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The Next Great War, cold peace, or mutual gain?

Richard N. Rosecrance and Steven E. Miller, eds. The Next Great War? The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Aaron L. Friedberg. A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Wang Jisi and Kenneth G. Lieberthal. "Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust," Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, John L. Thornton China Center Monograph Series, No. 4 (March 2012),

Thomas J. Christensen. The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

Henry M. Paulson. Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower. New York: Hachette, 2015.

Jeffrey Lewis. Paper Tigers: China's Nuclear Posture. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies and Routledge, 2014.

Lyle J. Goldstein. Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015.

Morton Abramowitz and Stephen Bosworth. Chasing the Sun: Rethinking East Asian Policy. New York: The Century Foundation, 2006.

A CENTURY AFTER THE BEGINNING OF WORLD WAR I IN 1914, SOME observers are asking whether China and the United States are destined to fight for hegemony, as did Germany and Great Britain in 1914 and, more than two millennia earlier, Sparta and Athens. Other analysts question whether anything--including these wars--is inevitable in human affairs. These issues give rise to competing hypotheses and answers as well as to still more questions. Whether readers agree or disagree with the works reviewed here, each deserves attention for its contribution to fathoming and shaping the alternative futures open to China, the United States, and indeed all humanity.

The future relationship between China and the United States is one of the mega-changes and mega-challenges of our age. China's rise is the geopolitical equivalent of the melting polar ice caps: gradual change on a massive scale that can suddenly lead to dramatic turns of events. Were there factors contributing to the Great War that suggest lessons for Sino-US relations today? Fourteen authors address these questions in The Next Great War? None of these chapters purports to provide the entire picture or even a definitive facet. Still, each embodies a deep analysis rich in heuristics that can spark further research on Sino-US relations, though most of the chapters debate the origins of World War I. Taken together, the essays provide a broad catalog of the many factors that produced the guns of August 1914 and that could conduce to other wars. The factors are wide ranging, from familiar doctrines about the shifting balance of power to the mental and emotional qualities of leaders and the cult of the offensive espoused by many strategists.

Graham Allison's chapter argues that China and the United States must work to escape the "Thucydides Trap"--the "dangers that can arise when a rising power challenges a ruling power--as Athens did Sparta ... and as Germany did Britain a century ago." Describing the interactions of Athens and Sparta and other Greek city-states, Thucydides asserted, "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the [Peloponnesian] war inevitable." Some of the events described by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War do not square with the inevitability thesis. Still, the sentence quoted has spawned a theory of hegemonic war, a theory dear to structural realists. They typically predict that rising powers will seek to deliver a quietus to a weakening hegemon, or that the hegemon will wage a preventive or preemptive war against challengers before it becomes too late.

A similar "trap" has often recurred, according to Allison: "In twelve of sixteen cases in the past 500 years when a rising power challenged a ruling power, the outcome was war." Since war was avoided in four cases, Allison concedes that hegemonic war is not inevitable. But since China has been rising and, by some measures, the United States is declining, Allison concludes that the United States faces a "chronic condition" that must be managed.

Chapters by David K. Richards and Charles S. Maier question Allison's arguments. Indeed, the trap concept does not fit many recent cases. The Great War did not start between Germany and Britain but in a remote corner of the Balkans contested by three decrepit empires and a minor upstart. Britain joined the war only after Germany violated Belgian neutrality. The late nineteenth century saw the United States wax as the British empire reached a plateau and began to wane. Still, Washington and London chose to negotiate their differences and, in time, cooperate. World War II started due to Japanese and German beliefs in their racial superiority and lust for fuel, food, and land. The Chinese challenge to Soviet leadership of the international communist movement as well as the Soviet challenge to US hegemony ended not with bangs but with whimpers. The victors in the Cold War did not plant salt on the ruins of communism but sought to bring defeated foes into the comity of nations.

Still, many experts adopt versions of the hegemonic war theory. Aaron Friedberg's Contest for Supremacy argues that the Sino-US rivalry is rooted in the evolving structure of power--a rising giant challenging the hegemon--exacerbated, as happened between Sparta and Athens, by ideological differences. Friedberg concedes that Beijing and Washington do not wish to risk an all-out war. Neither government believes war is needed to attain its ends. Each believes time is on its side. But in a subsequent article, Friedberg warns that President Xi Jinping may destroy the Chinese political system by trying to weed out high-level corruption. (1) Why? Because the system breeds corruption and depends on it. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, Xi may be undoing the system he hoped to save. Since Beijing likes to blame the United States for its problems, Chinese leaders, if desperate for internal reasons, might foment a confrontation with America.

