The U.S. and China Must Act Now to Avoid a Disastrous War

The world’s attention is rightly focused on the unfolding horror in Ukraine. The horrific images of the destruction and death in Ukraine and the horrors of the millions of refugee camps that have fled their homeland in droves are a testament to war’s tragic consequences. And in the capitals of Europe, something once thought an impossibility—a large-scale 21st century war on the continent—has now become all too real, awakening once idealistic nations to the hard truth that such senselessness violence has not been eliminated from our modern, globalized world.

The events in Mariupol and Kyiv should be a wakeup call for those politicians who talk loosely about open war in the world. Many of these public figures have not seen or been affected by war.

In this grim moment it is important to think through, and coldly reassess the dangers presented by other potential conflicts that could be sparked by today’s geopolitical tensions. The risk of war between China, USA, and other countries is undoubtedly the greatest. This is an option that is now possible and must be accepted.

If such a conflict were to start, it would be over the Taiwan Strait crisis, the South China Sea crisis, or other unpredicted flashpoints. It will almost certainly prove more devastating than the current situation in Ukraine. It would be a conflict with vast scope for escalation across every domain, from the seas to space, and likely to draw in many other countries across the world, including America’s allies in the Pacific. Such a conflict would be a catastrophe for both countries—and for us all.

It is possible for the United States to declare war on China. The U.S. and China relations have been spiraling downward, with their strategic relationships slipping away as a result of global crises. To avoid conflict, it will not be possible to just muddle through. To avoid sleepwalking into a war, both countries must construct a joint strategic framework to maintain the peace—and quickly.

This is my latest book The Avoidable War: the Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China, I offer one such framework, which I call “managed strategic competition.” The idea is relatively simple.

First, the United States and China must have a clear, granular understanding of each other’s irreducible strategic redlines in order to help prevent conflict through miscalculation. Both sides must agree that strategic surprise and deception are dangerous, while strategic predictability is an advantage for both. It will take a detailed, focused diplomatic understanding of Taiwan.

Second, both countries must then embrace the reality of their competition—that is, to channel their strategic rivalry into a competitive race to enhance their military, economic, and technological capabilities. If properly constrained, this competition will deter conflict and not encourage either side to take on a bloody and risky war. This strategic competition could also allow both sides to maximise their economic and political appeals to the rest the world. The strategic rationale would be that the most competitive national system would ultimately prevail by becoming (or remaining) the world’s foremost superpower and eventually shaping the world in its image. The best system will win. And I’m confident which one I’d bet on.

This framework could also create political space for both countries to keep engaging in strategic cooperation where they have national interests. These include climate change, the prevention of another pandemic, maintaining financial stability, and global economic stability.

To ensure the success of this separation of the relationships, it will need to be managed carefully by senior cabinet officials. To be able to endure domestic politics’ turmoil, any such structure would have to receive bipartisan approval. It is impossible to make this a priority.

This approach will face criticism in both Washington and Beijing for not being sufficiently sensitive to each side’s national interests. Some in Washington will see it as appeasement. However, this is false. Any comprehensive strategy for China must include cold and realistic deterrence. Meanwhile many in Beijing will argue it doesn’t sufficiently account for China’s core interests on Taiwan, and broader national pride. But as Moscow just learned in Ukraine, war and economic devastation would suit China’s interests far less.

I challenge those who are critical of U.S.-China relations and managed strategic competition to find better solutions. You have very little time.

As someone who has lived, studied and admired both China and the United States for many years, I am a huge fan of China. It would be a terrible thing if there was war between these two countries. And, watching the destruction in Ukraine, I cannot help but recall the memory of marching as a small child in our annual ANZAC Day parade—the Australian equivalent of Memorial Day—in our tiny country town with my father, who had fought in World War II, alongside elders who had fought in World War I.

It was a sleepwalking world that led to the first Great War’s slaughter, which took more than 15,000,000 lives. Our eyes are now open. We will be no excuse for failing to prevent another global catastrophe.

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