It has become a cliché to say that the only bipartisan agreement in Washington is on the need to “push back” against rising Chinese power and influence and to focus the relationship on strategic competition, if not outright rivalry. But there is also a consensus that a hot war with China should be avoided and that discussions aimed at making sure that stepped-up U.S. tensions with China do not lead to a military conflict are desirable. In the current toxic climate of U.S.-China relations and with rapid changes in weapons capabilities, one of the only areas where U.S. officials seem eager to suggest diplomacy with China is in the area of arms control and crisis management; efforts to “establish guardrails” in a more competitive or contested relationship. U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Robert Wood declared recently that “it is in everyone’s interest that nuclear powers talk to one another directly about reducing nuclear dangers and avoiding miscalculation” and that the U.S. and China have a mutual interest in avoiding a costly arms race. The logic here appears unassailable.
It seems, however, that Chinese officials are not as eager as their U.S. counterparts to engage in such talks. The Donald Trump administration tried to cajole China into attending U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control talks by setting a place for it at a “trilateral arms control discussion” with the Russians in Vienna. China did not show and called the stunt “US performance art.” An effort in the Obama administration to conduct talks on strategic stability between the U.S. and Chinese militaries never got off the ground. In response to U.S. calls to set up reliable “defense hotlines” that can be used to de-escalate military conflict or accidents, the Chinese have demurred. And even before bilateral military-to-military meetings meant to implement incident avoidance protocols fell victim to worsening relations, they were in any case no longer serving their intended purpose. Most recently, the U.S. and China have gotten into a standoff on who the appropriate Chinese recipient of a phone call from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should be.
Why are the Chinese “reticent to engage” in what appear as reasonable proposals for dialogue to ward off hot conflict, miscalculation, or an arms race? One obvious contributor is the poor and deteriorating state of bilateral relations. Some might claim this should make China more interested, but military-related discussions are always difficult amid rising tensions, particularly in U.S.-China relations. During the Obama administration, the two sides made some progress on regularizing military-to-military discussions and agreements to reduce the likelihood of military incidents or accidents, but the atmosphere that supported those talks has gone from pragmatic to hostile. Now China sees the U.S. as driving the deterioration in relations and pursuing increasingly provocative and threatening moves against it.
American officials have cited U.S.-Soviet agreements during the Cold War as a possible template for U.S.-China “guardrails” to avoid conflict during strategic competition. This suggestion, however, glosses over fundamental dissimilarities that all augur poorly for achieving similar progress with China. First, and perhaps most importantly, U.S.-Soviet agreements were reached amid a phase of improving relations, or “détente.” Second, the activities and arms racing subject to the agreements were in rough bilateral balance. Strategic arsenals were at parity, systems and doctrines were symmetric and military encounters in the air and at sea occurred around the globe. In the case of U.S.-China, strategic arsenals are not close to parity, there is increasing focus on asymmetry, and most (if not all) of the concerning encounters occur very close to Chinese or Chinese-claimed areas. Third, while the two Cold War protagonists were both motivated by a mutual desire to reduce rapidly escalating military spending, neither protagonist in the current U.S.-China competition appears similarly motivated, despite Ambassador Wood’s comment. Sentiment in Washington for cutting defense spending is weak, and Beijing does not view its current defense spending allocation as unbalanced, given its security challenges. Beijing might agree on the desirability of avoiding an arms race in the Western Pacific, but it does not see itself as “racing,” and it views exorbitant U.S. military spending (still much greater than China’s) as a long-term strategic mistake, one that it is not particularly moved to help the U.S. avoid.
Finally, the Cold War discussions were predicated on the notion that increased communication and transparency could be achieved in a balanced way that would be stabilizing. Mutual transparency turned out to be difficult to implement in practice but would likely be even more challenging with China. China’s defense posture relies in large part on ambiguity and generating uncertainty about capabilities and possible Chinese responses to U.S. moves. This is especially true with respect to the issue most likely to cause hot conflict between the United States and China, which is Taiwan. Beijing worries that greater transparency and certainty will induce riskier and more provocative actions on the part of Washington, whereas uncertainty acts as a constraint. This approach has worked well for China to date, and its leaders view U.S. efforts to elicit further Chinese transparency with little consideration for Chinese concerns with skepticism.
Given this unpromising backdrop, there are several possible ways forward. In the event of greater focus on U.S.-China cooperation in the coming months, perhaps in the context of a leader-level meeting, the two sides could try to convene discussions on new and destabilizing technologies. It will be difficult, given the sharp differences in U.S. and Chinese concerns, to structure such meetings, but, for example, bilateral talks on cyber warfare and the non-targeting of critical infrastructure were held during the Obama administration and could be renewed. This would promote much-needed official interactions, if not immediate progress, but would require bold leadership on both sides in the current negative climate. It is also possible that talks on these and other arms control-related issues will move forward without China (for example, in multilateral formats and/or with Russia), which would likely exacerbate tensions in U.S.-China relations. Lastly, the possibility of a U.S.-China military incident or accident cannot be ruled out. In that case, depending on the circumstances and successful de-escalation, it may serve in the aftermath to focus attention more seriously on the dangers of the present course and might lead to new thinking on how to achieve greater stability in U.S.-China interactions. Of these possibilities, the one requiring proactive, bold leadership is obviously preferred.
Susan A. Thornton is a retired career U.S. diplomat who served until 2018 as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacific Affairs. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and Director of the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.