JThe world’s attention is rightly focused on the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Images of destruction and death strewn across this country, and the harrowing experiences of refugees fleeing in their millions, bear witness to the tragic reality of war. And in European capitals, something once thought impossible – full-scale 21st century war on the continent – has now become all too real, awakening once idealistic nations to the harsh truth that such senseless violence is n has not been eliminated from our modern life. , globalized world.
The scenes in Kyiv and Mariupol should serve as a wake-up call to those public figures who have spoken vaguely of inviting open warfare into our world. Most of them have never seen the war themselves or witnessed its human cost.
In this dark moment, it is important to coolly reflect and reassess the dangers presented by other potential conflicts that could be triggered by today’s geopolitical tensions. The most important of these is undoubtedly the possibility of war between the United States and China. It is a prospect that we must now recognize is no longer unthinkable.
If such a conflict were to begin, be it a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, or any number of other unpredictable hotspots, such a war would almost certainly be far more destructive. what we see in Ukraine today. It would be a conflict with vast possibilities for escalation in everything from the seas to space, and likely to attract many other countries around the world, including America’s allies in the Pacific. Such a conflict would be a disaster for both countries – and for all of us.
War between the United States and China is not inevitable. But US-China relations continue to sour, their strategic relationship adrift and rocked by mounting global crises. Getting by will be quite insufficient to avoid conflicts. To avoid becoming sleepwalkers in a war, the two countries must build a common strategic framework to keep the peace — and fast.
In my new book, Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the United States and Xi Jinping’s China, I offer such a framework, which I call “managed strategic competition”. The idea is relatively simple.
First, the United States and China must have a clear and granular understanding of each other’s irreducible strategic red lines in order to help prevent conflict through miscalculation. Each side must be persuaded to conclude that improved strategic predictability benefits both countries, that strategic deception is futile, and that strategic surprise is simply dangerous. This will require a focused and detailed diplomatic understanding of Taiwan.
Second, the two countries must then accept the reality of their competition, that is, channel their strategic rivalry into a competitive race to improve their military, economic and technological capabilities. Properly limited, such competition can deter armed conflict rather than tempt either side to risk everything by pursuing a dangerous and bloody war with unpredictable results. Such strategic competition would also allow both sides to maximize their political, economic and ideological appeal to the rest of the world. The strategic reasoning would be that the most competitive national system would eventually prevail by becoming (or remaining) the world’s leading superpower and eventually shaping the world in its image. May the best system win. And I’m confident who I would bet on.
Third, this framework would create the necessary political space for the two countries to continue to engage in strategic cooperation in areas where their national interests align. These areas include: climate change, preventing the next pandemic, and maintaining global financial stability.
Finally, for this siloing of the relationship to have any chance of success, it would need to be carefully and continuously managed by a dedicated pairing of senior cabinet-level officials on both sides. For the United States, it also means that such a framework would require bipartisan buy-in in order to be able to withstand the turmoil of domestic politics. For such a high priority, this should by no means be impossible.
This approach will be criticized both in Washington and Beijing for not being sensitive enough to each party’s national interests. For some in Washington, this will feel appeasement. This is false: cold and realistic deterrence is at the heart of any comprehensive strategy towards China. Meanwhile, many in Beijing will say it does not sufficiently take into account China’s core interests in Taiwan and broader national pride. But as Moscow has just learned in Ukraine, war and economic devastation would serve China’s interests much less.
Ultimately, my challenge to critics of managed strategic competition and the establishment of safeguards in US-China relations is simple: invent something better. There is little time to waste.
I have long studied, lived and deeply respected the United States and China. The prospect of war between the two nations would be catastrophic. And, watching the destruction in Ukraine, I can’t help but recall the memory of marching as a small child in our annual ANZAC Day Parade – Australia’s equivalent of Memorial Day – in our small country town with my father, who had fought in the World War. II, alongside veterans who had fought in the First World War.
The world managed to sleepwalk into the slaughter of that first Great War, which claimed the lives of more than 15 million people. With our eyes now wide open, we will have no excuses if we fail to avoid falling into another global catastrophe today.
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