Avoiding World War III

A U.S. war with China isn't out of the question, but it's not inevitable.

In March 2016, Steve Bannon stated “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.” My response, which follows, is taken from my just-published book Avoiding War with China.

If you are the betting type, I have a promising bet for you. Wager that the United States and China will engage in a major war in the near future. Some scholars who specialize in international relations, such as John Mearsheimer, contend that a war between the United States and China is more likely today than a “hot” war between the United States and the USSR ever was. Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian and commentator, states that the United States and China will “probably” go to war if they do not carefully manage the slew of points of tension between them. Michael Pillsbury, an expert with four decades of experience studying U.S.-China relations, observes that China’s lack of military transparency practically guarantees inadvertent escalation, leading to war.

Others consider a war with China inevitable because of an “iron law” of history, according to which prevailing superpowers such as the United States necessarily fail to yield power quickly enough to a new power such as China, thereby causing rising tensions and, eventually, war. Graham Allison writes,

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power … [Avoiding war] required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.

Even optimists, against whom you’d be betting, give the United States and China only a one in four chance of avoiding war. According to Allison’s report, superpowers adjusted and avoided war with rising powers in four out of sixteen cases since 1500. (In one of these cases, Great Britain yielded to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s.)

This book hopes to sour your bet (with due apologies) by outlining several policies that may allow us to achieve a peaceful transition of power without endangering the United States’ core interests in Southeast Asia—or undermining the United States’ position as a global power. To find a peaceful way, both the United States and China need to change their foreign policies. Scores of books and articles argue what China must do: stop its military buildup, improve its transparency, bring its military more under the control of the government rather than the Communist Party, and transition to a liberal democracy, among other recommendations. This book, in contrast, is written by an American for Americans; it focuses on the actions the United States could take to reduce the probability that the world will face another major war.

I cannot stress enough that when I point in the following pages to flaws in the ways that the United States is currently dealing with China (for instance, by excluding it from the Trans Pacific Partnership), this does not mean that China has conducted itself better or does not need to mend its ways. It simply means that China’s warts have been amply charted and dissected; this book focuses on what the United States could do better.

To proceed, Americans need to engage in a national dialogue, a public debate about what the United States’ China policy is and should be. The United States often engages in such debates about other subjects, such as same-sex marriage, climate change, dealing with ISIS and with Iran. Such a national debate about China policy has not yet happened.

Indeed, during the most recent presidential primary season, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have mainly avoided the subject, though Donald Trump argued that China is out to “eat our lunch.” Now that the elections are over, and a new administration has come in, this is a particularly opportune time to engage in such a public debate. This book seeks to serve this overdue give-and-take.

Going to or sliding into war with a rising China is especially tragic because—as I see it—China and the United States share many complementary interests and have surprisingly few substantive reasons to come to blows. (By “substantive” I mean those issues that are distinct from symbolic or hyped-up ones, such as the question of who owns a pile of rocks somewhere difficult to find on a map.)

Some use the terms “panda huggers” and “dragon slayers” to categorize analysts and public leaders in the West according to the approaches they recommend adopting toward China; these terms replace the “doves” and “hawks” of the Cold War. I am not a “panda hugger” but rather someone who has been to war. This experience left me with a strong commitment to seeking peaceful resolutions to international conflicts.

The overdue public debate about America’s China policy will not take place in a vacuum. The U.S. military, in the course of carrying out its duty to secure the United States, has identified China as a major strategic threat. Accordingly, it has made the case in the media, in congressional hearings, and in presentations to the White House that the United States should take a tougher approach to China and should build up its military in order to prepare for a war with China. The defense industry supports the same charge for its own reasons. To digress, I do not claim that there exists a military-industrial complex in the sense of a solid military-corporate bloc whose representatives meet at night in a motel in Arlington to plot how to gain glory and profit by pushing the United States into war with China. As a matter of fact, the U.S. military’s various services compete with each other; thus the U.S. Army is much less inclined to target China than the U.S. Air Force and Navy are. And many corporations that make money out of peaceful pursuits compete with defense-focused ones, and defense corporations compete with each other. However, as we shall see, major segments of the military and corporations do have strong, vested interests in preparing for war with China for reasons that do serve their constituents, but not necessarily the good of the United States.

Reprinted from the just released AVOIDING WAR WITH CHINA: Two Nations, One World by Amitai Etzioni with permission of the University of Virginia Press.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. He is the author of Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy and From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations.