Averting the grandest collision of all time

Mar 24, 2023
Flags of USA and China on fire.

If Thucydides were asked about what’s happening in relations between the US and China today, what would he say? That was the question posed to me at the Davos World Economic Forum in January. I responded that he would say that this is a classic Thucydidean rivalry in which the two parties are right on script, each competing to show which can best exemplify the typical rising and ruling power—leaving him on the edge of his seat anticipating the grandest collision of all time.

The debate that began in 2017 with the publication of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is now in the rear-view mirror. No one can deny that China is the most formidable rival a ruling power has ever seen. Over the past generation, China has risen further and faster along more dimensions than any nation in history. During Xi’s first decade in power, China’s GDP has risen from ½ to ¾ the size of the US economy (measured in MER). China has displaced the US as the world’s number one manufacturer, number one trading partner, and become a source of the most critical items in global supply chains. It has also strengthened its military capabilities, with a specific focus on contingencies along its border and peripheral seas, to the point that it now has significant advantages in potential conflicts, particularly Taiwan contingencies.

Meanwhile, what Winston Churchill called the “deadly currents” in domestic politics that drove Britain to war with Germany in 1914 are now running rife in the US. As anyone who watched the opening hearings of the newly-established House Select Committee on China saw vividly, Republican and Democratic politicians are rushing to show who can be tougher on China. Presidential hopeful Mike Pompeo has already called for the US to recognise Taiwan as an independent country. The bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act – co-sponsored by Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and Republican Lindsey Graham – initially proposed to designate Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally.” It is instructive to note that it was Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, not US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who appreciated the likely consequences of another visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House and proposed a less provocative alternative.

We see similar rumblings in Beijing, where Xi Jinping accused the US and its allies of pursuing the “containment, encirclement, and suppression” of China in a fiery speech at China’s “Two Sessions” last week. Xi’s comments were echoed by new Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who said “hysterical neo-McCarthyist” politicians in the US wanted to cripple China in a “zero-sum game” of life and death.

Fortunately, in Biden and Xi we have two serious, sane leaders who recognise that war between their nations would be catastrophic. If a local war over Taiwan escalated to a full-spectrum war with nuclear attacks upon each other, it would risk the survival of both their nations. However extreme the differences between the two rivals, if the alternative to coexistence really is to co-destruct, rational leaders in both Washington and Beijing will have to find a way to cooperate in some areas while competing ruthlessly in others.

As thinkers in both governments are struggling to find a framework to do this, there are lessons to learn from the ancient Chinese concept of “rivalry partners.” Rivalry partners sounds like a contradiction. But it describes the relationship the Song Dynasty established with the neighbouring Liao, a Manchurian kingdom on China’s northern border, a millennium ago. Concluding that his armies would not be able to defeat the Liao in military conflict, the Song Emperor negotiated the Chanyuan Treaty of 1005 in which both sides agreed to be fierce rivals in some arenas but great partners in others. This unique arrangement saw the Song – the ruling power – pay tribute to the Liao, who agreed to invest that payment in the Song’s economic, scientific, and technological development. The framework established by the Chanyuan Treaty averted war between the two powers for over a century.

Conceptually, the Song-Liao rivalry partnership drew on even older Chinese wisdom from the Spring and Autumn period. As Sun Tzu wrote of the rival Wu and Yue kingdoms in The Art of War, “the people of Wu and Yue were mutual enemies, but when they sailed on the same boat and encountered a storm, they helped each other like left and right hands.” Where survival requires cooperation, even the deadliest of enemies can rise to the occasion.

What would a rivalry partnership in US-China relations today look like? The starting point would be recognition of the fundamental structural realities both nations face today. In a phrase, they must survive in a MAD world. Both the US and China now have nuclear arsenals that are capable of withstanding a first strike from the other and retaliating with an attack that destroys the attacker. Thus, as certainly as it did in the most dangerous days of Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan’s insistence that “a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought” remains a foundational truth in relations between the US and China.

Recognising this nuclear risk and the ways in which Putin’s threats to conduct tactical nuclear strikes against Ukraine would violate the “nuclear taboo” that has emerged over the past seven decades, in November, President Xi and German Chancellor Scholz took a major step forward. They declared unambiguously that they opposed even the threat to use nuclear weapons. As China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted, Xi declared that the international community should “oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used and that nuclear wars must not be fought, and prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia.”

The Xi-Scholz “no nuclear threat” doctrine takes a bold step beyond any previous statement of any major government. China, for example, has a “no first use” policy but has never said “no threat of use,” and though Chancellor Scholz did not comment on it, Germany’s national security depends on US “extended deterrence” that leverages the threat of nuclear first use to defend its treaty allies. The Xi-Scholz doctrine is a vivid demonstration that however sharp the differences between China and the US, on the issue of preventing Putin from conducting nuclear strikes and averting the proliferation incentives such a decision would create, China can act to advance an interest the rivals share.

As inhabitants of the same enclosed biosphere, Americans and Chinese also face an analogue of MAD in unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions. China is the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter; the US is number two. On our current trajectories, either country can by itself so disrupt the climate that neither of us can live in it. In the current globalised world, we also have a thickly -integrated financial system that is subject to crises like the Great Recession of 2008 that could cause another Great Depression. In 2008, that was narrowly escaped—but only by a carefully-coordinated joint stimuli by the US and China. Beyond these shared interests there are pandemics, mega-terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and other global challenges that neither can manage by itself. And finally, there are the irresistible benefits of global integration, particularly in the economic arena that bring with them MAED (mutual assured economic disruption).

Of course, some arenas will be marked by fierce rivalry. The military arena is mostly zero-sum, where “every domain is contested,” as former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis put it starkly in his 2018 National Defence Strategy. Since the two rivals will also be competing for economic and technological dominance, selective decoupling is inevitable.

In sum, the US and China are locked in conditions defined by two contradictory imperatives: to compete in the greatest rivalry of all time, and to cooperate for each to ensure its own survival. For each, creating a grand strategy that combines competition and cooperation will require extraordinary strategic imagination. As policymakers in both nations are wrestling with this assignment, clues from the “rivalry partnership” that gave the Song and Liao 120 years without war can be instructive.


This article was first published on the website of the Asian Peace Programme, an initiative to promote peace in Asia housed in the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

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