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Undertaking Syndicate: How the US and China Can Keep away from Sleepwalking into Warfare

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Project Syndicate) – As President Joe Biden's administration executes its strategy of great power competition with China, analysts search for historical metaphors to explain the deepening rivalry. But while many refer to the beginning of the Cold War, a more worrying historical metaphor is the beginning of the First World War. In 1914, all the great powers expected a brief third Balkan war. Instead, as British historian Christopher Clark has shown, they fell into a conflagration that lasted four years, destroyed four empires and killed millions.

At that time, the heads of state and government did not pay enough attention to the changes in the international order that was once called the “Concert of Europe”. An important change was the growing strength of nationalism. In Eastern Europe, Pan-Slavism threatened both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, which had a large Slavic population. German authors wrote about the inevitability of Germanic-Slavic battles, and school books sparked nationalist passions.

The White House's step-by-step approach to China was aimed at strengthening the US position before fully cooperating with Beijing. But, as WSJ's Gerald F. Seib explains, some issues could soon lead to a face-to-face meeting between President Biden and Xi Jinping. Photo illustration by Todd Johnson

Nationalism proved to be a stronger bond than socialism for the working class of Europe and a stronger bond than capitalism for European bankers.

"The pursuit of greater power by Kaiser Wilhelm II was terribly awkward. Something similar can be observed with President Xi Jinping.

In addition, there was a growing complacency about peace. The great powers had not been involved in a war in Europe for 40 years. There had been crises, of course – in Morocco in 1905/06, in Bosnia in 1908, again in Morocco in 1911, and the Balkan Wars in 1912/13 – but they had all been manageable. However, the diplomatic compromises that settled these conflicts fueled frustration and growing support for revisionism.

Many leaders believed that a short, decisive war won by the strong would be a welcome change.

A third cause of the loss of flexibility in the international order of the early 20th century was ambitious but vague and confusing German politics. The pursuit of greater power by Kaiser Wilhelm II was terribly awkward. Something similar can be observed with President Xi Jinping's “China Dream”, his abandonment of Deng Xiaoping's patient approach and the excesses of China's nationalist “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Accidental escalation

Policy makers today must watch out for the rise of nationalism in China as well as populist chauvinism in the United States. Combined with China's aggressive foreign policy, a history of stalemate, and unsatisfactory compromises with Taiwan, there is a possibility of inadvertent escalation between the two powers.

As Clark puts it, when disasters such as World War I arise, "they impose (or appear to be) a sense of their need". But in 1914, says Clark, “the future was still open – just. With all the hardening of the fronts in the two armed camps in Europe, there were signs that the moment for a major confrontation could be over. "

A successful strategy must prevent sleepwalking syndrome.

In 1914 Austria was fed up with the nationalism of upstart Serbia. The murder of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian terrorist was a perfect excuse for an ultimatum. Before leaving for vacation, the German Kaiser decided to deter a rising Russia and support his Austrian ally by issuing a blank diplomatic check to Austria. When he came back and learned how Austria had filled it in, he tried to withdraw it, but it was too late.

"Such a strategy can be successful if the US avoids ideological demonization and misleading Cold War analogies and holds on to its alliances.

The US hopes to deter the use of force by China and to maintain the legal limbo of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province. For years, US policy has been geared towards deterring Taiwan's de jure declaration of independence and China's use of force against the island. Today, some analysts warn that this double-deterrent policy is obsolete as China's growing military power could trick its leaders into action.

Others believe that a direct guarantee for Taiwan or hints that the US is moving in that direction would provoke China into action. But even if China avoids a large-scale invasion and only tries to force Taiwan by blockade or by capturing one of its offshore islands, all bets would be made if a ship or plane incident resulted in the loss of human life. If the US responds by freezing assets or invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act, the metaphorical war between the two countries could quickly become a reality.

The 1914 Lessons should be wary of sleepwalking, but they do not provide a solution to the Taiwan problem.

Successful diplomacy starts at home

A successful US strategy towards China starts at home. It requires maintaining democratic institutions that attract allies rather than forcing them, invest in research and development that maintain America's technological edge and America's cosmopolitanism.

Externally, the US should restructure its old armed forces to adapt to technological change; Strengthening alliance structures, including NATO and agreements with Japan, Australia and South Korea; Improving relations with India; Strengthening and complementing the international institutions that the United States helped build after World War II to set standards and manage mutual dependence; and cooperate with China on transnational issues whenever possible.

So far the Biden government has pursued such a strategy, but 1914 constantly urges prudence.

In the short term, given Xi's assertive policies, the US is likely to have to spend more time on the rivalry side of the equation. But such a strategy can be successful if the US avoids ideological demonization and misleading Cold War analogies and holds on to its alliances. In 1946, George Kennan correctly predicted a decade-long confrontation with the Soviet Union. The US cannot contain China, but it can constrain China's choices by shaping the environment in which it rises.

If the Sino-US relationship were a poker hand, Americans would realize they got a good hand and avoid succumbing to fear or belief in the US's downfall. But even a good hand can lose if it is played badly.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump."

This comment was courtesy of Project Syndicate – The China Sleepwalking Syndrome. released.

More about China from the experts at Project Syndicate:

Raghuram G. Rajan: China's risky crackdown threatens to stall its innovation and growth

Anne-Marie Slaughter: America has to be honest about its mistakes

Chang-Tai Hsieh: America's China policy is misguided because it would strengthen China and weaken the United States

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