Opinion | U.S.-China Relations Keep Getting Worse. Do They Have To?

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The detection and downing of a Chinese spy balloon in American airspace earlier this month, and the attendant decision by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone the first trip to China by America’s top diplomat since 2018, was just the latest episode in a longer story of deteriorating relations between the world’s two great powers.

That story began in earnest five years ago, when the Trump administration ignited a trade war that the Biden administration has continued to wage. It took another turn in May when President Biden pledged to defend Taiwan if China attacked it, a striking (if halting) departure from longstanding policy, which was underscored by the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island over the summer. And last month, a top Air Force general issued a memo predicting a war in 2025 and calling for preparations “to deter, and if required, defeat China.”

Why does Washington believe that China is the top threat to U.S. national security? Are those fears founded, and what should be done to avoid a potentially disastrous military conflict between two nuclear-armed countries? Here’s what people are saying.

How dangerous is China, really?

China’s authoritarian government affords its citizens few civil liberties and even fewer political rights, and exercises its control through sprawling one-party rule, widespread censorship, repression of civil society, systems of surveillance and propaganda that have grown increasingly sophisticated under President Xi Jinping, and the mass detention of religious and ethnic minorities, which the United States has deemed a genocide.

There are, of course, other authoritarian governments in the world; the United States is even allied with some of them. But to U.S. officials, what makes China a unique threat — beyond its size — is the modernization of its military and, in the words of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, its “increasingly coercive actions to reshape the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to fit its authoritarian preferences”:

In recent years, Beijing has made expansive claims to the South China Sea, one of the world’s most critical waterways, that are widely viewed as unlawful.

It has effectively revoked Hong Kong’s autonomy and quashed its pro-democracy movement.

And it has held more aggressive military drills near Taiwan, a prosperous democracy formed in 1949 just 100 miles off the coast of mainland China that Beijing views as an illegitimate breakaway province.

Since the 1970s, the United States has struck a delicate diplomatic balance through the “one China” policy, under which it does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, and through “strategic ambiguity,” selling arms to Taiwan without making any security guarantees. Taiwan dominates the production of microchips, which are critical to the functioning of electronic devices. A Chinese invasion that constrained the supply of those chips would lead to “a deep and immediate recession” and “an inability to protect ourselves,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo warned last year.

As the world’s second-largest economy, China also exerts influence through trade, alleged theft of intellectual property and investment in developing countries that critics have called a new form of colonialism. And as China’s market power has grown, “U.S. institutions and businesses are increasingly silencing themselves to avoid angering the Chinese government,” German Lopez of The Times has written.

But for all these concerns, many reject the notion that China poses an existential threat to the United States. At the most basic level, “China has neither the destructive capability nor the geopolitical motivation to destroy the U.S.,” Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, argued in Bloomberg in 2021. Even with a recent expansion, China’s nuclear arsenal remains much smaller than America’s, he added, and its military still lags in technological sophistication and experience.

In the view of Michael Swaine, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Beijing also has shown little interest in exporting its governance system. “Where it does, it is almost entirely directed at developing countries, not industrial democracies such as the United States,” he argued in Foreign Policy in 2021. Moreover, its economic development model “is almost certainly not sustainable in its present form, given China’s aging population, extensive corruption, very large levels of income inequality, inadequate social safety net, and the fact that free information flows are required to drive global innovation.”

To Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University, the logic of zero-sum competition with China has become so pervasive in Washington among members of both parties that it risks undermining America’s own interests. “When individuals feel the need to out-hawk one another to protect themselves and advance professionally,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, “the result is groupthink.”

And for detractors of such groupthink, the reaction to the balloon incident is yet another instance of threat inflation. “Americans use all kinds of technology to gather intelligence on China and other states: satellites, phone tapping, computer intrusions, and even good old-fashioned human sources,” writes Emma Ashford, a columnist at Foreign Policy. “It just seems as if Washington blew this whole thing way out of proportion.”

