Must We Fight China? An Alternative to the Establishment's Defeatism

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2017. (Denis Balibouse/ Pool via AP)

The foreign policy establishment underestimated China for years. Now it is panicking at China’s growing power. Not since British contempt for the Japanese turned into defeatism at Singapore in 1942 has Western opinion of an Asian rival turned around so quickly. In the Fall 2017 Claremont Review of Books, I review Graham Allison’s influential new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Allison makes the case for appeasement. If you want peace, I counter, prepare for war. That means restoring America’s technological supremacy. Excerpts from my review are below. The complete review can be found at Claremont Review of Books.

Graham Allison’s much-heralded new book warns that China’s challenge to American strategic dominance sets us on a path to war. He calls this peril the “Thucydides Trap,” because he claims that it is similar to other great-power conflicts in history, above all Athens’ challenge to Sparta before the Peloponnesian War in 431-404 B.C. Expanding on a 2015 Atlantic essay admonishing American planners to avert a looming war with China, Destined for War urges Americans to accept China as a great power.

A professor and outgoing director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, Allison can’t be faulted for timing. In July and August of this year, North Korea’s tests of nuclear-capable missiles with range sufficient to strike American territory put the China problem at the top of our strategic agenda: apart from a military confrontation no one wants, America seems to have no alternative but to ask China to use its good offices to restrain North Korea. As a result, China has more influence in matters that bear on vital American interests. In an August 2017 Wall Street Journal essay that drew public praise from National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Henry Kissinger argued for strategic cooperation with China in the Korean peninsula. McMaster distributed a dozen copies of Allison’s book to senior National Security Council staff earlier this year.

The Thucydides Trap thus demarcates a crucial turn in the thinking of America’s foreign policy Establishment. Through most of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, conventional thinking held that America would promulgate the liberal international order in the Middle East and elsewhere, while China would struggle with the internal weaknesses inherent in a dictatorial regime. Allison’s book offers a different and darker vision: He argues, correctly in my view, that China’s economy will continue to grow in breadth and depth to challenge America, and concludes, wrongly in my view, that America can do nothing except to accommodate the rising Asian superpower.

America can make reasonable concessions to certain Chinese security concerns, to be sure. But China and the United States compete in a global economy where digital technology has digital outcomes. China now dominates high-tech electrical manufacturing, while America’s manufacturing sector is imploding. Not too long from now this trend will have grave national security implications for the United States, and become a source of strategic instability. The issue is not whether America allows China more power in the South China Sea, for example, but whether the migration of manufacturing out of the United States will lead to a fundamental change in the great power relationship—comparable, perhaps, to America’s technological superiority over the Soviet Union during the last years of communism.

Allison emphasizes China’s achievements, rejecting the common prejudice that China has grown simply by stealing technology from the West.

“Many Americans,” he adds, “have sought refuge in the belief that for all its size and bluster, China’s success is still essentially a story of imitation and mass production.” In fact, “China will surpass the U.S. to become the world leader in research-and-development spending by 2019.”

Allison concludes, “In the three and a half decades since Ronald Reagan became president, by the best measurement of economic performance, China has soared from 10 percent the size of the US to 60 percent in 2007, 100 percent in 2014, and 115 percent today.”

If the current trend continues, China’s economy will be a full 50 percent larger than that of the US by 2023. By 2040 it could be nearly three times as large. That would mean a China with triple America’s resources to use in influencing outcomes in international relations. Such gross economic, political, and military advantages would create a globe beyond anything American policymakers can now imagine.

Allison observes that China already possesses surface-to-ship missiles that can destroy American aircraft carriers hundreds of miles from its coast, diesel-electric submarines that can run silently on battery power, and satellite-killer missiles.

Allison raises the prospect of a trade war with China that might lead to a shooting war. This is possible, but also most unlikely, for the simple reason that China is prepared to make tactical concessions in the service of longer-term strategic objectives. Beijing does not want to drop the American frog into hot water, but rather to boil it gradually. Nothing would please China more than for the United States to approximate the export profile of Brazil, concentrating on agriculture, extraction, and basic industries, while China dominates high-tech manufacturing.

What, then, should America do about the rise of China? Allison suggests that we concentrate on our own domestic problems and stop worrying. “If the leaders in each society grasped the seriousness of the problems it faced on the home front and gave them the priority they deserved, officials would discover that devising a way to share the twenty-first century in Asia was not their most serious challenge.”

That seems imprudent. If you want peace, prepare for war. China should fear us, lest in the ebullience of its new self-confidence it stumble against regional tripwires and create conflict where none is necessary. If China’s domestic content program for semiconductors succeeds, the last remaining industry in which the United States maintains significant market share, namely integrated circuits, will become a Chinese monopoly as well.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which shocked America out of its postwar torpor by sending the first satellite into space in 1957, China has not given us a Sputnik moment. But we should address Chinese competition with the same focused sense of national purpose and the concentration of national resources that characterized President John Kennedy’s Moonshot program or Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

China can innovate, as Graham Allison reminds us, but it should be added that China cannot innovate nearly as well as the United States. American ingenuity backed by the resources of American government and industry created virtually all the new technologies of the past half-century. We should make China cautious to test us out of fear that American innovation will neutralize their enormous investments in high-tech manufacturing.

America should not fight a trade war with China over declining industries like steel, and should not conjure the specter of rebel provinces by promoting Taiwan’s independence. But we should make China believe that it cannot overtake America’s technological edge for a very long time to come, and fear that American innovation will send its vast investments in existing technologies to the scrap heap.

If we do not rise to China’s challenge, then Allison’s approach will become the default response. We will in fact have no choice but to accept Chinese economic supremacy, including a global lock on manufacturing and trade in high-tech electronics.  Our living standard will fall and we will be vulnerable to foreign military threats. Those are the implications of the book that now sits atop the desk of the National Security Council’s senior staff. One would hope and pray that the United States of American can do better.