The harsh—one might even say hysterical—reaction to the Chinese balloon that crossed the continental United States last weekend was just the latest indication of rising tensions between the US and China. But the rhetorical tempest that ensued obscured and impeded what should be the most urgent issue on the agenda—preventing a war between the US and China.
Thankfully, President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday contrasted with the extreme rhetoric of the China hawks, who have seized on the balloon incident in an attempt to drive the American public towards confrontation with Beijing. Biden did speak of “modernizing our military” to deter China, but he also said that he seeks “competition, not conflict” and that the US was “committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.” He should follow up his words by quickly rescheduling Secretary of State Blinken’s trip to China, as a first step toward crafting a policy of constructive coexistence.
Yet if President Biden decides to adopt a more cooperative approach to US-China relations, he will face stiff opposition not just outside of his administration but within it as well. Just last week, four-star Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan caused a stir when a memo surfaced in which he predicted a US war with China, stating that “my gut tells me we will fight in 2025” and instructing his subordinates that “unrepentant lethality matters most.” Minihan’s statement is as irresponsible as it is misguided. Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, injected a note of sanity when he said of Minihan’s assertion that war is “not only not inevitable, it’s highly unlikely.”
No matter how likely one thinks a war between the US and China may be, the overriding goal of US policy should be to prevent it from happening. A series of recent war games—including those conducted by our organization, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and by the Center for Strategic and International Studies—indicate that a US-China conflict would inflict heavy losses on both sides, destabilize the global economy, and run the risk of a nuclear confrontation, all while devastating rather than protecting Taiwan. Engaging in an arms race with China in the name of a narrowly defined military deterrence—a US buildup designed to dissuade China from taking aggressive action—will not reduce these risks. What is needed is a policy that balances reasonable measures of deterrence with concerted efforts at reassurance, ultimately aiming to return the US-China relationship to a sound foundation.
Read the full piece in The Nation.