Can the United States and China compete without conflict?

Even those who hold countering China’s rise as a top national priority aren’t particularly keen to start a war, as it would almost certainly exact tremendous costs:

In a conflict over an invasion of Taiwan, the United States and its allies would lose tens of thousands of service members and Taiwan’s economy would be devastated, according to recent simulations conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In part because the U.S. and Chinese economies are deeply interdependent, a war lasting just one year would cause America’s G.D.P. to fall by 5 percent to 10 percent and China’s by 25 percent to 30 percent, with severe effects for the global economy, according to a RAND Corporation study.

Conflict could also imperil cooperation on climate change between the United States and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, as Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan temporarily did.

Opinions differ on how war might be best avoided. Regarding Taiwan, there are some, like Yu-Jie Chen, a research professor in Taiwan, who contend that deterring China requires more demonstrations of support from like-minded democracies, “including signing bilateral economic agreements with Taiwan, allowing it to join regional trade organizations to diminish Taiwan’s economic overreliance on China, supporting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and more gestures like Ms. Pelosi’s visit.” The Times columnist Bret Stephens has argued that Biden should also end the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity in a formal statement.

Yet others think that would be a counterproductive provocation, as Beijing already assumes that the United States would support Taiwan in a conflict. “It would erode assurance by implying our policy is to guarantee Taiwan independence,” Arthur Kroeber, a founding partner at the China-focused research firm GaveKal Dragonomics, told Foreign Affairs in November. “And it could incite Taiwan to make more aggressive moves toward independence, which would increase, not lower, the chances of armed conflict.”

On other matters, there is more consensus about how to ease tensions. There is relatively broad support, for example, for increasing military aid to democracies in the region. “An active denial strategy that focuses on supplying defensive weapons to U.S. allies and a lower-profile, more agile deployment of U.S. forces in the region would raise the costs of Chinese military action without exacerbating China’s own sense of insecurity,” write Jake Werner, a China historian, and William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute.

Last year, Congress passed bipartisan legislation allocating $52 billion in subsidies and tax credits to encourage domestic chip production, an industrial policy that could help lower the national security stakes of the Taiwan dispute by hedging against supply chain vulnerabilities. As Steven Rattner, a counselor to the Treasury secretary in the Obama administration, wrote in The Times last month, “even many free-market conservatives seem to recognize that unfettered capitalism can lead to imperfect results.”

Biden could also turn down the temperature of the U.S.-China rivalry by rolling back tariffs on Chinese imports, which the Times editorial board described last year as “the Trump administration’s failed gambit of bullying China into making economic concessions.” Instead of trying to change China, the board argued, the United States should focus on strengthening ties with China’s neighbors, as “recent history teaches that the United States is more effective in advancing and defending its interests when it does not act unilaterally.”

For now, an uneasy peace

However the balloon affair blows over, it has highlighted how strained U.S.-China relations have become and how easily another dispute could curdle into conflict. “As we see with balloons — who predicted a balloon mini-crisis? — the possible permutations are endless,” Chris Buckely, who covers China for The Times, said this week.

It has also revealed how little the two powers now communicate: Shortly after the balloon was shot down, the Pentagon said that Secretary Austin reached out through a special crisis line to his Chinese counterpart, who declined to answer his call.

Should this frosty dynamic persist, “a new type of Cuban-missile-crisis moment, when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, is not inconceivable,” Michael Schuman writes in The Atlantic. “Then the two adversaries may find that the channels of communication they’d need to avert disaster aren’t working, and their inimical attitudes are too entrenched to find a solution.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“China’s Top Airship Scientist Promoted Program to Watch the World From Above” [The New York Times]

“Biden’s Taiwan Policy Is Truly, Deeply Reckless” [The New York Times]

“U.S. Pours Money Into Chips, but Even Soaring Spending Has Limits” [The New York Times]

“Washington’s China Hawks Take Flight” [Foreign Policy]

“Have China hawks flown the coop?” [Politico]

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