The Inevitability Of US-China Conflict

Posted: June 23rd, 2012 by Militant Libertarian

by Tyler Durden, ZeroHedge

The question of whether conflict between US and China is inevitable is among the most important for the world as the US-China relationship, as JPMorgan’s Michael Cembalest notes, is likely to be one of the most important issues of the 21st century. The inevitability view is sometimes explained by the thesis that countries rarely rise economically without also doing so militarily. The chart below looks at the major economic powers of the world since the year 1 at various intervals. Ignore for the moment some of the abstract issues which this kind of data involves; it’s pretty clear that China’s rise, fall and subsequent rise is something that hasn’t happened a lot over the past 2,000 years, and that the United States is on the front lines of having to adjust to it. Cembalest’s recent interview with Henry Kissinger noted the impact of China’s troubled relations with the West during the 19th century, which remains on China’s political consciousness, and how China might define its interests in different ways than the Westwould, whether they relate to global energy security, North Korea, global warming, currency management or trade.

On China, and the not-so-inevitable clash of civilizations

At a client event in Beijing last week, I had the opportunity to interview Henry Kissinger on the 40th anniversary of his secret 1971 mission to meet with Zhou Enlai, and 1972 summit meeting with Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong. There are not many missions as impactful as this one was: within a few years, China’s re-opening began, propelled by Deng Xioping’s economic reforms. Reintegrating 20% of the world’s population following China’s central planning disasters of the 1950’s and 1960’s has not been easy for China or for the West, which has since benefited from lower imported goods prices from China, but saw an end to post-war manufacturing-led prosperity. The US-China relationship is likely to be one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

One topic we discussed was the question of whether conflict between the US and China is inevitable, a theme which has permeated a lot of academic and political science journals over the last 20 years. The “inevitable conflict” view has been advanced in different degrees by Yale’s Paul Kennedy, Princeton’s Robert Gilpin and most forcefully, by John Mearshimer at the University of Chicago. Similar concerns are found in “The End of China’s Peaceful Rise”, a 2010 article in Foreign Policy magazine by Elizabeth Economy, Director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The inevitability view is sometimes explained by the thesis that countries rarely rise economically without also doing so militarily. The chart below looks at the major economic powers of the world since the year 1 at various intervals. Ignore for the moment some of the abstract issues which this kind of data involves; it’s pretty clear that China’s rise, fall and subsequent rise is something that hasn’t happened a lot over the past 2,000 years, and that the United States is on the front lines of having to adjust to it.

Any discussion of China’s engagement with the world needs to factor in China’s troubled relations with the West during the 19th century. Kissinger spoke about theimpact this era continues to have on China’s political consciousness, which you can grasp by looking at some data and charts: opium imported into China which addicted up to 25% of its adult population, the exodus of Chinese silver to England and India to pay for it, and the collapse in China’s trade surplus. The Chinese Imperial Commissioner sent a letter to Queen Victoria asking her to cease the opium trade, which was banned in China in 1729 and again in 1836. Britain ignored the request. After a Chinese blockade of opium ships, the British invaded in 1840, and easily defeated the Chinese. China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, one of the more one-sided treaties in history. The opium trade then doubled, leading to another war (and Chinese defeat) 20 years later. The Opium Wars played a large part in the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and subsequent occupation by foreign powers. This is not seen as ancient history in China.

With this backdrop, Kissinger encouraged our guests to understand how China might define its interests in different ways than the West would, whether they relate to global energy security, North Korea, global warming, currency management or trade. Kissinger acknowledges the pressures that come from an ideological predisposition in the US to confront the non-democratic world, and Chinese tendencies to sometimes view cooperation with the US as being self-defeating. However, engagement with the West is now central to China achieving its economic goals, and incoming governments in both China and the United States have every incentive to maintain the status quo. According to Kissinger, while conventional theories of realism in international politics point to potential conflict, it would be an overly literal interpretation to consider conflict inevitable. Both sides have a lot to lose and little to gain from conflict escalation, creating conditions in which compromises should be able to be found. If he’s right, US-China relations would be another thing that could go right in the world, confounding more negative expectations.

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