Is the United States stumbling toward war with China?
Led by President Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party, Beijing commands the world’s second largest economy and military. It challenges a United States with the planet’s biggest economy and military. However, unlike China’s expanding and modernizing armed forces, the U.S. military under the Biden administration neither meets recruiting goals nor keeps pace with inflation.
Writing in TIME magazine two years ago, Adm. James Stavridis (US Navy, Ret.), former NATO commander and board chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Elliot Ackerman, novelist and former U.S. Marine Corps captain who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, asserted that “China and the United States today are on a collision course.” Co-authors of the novel 2034: The Next World War, Stavridis and Ackerman foresaw a full-blown U.S.-China cold war that could lead in the next decade to a hot war that could go nuclear.
Stavridis and Ackerman said “the two nations are significantly at odds over the status of the South China Sea, which China [building militarized artificial islands and deploying more naval vessels overall than the United States] claims as territorial waters.” This potentially gives it control of rich oil and gas deposits and dominance over the 40 percent of the world’s trade that passes through these strategic seas.
Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the 50,000-member U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command, warned of a potentially earlier China-US conflict. In a Jan. 27, 2023 memo to the command, Minihan wrote that “I hope I am wrong … My gut tells me we will fight [China] in 2025.” The general noted that Chinese President Xi “secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022 … Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
In February, Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence, asserted “it’s disturbing how ill-informed and naïve the average American is on China. I chalk this up, if I could summarize, into a China blindness.” Studeman, a Mandarin speaker, addressed a conference shortly after the Air Force shot down a high-altitude Chinese spy balloon that had crossed the United States. “It’s very unsettling to see how much the US is not connecting the dots on our number one challenge.”
Milley Says ‘Cool It’
Lower the “brink of war” with China talk, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised in an April interview. Calling for beefed-up deterrence, Milley simultaneously cautioned that “there’s a lot of rhetoric in China, and … elsewhere, to include the United States, that could create the impression that war is right around the corner….” He said did not believe that likely now but “I think that the rhetoric itself can overheat the environment.”
China delivered its own anti-American rhetoric on U.S. soil in 2021. Criticized by Washington for genocidal repression of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province and dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy in 2020—27 years ahead of the date set in its “one country, two systems” agreement with Great Britain, Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler—China’s diplomats snapped back. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at a meeting in Alaska that “many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States. We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”
Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi asserted that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
Before leaving Moscow this March after meeting with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping added his own rhetorical flourish. The Chinese ruler told Putin that “right now there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.”
Still, many in the United States speak as if disagreements between Washington and Beijing are misunderstandings rather than fundamental cleavages. A full-page “open letter” advertisement addressed to presidents Biden and Xi appeared early in April in major newspapers. In it, prominent Americans—from business, politics and religion—urged US and Chinese leadership to undertake “more robust dialogue now to alleviate the heightened temperature and better manage our many differences. … Not only can we jointly maintain and promote peace, but our combined efforts can also achieve great strides in some of humanity’s most pressing challenges ….”
The Past in the Present
The open letter signers and auto makers seem to have missed two detour markers. The first is the quote widely attributed to Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik revolutionary and first leader of the Soviet Union: “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
The second is the example of Chinese Americans in 1939 picketing a port in Oregon from which scrap metal was to be exported to Japan. The Japanese then were waging a war of conquest in China. The picketers carried placards declaring “this iron is for bullets.” In 1939, the United States sold an estimated two million tons of scrap metal to Tokyo.
In July 1941, Japan invaded French Indochina—Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By then, America already had embargoed sales of airplanes, parts, aviation fuel and machine tools to Tokyo. Now, Washington froze all Japanese assets in the United States. Great Britain and the Netherlands, which then held the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), followed suit. Resource poor Japan either could retreat, compromise or expand its military campaigns in hope of rapid victory. On Dec. 7, 1941, it bombed the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II.
This February The Wall Street Journal reported that “U.S. imports of goods from China totaled $536.5 billion in 2022, a 6.3 percent increase from the prior year and close to the record $538.5 reached in 2018, the Commerce Department said. … U.S. exports to China grew 1.6 percent to $153.8 billion last year, pushing the total commerce between the two countries to a record $690.6 billion.” International trade is key to China, which does not produce enough food or fuel domestically for its 1.4 billion people.
Also, that month, the Biden administration released details about China’s high-altitude balloon surveillance program, which it called a sophisticated effort to surveil ‘more than 40 countries across five continents.’” Beijing was not impressed. “Exaggerating or hyping up the ‘China threat’ narrative is not conducive to building trust or improving ties between our two countries,” Mao Ning, a [Chinese Foreign Ministry] spokesperson said, “nor can it make the U.S. safer.”
Last December, after determining China aims to have weaponry enabling it to attack Taiwan by 2027, Congress authorized financing weapons sales to the self-governing island and the potential transfer of arms from U.S. stockpiles to Taipei. The same month, Japan labeled China its main security threat and announced a sharp increase in military spending. This April, India expressed concern that Myanmar—also known as Burma—was allowing Beijing to militarize its Grand Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal, not far from Indian naval and missile test facilities.
Early in May, news reports asserted that China was “resisting a U.S. push to build more credible systems for communicating in a crisis, raising the risk that a miscalculation by either side’s military could spill into conflict.”
Doing business with or “decoupling” from China? War or peace? Time, probably less than many anticipate, will tell.