Mar 10, 2023

Several high-profile opinion writers have recently taken issue with Washington’s increasingly adversarial stance toward China.  It’s about time. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the accelerating escalation of a long simmering Sino-American conflict is especially worrisome. Starting with the balloon fiasco of early February, followed by the Blinken-Wang confrontation in Munich, the blatant war mongering threats at the first hearing of the US House Select Committee on China, and continuing with Xi Jinping’s uncharacteristically blunt assessment of the US threat at this week’s National People’s Congress, the Sino-American conflict is now in the danger zone.

Enough says, Ed Luce of the Financial Times. In two recent columns he stresses America’s growing tendency not only to demonize China but to finally come clean on an explicit China containment policy that Washington has long denied as being the operative stance of the US government. Similarly, both Max Boot and Fareed Zakaria have warned in the Washington Post of the bipartisan fear-mongering and saber-rattling expressed at the first hearing of the new House Select Committee, echoing a similar point I made last week. Boot’s salient warnings of the historical perils of Washington groupthink — namely the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as a trigger to the Vietnam War and blunders over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — should not be lost on today’s bipartisan frenzy over China.

Anti-China sentiment in the United States has now reached an almost hysterical level.  Anyone who supports constructive re-engagement between the two superpowers is quickly vilified, accused of near treasonous behavior. As a Twitter neophyte, I have experienced this characterization first-hand. The focus of my new book, Accidental Conflict, looks at the escalation of the Sino-American conflict as a relationship problem.  This is sharp contrast to the consensus view in Washington that America has a “China problem.” I should also stress that my diagnosis is equally inconsistent with the Beijing view, now explicitly characterized by both Xi Jinping and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang as an “America problem,” driven solely by “all-around containment, encirclement, and suppression” by the United States.

A relationship problem requires a relationship solution.  That is a very different outcome than the zero-sum approach to conflict resolution that both parties in this conflict now seem to be embracing.  As opposed to beating an adversary into submission, I favor, instead, mechanisms for mutual re-engagement that don’t require one nation to benefit at the cost of harming the other. I stress three actionable ideas in my book — namely, several small steps aimed at rebuilding trust, a pro-growth Bilateral Investment Treaty, and a US-China Secretariat as a new architecture of engagement.

Ed Luce put best this week in the FT, stressing that, “The US needs a strategy to cope with a China that will always be there.”  That requires a trust-based mechanism for engagement — not the heavy club of submission. Is there any room for such a message in the cacophony of charges and counter-charges that is now taking the Sino-American conflict to the breaking point.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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