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Michael McFaul says he is “really frightened” by the lack of interaction between the US and Chinese governments. Photo: Handout

US-China tensions fuelled by lack of interaction, former US ambassador to Russia says

  • The US is ‘not doing enough with either China or Russia … and that can lead to dangerous conflicts’, Stanford University professor Michael McFaul says
  • All three powers should learn from the mistakes of the Cold War to avoid a military conflict, he says
A former US ambassador to Russia has warned that the lack of communication between Washington and Beijing could lead to misunderstanding and increase the risk of military conflict.
Speaking at an online meeting of the Asia Society in Hong Kong on Friday, Michael McFaul, who is now a professor of international studies at Stanford University, said the United States, China and Russia should learn from the mistakes of the Cold War if they wanted to avoid armed combat.

World leaders needed to engage in both cooperation and confrontation, as well as proper crisis prevention and management, he said.

“We’re [the US] not doing enough with either China or Russia today and that leads to misperceptions between capitals that can lead to dangerous conflicts,” McFaul said.

“I am really frightened by how little interaction there is between my government and the government of China and the government of Russia.”

China’s rise as a military power would be the most important foreign policy challenge facing the United States for the rest of the century, McFaul said. But he added there was “a negative consequence to over-exaggerating that threat, and that is a lesson I think we need to learn from the Cold War”.

The former diplomat said also that there was too much emphasis on comparing the current rivalry between major powers – particularly Beijing and Washington – to the period of geopolitical tension that lasted for much of the second half of last century.

“I think the differences in US-Russian relations are more important today than the comparisons with the Cold War, and I especially believe that with respect to US-China relations,” he said.

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There were similarities between the prevailing rivalry between China and the US and the Cold War era, such as the ideological battle between democracy and autocracy, McFaul said.

But the greater differences included the lack of proxy wars, the US outranking China on multiple dimensions of power, the intertwined Chinese and US economies and US President Donald Trump leading the US’s retreat from the world stage, he said.

“Throughout the entire Cold War, Americans in the Republican Party and Democratic Party thought we had to lead the free world,” he said.

“That is now a contested idea, most certainly in the Republican Party, but it’s also a contested idea in the Democratic Party. That is a radical difference in the US-China competition today and US-Soviet competition during the Cold War.”

McFaul said that despite the “very conscious effort” by the Trump administration to emphasise the threat posed by China – in part to divert attention from Russia – Moscow was still the primary threat in terms of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom he described as the “most revisionist leader” of the great powers, was happy for there to be tensions between China and the US, but wanted Chinese President Xi Jinping to be more of a revisionist power, he said.

“He [Putin] has been frustrated that China has not moved as fast in that direction as he would like, but now, as tensions between China and the United States are growing, he is more hopeful that you’ll have this axis of illiberal countries coming together.

“So the more that China and the United States fight, the better it is for Vladimir Putin,” he said.

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McFaul said also he was outraged by the racist incidents involving students of Chinese descent, citing the impact of McCarthyism on the United States in the 1950s, and called for students from both Hong Kong and mainland China to be treated with respect on American campuses.

The US was an open society and it was not up to universities to deal with alleged foreign espionage, he said.

“If the government of the United States thinks that a country is using students for espionage purposes, as has been alleged, then it’s their job to fight espionage. It is not my job as a professor at Stanford to do that,” he said.

“I think they should do that before we allow alleged spies to come into our country, but if we start policing ourselves that will be the end of great institutions like Stanford.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lack of communication ‘increases risk of conflict’