same time, I have never accepted the view that an alliance with the US mandates automatic compliance with every element of American policy. Despite pressure from Washington, my political party, the Australian Labor party, opposed both the Vietnam war and the invasion of Iraq. Nor am I complacent about the failings of American domestic politics and the unsustainable economic inequalities that we find increasing across American society.
The judgment I bring to bear on US-China relations also reflects my personal loathing for jingoistic nationalism, which, regrettably, has become an increasingly prominent feature of Chinese and American public life. This may be emotionally satisfying to some and politically useful for others, but it brings about no good whatsoever. Above all, when it comes to international relations, nationalism is a very dangerous thing indeed.
The current state of US-China relations is the product of a long, contested history. What emerges across the centuries is a recurring theme of mutual non-comprehension and suspicion, often followed by periods of exaggerated hopes and expectations that then collapse in the face of differing political and strategic imperatives. Over the past 150 years, each side has blamed the other for the relationship’s failings.
In its narrowest conception, the modern relationship between China and the US has relied on common economic self-interest. At other times, this has been supported by a sense of shared goals in the face of a common enemy – at first the Soviet Union and, after 9/11, to a much more limited extent, militant Islamism. More recently, China and the US have developed shared concerns about global financial stability and the impacts of climate breakdown. Human rights have always remained an underlying point of friction. Despite occasional flirtations by the Chinese Communist party (CCP) with various forms of political liberalisation, there has been, at best, a sullen tolerance for each other’s political systems. For a long time, these various pillars – economic, geostrategic and multilateral – combined to support the relationship in a way that’s been relatively robust. But one by one, over the last decade, each pillar cracked.
Most Americans, including educated elites, struggle to understand how politics works in the People’s Republic of China. And the lack of American familiarity with the Chinese cultural canon, its logographic language, its ancient ethical concepts and its contemporary communist leadership can cause Americans to feel uncertain and distrustful about this newly emerged rival for the mantle of global leadership.
This chasm of distrust has been growing for many years. Washington no longer believes in China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise”. The US national security establishment, in particular, now holds the view that the CCP has never had any compunction about deceiving its political or strategic adversaries. It sees such language as little more than a diplomatic ruse, while China spreads its influence, backed by military power, throughout the world. It points to island reclamation in the South China Sea, the building of Chinese naval bases around the Indian Ocean, and Chinese cyber-attacks on the US government as evidence of the reality of Chinese aggression.
Each side points to the other as the guilty party. Beijing does not buy Washington’s claims that it has no interest in “containing” China’s rise. As evidence, China points to increased arms sales by the US to Taiwan despite repeated American promises to reduce these, the trade war that Beijing sees as a concerted effort to cripple its economy, and the American campaign against Huawei, which it sees as an effort to stymie China’s technological advance. Beijing reads Washington’s insistence on freedom of navigation for itself and its allies in the South China Sea as hostile interference in Chinese sovereign waters.
In Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian concluded that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. Taking this as his starting point, the Harvard professor of government, Graham Allison, has developed the notion of the Thucydides Trap. This, he explains, is “the natural, inevitable discombobulation that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power”. According to Allison’s model, based on his examination of multiple historical case studies, where this dynamic is present, war is more likely than not.
In many respects, many elements of Thucydides’s Trap are already present in the US-China relationship of today. It is relatively easy to envisage a series of events that mutates into a sort of cold war 2.0 between the US and China, which, in turn, runs the risk of triggering a hot one. For example, hackers could disable the other side’s infrastructure, from pipelines and electric grids to air traffic control systems, with potentially deadly results. More conventional military exchanges are also within the realm of the possible. The US has Asian allies it has sworn to protect, and China’s ambitions push up against those alliances. From Taiwan to the South China Sea and the Philippines to the East China Sea and Japan, China is increasingly testing the limits of US defence commitments.
While Beijing’s chief aim for the modernisation and expansion of its military has been to prepare for future Taiwan contingencies, China’s growing military, naval, air and intelligence capabilities represent, in the American view, a much broader challenge to US military predominance across the wider Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
Of greatest concern to the US is the rapid expansion and modernisation of the Chinese navy and its growing submarine capabilities, as well as China’s development, for the first time in its history, of a blue-water fleet with force-projection capabilities beyond its coastal waters. This has enabled China to expand its reach across the Indian Ocean, enhanced by a string of available ports provided by its friends and partners across south-east Asia, south Asia and all the way to east Africa and Djibouti in the Red Sea. Added to this is a wider pattern of military and naval collaboration with Russia, including recent joint land-and-sea exercises in the Russian far east, the Mediterranean and the Baltic. These have caused American military thinkers to conclude that Chinese strategists have much wider ambitions than just the Taiwan Strait.
Changes in the balance of power are one part of the story. The other is the changing character of China’s leadership. Not since Mao has China had a leader as powerful as it has right now. Xi’s influence permeates every level of party and state. He has acquired power in a way that has been politically astute and brutal. To take but one example, the anticorruption campaign he has wielded across the party has helped “clean up” the country’s almost industrial levels of corruption. It has also enabled him to “clean out” – via expulsion from the party and sentences to life imprisonment – nearly all the rivals who might otherwise have threatened his supreme authority.
For Americans who imagined that as China adopted a free market economy it would one day become a liberal democracy, China’s new leadership represents a radical departure. As Washington sees it, Xi abandoned any pretence of China ever transforming itself into a more open, tolerant, liberal democratic state. He has also adopted a model of authoritarian capitalism that is less market-driven and prioritises state enterprises over the private sector, and he is tightening the party’s control over business. Even as Beijing appears determined to rewrite the terms of the international order, the US also sees Xi as fanning the flames of Chinese nationalism in a manner that is increasingly anti-American. The US sees Xi as determined to alter the status quo in the western Pacific and establish a Chinese sphere of influence across the eastern hemisphere.
Washington has also concluded that Xi decided to export his domestic political model to the rest of the developing world by leveraging the global gravitational pull of the Chinese economy. The ultimate objective is to create an international system that is much more accommodating of Chinese national interests and values. Finally, the US has concluded that these changes in China’s official worldview are underpinned by a powerful Chinese party-state that is increasingly on a self-selected collision course with the US.
Of course, China doesn’t see it like that. Xi’s view is that there is nothing wrong with China’s political-economic mode, and that while Beijing offers it to others in the developing world to emulate, it is not “forcing it” on any other state. Xi points out the considerable failings of western democracies in dealing with core challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. He argues that China has modernised its military in order to secure its longstanding territorial claims, particularly over Taiwan, and he makes no apology for using the Chinese economy to advance its national interests. Nor does he apologise for using his newfound global power to rewrite the rules of the international system and the multilateral institutions that back it, arguing that this is precisely what the victorious western powers did after the second world war.
The CCP’s goal under Xi is also to pull China’s per-capita GDP up to “the level of other moderately developed countries” by 2035. Chinese economists typically place that somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000, or a level similar to South Korea. This would require a further doubling or tripling of the size of China’s economy. Given the party’s controversial 2018 decision to remove the two-term limit on five-year presidential terms, Xi could remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s and well into the 2030s. It is likely to be on his watch that China finally becomes the largest economy in the world, supplanting the US after more than a century of global economic dominance. With this shift in the global balance of power, Xi will probably feel emboldened to pursue a growing array of global ambitions over these next 15 years – none more consequential to him than to see the return of Taiwan to Beijing’s sovereignty.
In the eyes of China’s leadership, there is only one country capable of fundamentally disrupting Xi’s national and global ambitions. That is the US. That’s why the US continues to occupy the central position in Chinese Communist party strategic thinking.
Xi is no neophyte in his understanding of the US. He visited the country during his earlier political career, once as a junior official in the 1980s, where he famously stayed with a family in rural Iowa, and again more than 20 years later when, as Chinese vice-president, he was hosted by then US vice-president Joe Biden on a weeklong visit to various American cities and states. In 2010, Xi sent his only child to Harvard University for her undergraduate degree. Xi also hosted multiple US delegations throughout his political career, in Beijing and in the provinces.
