The first thing to say is that a war with China probably won’t happen.
Yet if it does, it might begin in an obscure place few have heard of, like Pratas or Kinmen Islands. Both are controlled by Taiwan but are closer to China, and some Chinese and Americans alike worry that Chinese President Xi Jinping might invade one island or the other to pressure Taiwan.
Or Xi might send a submarine to snip undersea cables that carry the internet to Taiwan, or he could impede oil deliveries to Taiwan, or he might order a cyberattack to bring down Taiwan’s banking system.
Most experts don’t believe that such an assault is likely (an all-out invasion of Taiwan is even less probable), but it is a considerably greater risk than it had been for decades. And what began on Pratas or Kinmen wouldn’t end there: The United States would most likely be drawn into perhaps the most dangerous confrontation with another nuclear power since the Cuban missile crisis.
So while we try to calm partisan “warfare” in Washington, let’s work harder to prevent an actual international shooting war in Asia. The coming years represent the greatest risks since I began covering U.S.-China relations in the 1980s, partly because Xi is an overconfident, risk-taking bully who believes that the United States is in decline.
“I think it’s unlikely that there’ll be a military confrontation there, but I don’t rule it out,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That seems right to me — but I also worry that we’re wrong. Few expected Xi to pick fights with India on their shared border, as he has several times in the past year, and heaven help us if he is similarly reckless toward Taiwan and sparks a war with the United States.
Dealing with Mitch McConnell will be a piece of cake for President Joe Biden compared with dealing with Xi. Biden’s challenge will be to constrain a Chinese leader who has been oppressive in Hong Kong, genocidal in the Xinjiang region, obdurate on trade, ruthless on human rights and insincere on everything, while still cooperating with China on issues like climate change, fentanyl and North Korea (which many experts expect to resume missile launches this year). Oh, and we don’t have a China strategy.
I’m just not sure we’re up to this task.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has, rightly, signaled that he will continue what he called Donald Trump’s “tougher approach” toward China, albeit adding human rights concerns and working with allies to make the toughness more effective. Still, Republicans see China policy as a vulnerability for this administration, with some ridiculing “Beijing Biden,” and Sen. Ted Cruz denouncing “Team Biden’s embrace of the Chinese Communist Party.”
That’s nonsense, for Biden has recruited an excellent, tough-minded team of Asia experts, but the criticisms reflect a hardening toward Beijing across the political spectrum that leaves little room for diplomacy. That makes me nervous.
I was in Tiananmen Square when Chinese troops opened fire on protesters in 1989, and I have had more Chinese friends imprisoned than I can count. I have no illusions about Beijing. But I worry that two trains are rushing toward each other, for several reasons:
— We Americans have a pattern of exaggerating threats. We fixated at various times on Nasserism, Southeast Asian dominoes and “Japan as No. 1.” In retrospect, these fears had some basis but were too simplistic; let’s not repeat that mistake in the case of China.
— We should bring a dose of humility to our discussions of China. The criticisms of Xi are deserved, but it’s also true that an infant born in Beijing today has a longer life expectancy (82 years) than a baby born in Washington (78). China badly bungled its initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak but then moved heaven and earth to halt the virus and save hundreds of thousands of lives. China is a complex and contradictory place, not a caricature.
— Let’s distinguish between Xi and China, criticizing the former without demonizing the latter. Senior Chinese officials and their family members in private denounce Xi to me in scathing terms (one told me a few days ago that Xi is “a crazy person”). So we should avoid insulting the entire country and forcing officials to rally around their leader.
— Biden needs to manage Xi and reduce the risk of war without pulling his punches: Biden should denounce cultural genocide in Xinjiang but not seek a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics, and he should strengthen ties with Taiwan but not gratuitously poke Xi in the eye. We can send Army Green Berets to train with Taiwan armed forces without releasing video of the training, as the Trump administration did. We can also work with China to reduce the risk of accidents and escalation.
“We learned with the Soviet Union how to keep the Cold War cold,” noted David Shambaugh, a George Washington University scholar and author of several excellent books on U.S.-China relations.
He suggests dusting off the Cold War toolbox to see whether arms control agreements, hotlines and military-to-military consultations can lower temperatures.
“We’re in really dangerous waters now,” Shambaugh noted.