Friedberg joins those calling for deeper and more forthright communications between Chinese and US military planners. He notes that little attention has been given to the potential utility of arms control negotiations, such as bringing China into the 1987 US-Russia treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces. His monograph Beyond Air-Sea Battle focuses on the nuts and bolts of any China-US military confrontation, for example, on the floor of the South China Sea, which advantages hiders (such as US attack submarines) over evaders. (2)

Friedberg's colleague at Princeton, Thomas Christensen, notes that many US analysts are either pessimists or optimists about China. Both he and Friedberg warn against exaggerating or understating the rise of China and what it could mean for world affairs. Each takes a hard-nosed look at the prospects. Echoing worries about a Thucydides trap, Christensen warns that the United States has no experience trying to persuade a rising power with serious internal problems and historic grievances to cooperate with the international community (as defined and led by the United States). Still, he urges Washington to accept China's rise to great power status while trying to shape Beijing's choices so it is more likely to forgo bullying behavior.

Many Chinese officials seem to think their country can bully its neighbors even as it gains on a weakening superpower. China asserts its interests aggressively in offshore waters and elsewhere, but Beijing does not want to fight the United States. Beijing's military spending rises faster than does US spending, but China's total outlays are at most one-fourth of the Pentagon's. The United States has eleven aircraft carriers; China has one, a retrofit from Ukraine.

Some features of The Next Great War? suggest that US and Chinese leaders are unlikely today to sleepwalk their way into disaster. While many leaders and publics underestimated the destructive potential of war in 1914, weapons of mass destruction now make war nearly unthinkable. There is less uncertainty about alliances and the balance of power than in 1914. Regardless of the size of China's GDP, the overall balance of power is likely to remain unipolar for decades. Civilians are in charge in Beijing and Washington and not so subject to manipulation by generals as in 1914.

Against this rosy outlook, however, leaders today, as in 1914, are capable of making all kinds of mistakes. Jeffrey Lewis in Paper Tigers details the confusion and chaos that prevailed in 1969 when Mao and other Chinese leaders, facing a possible Soviet attack, dispersed and tried to communicate by telephone. Who today has the duty--and the right--to launch a war that could destroy not only one or two countries but humanity? Do we want a single "decider" such as George W. Bush or a triumvirate such as Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld to have this power? Obama and Xi Jinping seem pretty cool and rational. Still, as the Lord reminded Mephistopheles in Faust, "So long as humans strive, they will err."

Besides human frailty, machines can also misread and give false signals. Fortuna may also intrude. Thus, Richard N. Rose-crance in The Next Great War? underscores the many contingencies that contributed to war in 1914--for example, the wrong turn by the driver for Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that facilitated his assassination.

Today's optimists take heart from the growing interdependence of China and the United States in networks that generate mutual gain as well as complexity. Investor Henry Paulson's "insider" analysis, Dealing with China, is bullish on the prospects of China-US economic relations. But pessimists recall that serious analysts warned before 1914 that a great war would shred the values and prosperity nurtured by interdependence. Jan Bloch, a Polish-born industrialist close to the Russian court, predicted in the late 1890s that innovations such as smokeless rifles equipped with magazines would advantage the defense. Given modern technology, another war would be positional, prolonged, and bloody, leading to starvation, epidemics, and revolutions. Bloch's views were widely published in several languages. Nevertheless, as Stephen Van Evera and Jack Snyder point out in The Next Great War?, many strategists embraced a cult of the offensive, which led to the very results Bloch forecast.

Hopeful scenarios can be found in Lyle Goldstein's Meeting China Halfway. He outlines more than one hundred steps--half by China, half by the United States--that could encourage and sustain a "cooperation spiral" in the overall relationship. Goldstein investigates areas of high security and geopolitics--nuclear proliferation, the future of Taiwan, the Middle East--as well as trade and environmental issues. On Korea, for example, he suggests that Washington encourage China to station forces in North Korea and at the same time press for and then supervise the North's nuclear disarmament. For its part, he says, the United States should establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and reduce the US military presence in South Korea and Okinawa and the US military office in Taiwan. In the South China Sea, the United States should foster joint development programs while Beijing should modify its "nine-dashed-line" claims. Whether Goldstein's ideas are judged naive or visionary, they merit consideration if only to generate fresh ideas on what may be possible.

