Crossed wires between China and the US raise risk of war

Lanxin Xiang says Beijing and Washington cannot go on misreading each other if war is to be averted

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 6:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 6:22pm

A US-China war over the South China Sea was, just a few years ago, dismissed as being absurd. Today, however, such a scenario can no longer be laughed away. The old cliché was that only three issues could trigger a Sino-US war - Taiwan, Taiwan and Taiwan. That danger is still there, but it's on the back burner now. Meanwhile, the maritime dispute has thrust itself to the fore and each player is under pressure to throw down the gauntlet.

We miss the good old days of tacit understanding between the US and China, and the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger era of "strategic ambiguity", which actually helped sustain peace based on tacit understanding of each other's objectives.

Today, the real danger in US-China rivalry is no longer whether the two countries trust each other strategically, but rather in the constant misreading of each other's signals. A military clash could be triggered if this persists.

Is war between Washington and Beijing inevitable, or probable but avoidable? If it's considered inevitable, the only choice for both governments has to be to beef up military preparations. If it's the latter, then both sides must identify the roots of the problem. Managing the intense and potentially violent competition between entrenched leaders and upstart rivals is a hot topic in policy circles. The contest is usually cast as the Thucydides trap, which posits that a rising power will inevitably challenge the incumbent power, usually through military means.

An ambitious rising state will improve its position in the following ways: by territorial acquisition; expansion of its spheres of influence; or, revision of the norms and rules written or enforced by the reigning power.

Until recently, mainstream American policy elite were still unsure about the validity of this thesis, but the consensus in Washington is now tilting towards containment and confrontation. This, they claim, has been caused mainly by China's assertive behaviour in the South China Sea. A Thucydides trap has been sprung and the clouds of war are gathering.

But Beijing doesn't believe the theory always holds true. As President Xi Jinping said in January last year: " We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap … The argument that strong countries are bound to seek hegemony does not apply to China. This is not in the DNA of the country..." Thus, the Chinese have concluded that the US is paranoid about China's rise and has voluntarily fallen, along with Japan, into the Thucydides trap, and no one can help them but themselves. Thinking this way, China naturally feels it is on the high moral ground and looks at the US behaviour with pity and disdain.

While the Washington policy elite debate heatedly about whether the US should abandon its long-established "accommodationist" approach to China's rise, the Chinese feel that such debate has been triggered by US domestic pressures and China is often made a scapegoat to deflect the tension. As a result, the real shift in US policy consensus on China is not given sufficient attention and any signal that America is toughening its stance on the South China Sea issue is dismissed as bluffing.

Both sides have been haggling over the "facts" of who has done what, when and how. For example, the US presents an "assertive China" narrative, whose defining moment came during an Asean meeting in April 2010 when the Chinese foreign minister apparently used impolite language, by diplomatic standards.

The Chinese have their own narrative, of course, about an American conspiracy, pointing out that, at the same meeting, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton secretly rallied some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a diplomatic coup against China.

The escalation of accusations against each other bodes ill for the cause to avert war. We must find a way out of the dilemma.

Little attention has been paid to the language differences in understanding the concept of a Thucydides trap. While the Americans see a "trap" as a dynamic mechanism waiting to be triggered, the Chinese consider it a device to trick someone. Thus, Americans use the term "trap being sprung", implying certain conditionality, while the Chinese talk of a trap to "fall into", implying deception.

Here we may find a clue that plagues any serious dialogue over the South China Sea. To begin with, the leaders on both sides must be willing to do everything possible to avoid war. Any solution requires concessions.

That is to say, the US should not deny that it is responsible for unnecessarily provoking and humiliating Beijing, especially with its misleading "pivot" to Asia.

Beijing also needs some self-reflection, even "self-criticism", to paraphrase Mao Zedong . A Thucydides trap implies responsibility on the part of both the rising power and the status quo power. It refers to an interactive dynamism. Xi's advisers, it seems, have not done their homework well, for the Chinese translation of "trap" ( xianjing) is plainly wrong - it literally refers to a hole in the ground for trapping animals, hence a one-sided conspiracy.

Thus, the US "trap", a mechanical device to catch its prey - but only if triggered - is not nearly as self-righteous as the Chinese one. China therefore needs to do more psychological adjustment.

As both desire regional and international stability, we must assume that Beijing and Washington will be inclined to manage their bilateral disputes peacefully.

Lanxin Xiang is a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva