American and Chinese analysts often warn of a “tipping point” in China-US relations beyond which the two countries conclude that conflict is unavoidable and begin preparing for war. Indeed, in the face of current bilateral tensions over the ongoing trade war in conjunction with deteriorating ties politically, diplomatically and militarily, one wonders if we are nearing such a point.
Not only has Washington ratcheted up its anti-China rhetoric, with some going so far as to call the Middle Kingdom a new Third Reich, it is also antagonizing China with new arms sales to Taiwan and threats of sanctions over internment camps in Xinjiang – both of which Beijing considers its sovereign territory.
Additionally, the US is aggressively patrolling the waters and airspace off China’s coasts and islands, trying to decouple Sino-American interdependence, clamping down on cultural and educational exchanges, arresting Chinese corporate executives, and attempting to build a coalition to divest and boycott Chinese investments.
With the launch of the Committee on the Present Danger: China and its guiding principle that “there is no hope of co-existence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country,” it seems China may be marked as the next “regime change” target after Venezuela and Iran.
While the US is right to criticize China’s deficiencies such as Internet censorship, its policies toward minorities, religious restrictions, militarization of the South China Sea and mercantilist trade practices, the rise of anti-China extremists in Washington has set off alarm bells among seasoned China scholars.
Former US deputy assistant secretary of state Susan Shirk, for one, has warned that inflating the China threat “could turn into a McCarthyite Red Scare,” a concern shared by former Australia prime minister Kevin Rudd, who observed that “the public space for open, considered debate and discussion on the China question is shrinking as name-calling grows.”
Likewise, sinologist David Lampton at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University has noted that after 20 years of assuring Chinese intellectuals that US policy was not one of containment, his views have now changed given that “it looks to me that we are kind of headed in that direction.”
Ambassador Chas Freeman joins Susan Shirk in exhorting the US to boost its own competitiveness rather than attempting to cripple the competitiveness of others, with former president Jimmy Carter admonishing that “neither country should use ‘national security’ as an excuse to obstruct the other’s legitimate commercial activities.”
For Rudd, 2017 was a year marking a fundamental US doctrinal shift from strategic engagement to strategic competition with China. With the release of the 2017 National Security Strategy, the 2018 US National Defense Strategy, launching a trade war in June 2018, and the October 2018 hardline speech by Vice-President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute, Rudd surmised that these various US declaratory intentions collectively brought the post-1978 era of Sino-US “strategic engagement” to an end.
However, the provenance of a “strategic competition” approach likely began much earlier, with then-president Barack Obama’s 2012 eastward “Pivot to Asia,” which in turn prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 “March West” across Eurasia via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). First articulated by Wang Jisi in a Global Times article in 2012, when China perceived that it was being thrown off-balance and encircled militarily and economically on its eastern flank via the US-centered, China-excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership, strengthening of US military alliances and increasing US military assets in East Asia.
As a rebalancing response, China followed Mao Zedong’s dictum of “Where the enemy advances, we retreat; where the enemy retreats, we pursue,“ and pivoted westward across Eurasia with the launch of the BRI in September 2013. In so doing, Beijing hoped it would avoid further Sino-US confrontation in East Asia and promote cooperation on non-traditional security issues such as counterterrorism and post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nonetheless, the westward pivot has not offered cooperative dividends for China nor eased bilateral tensions beneath the surface, and the following year in 2014, Chinese military expert Michael Pillsbury, who is now one of US President Donald Trump’s China advisers, penned a Foreign Policy article titled “China and the United States are preparing for war.”
He documented the Chinese military’s heightened level of distrust toward the US given the fact that China was at the center of US war planning, thereby forcing Beijing to prepare for the eventuality of war. Indeed, Chinese military officers note that the journals of American military institutes often feature articles on how to win a war against China, such as proposing the laying of offensive underwater mines along China’s coast to close its main ports and destroy its sea lines of communications, recommending arming China’s restive minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet to destabilize the country, and containing Beijing via military alliances with countries in the first island chain that arcs southward from the Japanese home islands through the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippine archipelago.
Currently, Washington’s eyes are on China’s eastern flank in the Pacific, and on May 4, The National Interest reprinted an article on how a war could start in the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, the Middle Kingdom may have a countermeasure, a famous strategy called sheng dong ji xi (声东击西), meaning “make a feint in the east and attack in the west.”
Thus Washington should not be surprised if continuing escalation of tensions with trade wars, boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Chinese products and investments, and mutual military provocations culminates in a “tipping point” for China to attack in the west, joined by Russia and Iran.
Christina Lin is a California-based foreign and security policy analyst. She has extensive US government experience working on China security issues, including policy planning at the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Department of State, and her current focus is on China-Middle East-Mediterranean relations.