A key ingredient in building a cooperation spiral, according to Goldstein, would be for China to make its national security apparatus more transparent. In fact the Chinese Ministry of National Defense has published white papers every two or three years since 1995. (3) No doubt some relevant information is withheld or doctored for public relations purposes. The papers are less detailed than US defense department annual reports and strategic reviews but more forthright than comparable documents released by the Kremlin in Soviet or post-Soviet times. Thus, the 2015 white paper notes that since 2004 China's Preparation for Military Struggle (PMS) has emphasized "winning local wars under conditions of informationization." The 2015 white paper says that such "new security domains as outer space and cyber space will be dealt with to maintain the common security of the world community" as well as "China's overseas interests." Of immediate interest is the plan for the navy to gradually shift its focus from "offshore waters defense" to the combination of "offshore waters defense" with "open seas protection," a shift clearly intended to strengthen China's presence in the South China Sea.

Responses to the 2015 white paper range across a wide spectrum. Some observers treat it as a virtual declaration of war while others merely note the attention given to cyberwar and informationization. The Indian analyst Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana, for example, found the 2014/2015 white paper less transparent than in 2012, lacking detail on China's military budget. The 2014/2015 white paper spoke positively about China's relations with Russia but said nothing about India. Khurana inferred that Beijing believes that China has "arrived" on the world stage and displays a "single-minded preoccupation" with "how it could challenge the unipolar world order dominated by the U.S." (4)

Before China acquired nuclear weapons, Mao Zedong termed them "paper tigers" and ridiculed respect for them as nuclear "fetishism." After China's first tests, Beijing changed its tune but pledged it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The 2014/2015 white paper, however, severely circumscribed the no-first-use commitment:

China has always pursued the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and adhered to a self-defensive nuclear strategy that is defensive in nature. China will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones, and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country. China has always kept its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security. China will optimize its nuclear force structure, improve strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction, and survivability and protection, and deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China. (emphasis added)

In Paper Tigers, Jeffrey Lewis points out that US officials regard any commitment to "no first use" of nuclear weapons as unenforceable and unreliable. Chinese officials, in turn, infer that the US stance results from Washington's scheming to leverage its nuclear advantages. Chinese anxieties are magnified by US reluctance to admit the fact of mutual vulnerability. Meanwhile, policymakers in Tokyo and elsewhere doubt that nuclear deterrence can restrain Chinese maritime excursions. They fear a "stability-instability paradox" in which the reality of nuclear deterrence could enable limited conventional aggression.

Lewis describes a pathology in Sino-US dialogue: Scores of meetings between Chinese and US military and political authorities have netted little mutual understanding or specific accords like those reached between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War. Despite their efforts to make decisions based on reason, leaders in Beijing and Washington have made and can still make miscalculations, with grave consequences. Some of these fateful decisions have been well known for years, such as the belief in Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing in 1949-1950 that the United States would not intervene if North Korea used force to unite the Korean peninsula, top US officials' belief that China would not join the Korean War even if United Nations forces moved toward the Yalu River separating China from North Korea, and Mao Zedong's confidence that bombing the offshore islands controlled by Taiwan would lead to defeat of the Nationalist regime in Taipei. These examples remind us that rationality is bounded by lack of complete information, fatigue, competing priorities, and wishful thinking--some of the same factors that contributed to the Great War a century ago.

There are, of course, a few constructive cases in US-China relations, such as the exchanges between Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger. Both sides took full account of each other's interests, assets, and liabilities and searched for a framework to accommodate them in ways that benefited both sides. Kissinger and his successors in Washington seemed to seek a constructive relationship that would endure for the long term. Whether Chinese leaders shared this vision or merely looked for here-and-now convenience remains unclear.

What, if anything, have humans learned about world politics in the nearly 2,500 years since Thucydides wrote The Peloponnesian War? One lesson not found in Thucydides is that rivals can cooperate at the same time they compete. Rivals or their proxies can compete or even clash while the major actors collaborate on other issues. While such mixed relationships have surely existed in many eras, their logic and policy implications were expressed scientifically in game theory by scholars such as John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern, Thomas Schelling, Anatol Rapoport, and Robert Axelrod. That such mixed relationships could help deter Armageddon and conduce to mutual gain was demonstrated by US and Soviet experiences during many decades of Cold War. Their interactions gave rise to awareness that communication can help moderate and channel conflict.

