NEW YORK – It’s not yet a new consensus, but too many influential American and Chinese policymakers are saying sensible things to dismiss the possibility that the world’s two most powerful countries may back away from a confrontation.
Perhaps the horrible example of the Ukraine war persuaded all parties to pull back from the brink. Washington learned it could not cripple or isolate Russia, and that its intervention risked touching nuclear tripwires; China concluded that the costs of a showdown with the United States are prohibitive; and America’s Asian allies recalled Henry Kissinger’s bon mot that it is dangerous to be an enemy of the United States, but fatal to be its friend.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s emphasis on eliminating the Trump tariffs on Chinese imports, moreover, reflects a sober estimate of America’s economic vulnerability.
China met the lion’s share of the US$6 trillion in consumer demand created by the US government in response to Covid. Removing the tariffs is the one tool at the disposal of the beleaguered Biden administration that would mitigate inflation, the main cause of its plummeting popularity.
President Joe Biden’s May 23 affirmation in Tokyo that the US would use force to defend Taiwan from a mainland invasion appeared to ditch America’s stance of strategic ambiguity, although White House officials tried to walk the statement back.
Biden’s gaffe – or threat, if you prefer – raised the specter of war: If China believes the US plans an independent Taiwan, the logic of war requires it to act pre-emptively.
As Air Force strategist and Stanford professor Oriana Skylar Mastro warned in a May 27 New York Times op-ed: “China’s missile force is … thought to be capable of targeting ships at sea to neutralize the main US tool of power projection, aircraft carriers.
“The United States has the most advanced fighter jets in the world, but access to just two US airbases within unrefueled combat radius of the Taiwan Strait, both in Japan, compared with China’s 39 airbases within 500 miles of Taipei.
“If China’s leaders decide they need to recover Taiwan and are convinced that the United States would respond, they may see no other option but a pre-emptive strike on US forces in the region. Chinese missiles could take out key American bases in Japan, and US aircraft carriers could face Chinese ‘carrier killer’ missiles.”
Professor Mastro merely summarized what every competent American strategist has known for a decade; the late Andrew Marshall told me this nearly a decade ago when I consulted for his Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank.
Nonetheless, her op-ed had the effect of stating that the emperor had no clothes when politicians of both parties strove to outdo each other in bellicose statements about Taiwan.
American strategists may have been disappointed in the response of US allies in Asia to Biden’s Asia tour at the end of May. India, one of the four members of the Quad, had already broken with American policy by ignoring US-backed sanctions and scaling up its trade with Russia.
Japan had nothing to say in public. But as Mastro told Time on May 23: “The bottom line is if Japan fights [alongside] the United States, we win every single time against China. That solves all our operational problems. [However,] Japan is never going to fight a high-intensity conflict alongside the United States in defense of Taiwan.”
Mastro is correct; despite the urgings of American hawks (see for example Seth Cropsey’s essay on this subject in Asia Times on May 25), Japan will not risk its home islands for any piece of rock in the Pacific.
Meanwhile the Rand Corporation, the premier think tank associated with the US Air Force, released a study last week concluding that “a US strategy that relies on an ally agreeing to permanently host GBIRMs [ground-based intermediate-range missiles] risks failing because of an inability to find a willing partner.”
Not only are America’s allies not willing to fight with China, as Mastro declared, but they are unwilling to deploy weapons that might draw them into a fight with China.
Jeffrey Horning, the Rand study’s author, listed the reasons why each putative American ally would refuse to deploy such weapons:
As long as Thailand continues to have a military-backed government that pursues closer ties with China, the United States would not want Thailand to host GBIRMs – and Thailand would be highly unlikely to accept them anyway.
The US alliance with the Philippines is in flux. As long as a president continues policies toward the United States and China similar to those of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines is extremely unlikely to accept US GBIRMs.
Chinese opposition to the ROK hosting a US defensive missile system, the ROK’s susceptibility to Chinese pressure, and a deterioration of US-ROK relations suggest it is highly unlikely that the ROK would accept US GBIRMs.
Although Australia’s strong historical ties with the United States mean that the possibility that it would host US GBIRMs cannot be ruled out, its historical reluctance to host permanent foreign bases and its distance from continental Asia make this unlikely.
Because of Japan’s willingness to strengthen its alliance with the United States and bolster its defense capabilities, Japan is the regional ally that appears most likely to host US GBIRMs. However, that possibility remains low.
China’s initial response to Biden’s remark about defending Taiwan was anger and outrage. But on June 1, the influential Observer website (guancha.cn) summarized as follows the findings of a report from a top Chinese think tank:
“In response to Biden’s all-out competitive offensive against China, China should give up its illusions, make every effort to guard against the possibility of a final showdown of high-intensity military confrontation, and take the initiative to shape Sino-US relations while adapting to the new normal of tension between China and the United States.”
Issued by the Remnin University of China, the report was released at a conference co-sponsored by the university’s China-US Research Center and the Observer.
The Remnin report added: “On the basis of competition between China and the US, China seeks the possibility of Sino-US cooperation by embodying its responsibility as a major country, establishes the awareness of a community with a shared future for mankind, and forms a cooperative consensus on key issues, and promotes global governance and effective development, to jointly create a better future for mankind.”
What illusions does the Remnin report ask China to give up? China “should abandon the illusion of avoiding strategic competition with the United States, employ bottom-line thinking to prevent the worst-possible military showdown, and adapt to the new normal of Sino-US tensions. At the same time we should actively shape Sino-US relations. We should seek the possibility of cooperation between China and the United States [and] promote effective development of global governance.”
The report didn’t specify what areas of cooperation China might seek, but they probably would include more imports from the United States to fulfill the terms of the Sino-US trade deal, acceptance of American accounting standards for Chinese firms listed on American stock markets, and – most important for the Biden administration – cooperation on carbon neutrality goals.
In fact, China would be well advised to import American mRNA vaccines, which seem to be vastly more effective than its own Sinovac product. The news site Politico, meanwhile, sponsored a “war game” between the US and China using software that claims to incorporate game theory in models also used by the CIA.
Treasury Secretary Yellen’s proposal to reduce China tariffs won the “game.” According to Politico, “Biden went along with a position of eliminating most – but not all – tariffs on Chinese consumer goods.”
Meanwhile, “on the Chinese side, economic officials, including Premier Li and Vice-Premier Liu, turned out to be much more flexible in negotiations … the model forecast that the partial [tariff] rollback would be welcome, and China would be open to negotiations where it would be willing to increase its US purchases.”
That’s an easy one; if China worries that one day the United States might seize its reserves as it seized Russia’s, why wouldn’t it exchange vulnerable paper for goods, and stockpile American oil and soybeans?
Follow David P Goldman on Twitter: @davidpgoldman