A looming China-US collision – can détente come to the rescue?

Feb 6, 2024
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The call issued by Bob Carr and Gareth Evans for a ‘comprehensive détente between the US and China is timely and constructive. But as with all things to do with peace and war, the issues are complex and the way forward strewn with difficulties.

China-US tensions are indeed a matter of deep concern. They can easily escalate, whether by design, accident or miscalculation, into destructive regional conflict and even global conflagration.

That the strained bilateral relationship has somewhat eased in recent months is a welcome development. The reopening of communication channels, establishment of working groups, and modest progress on contentious trade issues have raised hopes of better days. These are the promising signs which Carr and Evans have seized on to make the case for comprehensive détente.

The case, however, raises several unavoidable questions. Is the rather modest easing of tensions of recent months more than temporary tactical manoeuvring by each side? What exactly is comprehensive détente? Does it offer an adequate and durable response to the geopolitical faultlines of our times?

The Carr and Evans proposal is patterned in part on two periods of détente that punctuated the Cold War years, the first from the late 1960s to late 1970s, and the second from 1984 to 1990. It is unlikely, however, that either period can be replicated, or that either provides a model worth replicating.

In each case, the two sides reached a number of agreements, but it is doubtful whether either, and in particular the United States, saw détente as the end game.

In the 1970s, détente yielded the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 and the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe leading to the so-called Helsinki accords in 1975. But both sides continued to jostle for advantage whenever and wherever they could.

The United States in particular was still intent on the global projection of military power, and to this end engaged in an endless series of interventions, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Oman, Chile and Angola, each in different ways designed to preserve its global primacy.

The second détente, coinciding with Reagan’s second term and Gorbachev’s rise to power, witnessed a series of summits and high-profile negotiations. The two presidents discussed the prospect of abolishing all nuclear weapons, and in December 1987 signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of missiles.

The pendulum swing between phases of cold war and détente could not, however, obscure one constant in the Soviet-American relationship. Throughout this period, US political and military elites were unrelenting in their pursuit of global supremacy.

They made no secret of their determination to preserve the ‘rules-based international system’ they had almost single-handedly created in the aftermath of World War II – rules designed to serve US strategic interests and political preferences.

Unsurprisingly, the fall of the Berlin Wall followed by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and breakup of the Soviet Union led US administrations to triumphalist claims of victory in the Cold War. They readily assumed that the United States had become the permanent global superpower. With liberal democracy and the free market ascendant, this was to be in Francis Fukuyama’s famous phrase “the end of history”.

China’s leaders are painfully aware of this history, hence their resolve to learn from the Soviet experience and ensure that China does not suffer a similar fate. Aware of this pitfall, Carr and Evans rightly stipulate the need for both the US and China to “respect each other as equals” and abandon any “claims to be the undisputed top dog”.

Here lies the nub of the question. What does it mean to say that each side should respect the other as equal? Can the United States continue to maintain some 750 bases in close to 80 countries and regard that as normal, while castigating China for trying to secure access to a port facility somewhere in Asia or Africa or reach a security agreement with one or other Pacific Island nation?

In the course of the 20th century, the United States has participated in 38 armed conflicts, or one every three years, and since 2,000 has engaged in at least 12 wars, the equivalent of one every two years. The United States continues to equip the military arsenals of numerous countries, many of them at war, and yet applies quite different standards when it comes to China’s conduct.

The United States asserts the right to impose unilateral sanctions on a string of countries whose governments have incurred its displeasure, but calls into question comparable behaviour by China. Indeed, it takes umbrage whenever China chooses not to follow America’s lead and refuses to impose sanctions on the likes of Russia, Venezuela or Iran.

In similar vein, US warships and aircraft are regularly despatched to the contested waters of the South China Sea and East China Sea – actions that the US justifies by invoking the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. One need only ask: What would the US reaction be, were Chinese vessels and aircraft to invoke the same principle in areas adjacent to America’s Pacific coastline?

Simply put, it is not enough to affirm the principle of equality. If it is to carry weight, the principle must be given practical content. There cannot be two sets of rules: the rules that the United States is prepared to abide by, and the rules it expects others to follow.

All of which leads to a related aspect of the proposed Sino-American détente. Carr and Evans are at pains to stress that détente should be “comprehensive”, and this for good reason, though they choose not to spell this out. The US and China cannot regard themselves or be regarded by others as equal unless détente is comprehensive. Otherwise, the two sides can pick and choose where they wish to cooperate, favouring cooperation where it suits them, and refusing to cooperate where it is perceived to be inimical to their strategic interests.

Carr and Evans point to the need for joint action in such areas as nuclear arms control, climate change, counter-terrorism and cyber regulation. A cooperative response to these challenges would indeed be invaluable, but China and the United States cannot act in isolation. These are global problems which require global solutions. One of the primary objectives of détente must therefore be to reach an international consensus on the need and modalities of far-reaching institutional reform, without which effective action will remain elusive.

This leads us to one crucial observation. Much water has flown under the bridge over the last fifty years. Mending the US-China relationship today is a vastly different proposition to easing US-Soviet tensions in the 1970s and 1980s. Three differences stand out.

The first relates to the rise of the Global South, which is now intent on making its geopolitical presence felt on many fronts, and in which China fully intends to play a leadership role.

The second relates to the reemergence of Russia as a significant player on the world stage, with which China is developing a comprehensive strategic partnership.

The third has to do with China’s rise, which involves a good deal more than economic growth and geopolitical clout, important as both will continue to be. China is not just another state. It is a civilisation that is reasserting itself after a period of prolonged humiliation, which is why the dialogue with China will need to be as much cultural and civilisational as economic and political.

All three considerations will need to be closely interwoven into the fabric of any prospective US-China dialogue. “Cooperative coexistence” perhaps better captures the intent and content of such an ambitious but overdue enterprise.


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Détente: Towards a balance of power between the USA and China

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