While US defense secretary Ashton Carter and many (though not all) other US policymakers have absorbed and applied game theory insights about managing conflict, it is not evident that top policymakers in China have done the same. According to Kenneth Lieberthal in his joint study with Wang Jisi, "strategic distrust of China is not the current dominant view of national decision makers in the U.S. government, who believe it is feasible and desirable to develop a basically constructive long-term relationship with a rising China. But U.S. decision makers also see China's future as very undetermined, and there are related worries and debates about the most effective approach to promote desired Chinese behavior." Wang Jisi, a leading Chinese academic close to the government, delivers a similar message in the same study.

Their study also suggests that top Chinese leaders see USChina relations as a zero-sum struggle in which, over time, China will prevail. Not just Mao Zedong but also his successors have been influenced by Sun-tzu and other classic Chinese theorists who portrayed conflict in winner-take-all terms. Given that only one side can win, they advise a shrewd leader to bide his time, deceive the other side, and wait for an opportunity to destroy him. Thus, Sun-tzu declared that
   warfare is the Way [Tao] of deception. Thus, although [you are]
   capable, display incapability to them [on the other side]. When
   committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When [your
   objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant; when far away,
   create the illusion of being nearby.... Display profits to entice
   them. Create disorder [in their forces] and take them.... Attack
   where they are unprepared. Go forth where they will not
   expect it. (5)

Sun-tzu would surely endorse all the tools of cyberwarfare. The corollary to being unknowable is seeking out and gaining detailed knowledge of the enemy through all available means, including espionage. Never rely on the goodwill of others, on luck, on ghosts or spirits, inference from phenomena, or hope for "measures of Heaven." Know your enemy and exploit its weaknesses. Identify enemy agents, tempt them with profits, and turn them into double agents.

Hard-line policies like those advised by Sun-tzu, whether practiced by Beijing or by Washington, raise the paradox of the Prisoner's Dilemma as explicated by Robert Axelrod. (6) Even though both parties "learn" that joint cooperation nets gains for each side, and even after many interactions with positive results, one party can always defect and do great damage to the party who trusts in cooperation.

All parties need to cool their anxieties and their rhetoric. Neither complacency nor a knee-jerk reaction to China's rise is appropriate. Yes, Thucydides reminds us that hegemonic challenges are dangerous. In The Next Great War? former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd regards it as "good news" that Chinese and US leaders publicly recognize the strategic trust deficit and seek to create ways to manage it--in contrast to the European royals who masked their mutual distrust a century ago. However, Rudd worries that there are hotheads and hawks in both countries. A new concert of powers would seem to require more cooperation and even constitutional change than China or the United States is ready to accept. Rudd writes, however, that if US and Chinese leaders are prudent, they will identify and collaborate on complementary interests, such as clean energy, reliable food and water supplies, and better health-care systems. Both face security threats in Northeast and South Asia. Each needs to cooperate for arms control and against terrorism. Neither Washington nor Beijing should act on the self-fulfilling expectation that conflict between them is inevitable. Each can help itself and other countries to develop in harmony.

As former US ambassadors Morton Abramowitz and Stephen Bosworth seek to rethink East Asian policy in Chasing the Sun, they warn against hubris, one of the basic sources of the Peloponnesian War and the Great War. Their book recommends a modest but serious US effort to improve contacts and ties with all East Asian countries. Even if China becomes more democratic, they warn, the consequences for its domestic affairs and foreign policy are unpredictable. More democracy sometimes means more unrest and/or nationalism; sometimes it presages more authoritarianism. Having represented the United States in many countries, they advise Washington not to confirm the widespread belief abroad that the "United States believes that only it knows what is best for the world" and that what is best for the United States is "best for everyone."


Walter C. Clemens Jr. is associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and professor emeritus of political science, Boston University. His book, North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation, will be published in spring 2016. He can be reached at

(1.) "Xi Jingping's Anti-Corruption Campaign Is Doomed to Fail," The Diplomat, October 7, 2014.

(2.) Aaron L. Friedberg, Beyond Air-Sea Battle: The Debate over US Military Strategy in Asia (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies and Routledge, 2015).


(4.) Khurana, "China Challenges the Unipolar World Order: An Assessment of China's Defence White Paper 2014," New Delhi: National Maritime Foundation, June 3, 2015,

(5.) "Sun-tzu's Art of War," in Ralph D. Sawyer, trans. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993), p. 158.

(6.) Robert Axelrod, The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
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Author:Clemens, Walter C., Jr.
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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