Despite all this, Xi neither speaks nor reads English. His understanding of the US has always been intermediated through official Chinese sources of translation, which are not always known for accuracy or nuance. And official briefings, generated from China’s foreign policy bureaucracy and intelligence community, rarely see the US in a benign light. (Chinese officials, wary of angering Xi, also provide analyses that conform to what they believe he wants to hear.)
Still, Xi’s direct experience of the US exceeds the direct experience of China of any American leader, including Joe Biden. No American leader has ever spoken or read Chinese, and all have been similarly reliant on intermediate sources. As a Mandarin speaker, I was fortunate as foreign minister and prime minister of my country to be able to communicate directly with my counterparts and other Chinese officials in their own language. More western political leaders will need to do so in the future.
For many reasons, much of the American strategic community discounts the idea of China’s peaceful rise or peaceful development altogether. Instead, many believe that some form of armed conflict or confrontation with Beijing is inevitable – unless, of course, China were to change strategic direction. Under Xi’s leadership, any such change is deemed to be virtually impossible. In Washington, therefore, the question is no longer whether such confrontation can be avoided, but when it will occur and under what circumstances. And to a large extent, this mirrors the position in Beijing as well.
There is, therefore, a moral and a practical obligation for friends of China and friends of the US to think through what has become the single hardest question of international relations of our century: how to preserve the peace and prosperity we have secured over the last three-quarters of a century while recognising the changing power relations between Washington and Beijing. We need to identify potential strategic off-ramps, or at least guardrails, which may help preserve the peace among the great powers while also sustaining the integrity of the rules-based order that has underpinned international relations since 1945.
To borrow a question from Lenin: “What is to be done?” As a first step, each side must be mindful of how their actions will be read by the other. At present, both sides are bad at this. We must, at a minimum, be mindful of how strategic language, actions and diplomatic signalling will be interpreted within each side’s political culture, systems and elites.
Developing a new level of mutual strategic literacy, however, is only the beginning. What follows must be the hard work of constructing a joint strategic framework between Washington and Beijing that is capable of achieving three interrelated tasks:
1) Agreeing on principles and procedures for navigating each other’s strategic redlines (for example, over Taiwan) – which, if inadvertently crossed, would probably result in military escalation.
2) Mutually identifying the areas – foreign policy, economic policy, technological development (eg semiconductors) – where full-blown strategic competition is accepted as the new normal.
3) Defining those areas where continued strategic cooperation (for example, on climate change) is both recognised and encouraged.
Of course, none of this can be advanced unilaterally. It can only be done bilaterally, by senior negotiators who have been charged by the two countries’ presidents with an overarching responsibility for the relationship. As with all such agreements, the devil will, of course, lie in the detail – and in its enforcement. Such a framework would not depend on trust. It would rely exclusively on sophisticated national verification systems already deployed by each country. In other words, the integrity of these arrangements would not rely on Ronald Reagan’s famous “trust, but verify” approach, which Reagan insisted on with the Soviet Union, but rather on “verify” alone.
A joint strategic framework of this type will not prevent crisis, conflict or war. But it would reduce their likelihood. Of course, it would also not prevent any premeditated covert attack by one side against the assets of the other as part of a complete violation of the framework. But where a joint framework could assist is in managing escalation or de-escalation in the event of accidental incidents at sea, in the air or in cyberspace.
I’m not so naive as to believe that any agreed-upon joint framework would prevent China and the US from strategising against the other. But the US and the Soviet Union, after the near-death experience of the Cuban missile crisis, eventually agreed on a framework to manage their own fraught relationship without triggering mutual annihilation. Surely it’s possible to do the same between the US and China today. It is from this hope that the idea of managed strategic competition comes.
Certainly, the rest of the world would welcome a future in which they are not forced to make binary choices between Beijing and Washington. They would prefer a global order in which each country, large and small, has confidence in its territorial integrity, political sovereignty and pathways to prosperity. They would also prefer a world whose stability was underpinned by a functioning international system that could act on the great global challenges of our time, which no individual nation can solve alone. What happens next between China and the US will decide if that is still possible.
This is an adapted extract from The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China, which will be published in the UK by Public Affairs on 28 April