One of the most notable moments of the G7 came on Sunday, when President Joe Biden said tensions with China are going to “begin to thaw very shortly.”
It’s probably true—and, if it is, it’s an unequivocally good thing, contrary to the widespread view (one of the very few bipartisan sentiments in Congress) that war with China is coming and that we should therefore ratchet up the tensions, not let them thaw.
Biden’s remark is best seen as confirmation of the vibe left by the meeting earlier this month between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi—10 hours of talks (an extraordinary amount of time), described afterward by both sides in unusually and almost identically positive terms. (The White House called the talks “candid, substantive, and constructive”; China’s spokesman called them “candid, in-depth, substantive, and constructive.”)
This is a good thing, for at least four reasons.
First, the two countries have converging interests on many pressing matters—climate change, global health, counterterrorism, and keeping the global economy (vital to both, given their interlocking trade). A crisis in any one of those realms could spin out of control if relations worsened.
Second, U.S. power and influence in the world can reach only so far if we’re in a war of sorts with both Russia and China. Good relations with Russia are impossible as long as the war in Ukraine persists, probably as long as Vladimir Putin stays in the Kremlin. So, reengagement with China—however unpleasant on certain levels—is essential.
Third, large swaths of elite and public opinion in each country have come to believe that the other poses an existential threat. A special committee has been formed in the House of Representatives that does nothing but ruminate on this threat. Some U.S. military officers have predicted a war with China in the next few years. In turn, Chinese elites believe the U.S. wants to overthrow their regime.
Fourth and finally, all these fears are overblown, but they could easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. The fact is that at the moment, China does not pose a serious military threat to Taiwan, and it poses no threat whatsoever to areas much farther from its shores. But it could do so a decade from now. A war with China would be disastrous, not least because we might lose. Best, then, to try to cool tensions now, hold a Biden–Xi summit, reestablish talks between U.S. and Chinese military officers, and figure out ways to cement our common interests, if possible.
We shouldn’t paper over our many conflicting interests. But resuming diplomacy, even a little bit, might lessen the likelihood of war and, meanwhile, ease the paranoia.
The war fears roared into public consciousness in March 2021, when Adm. Philip Davidson, the outgoing commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, told a Senate panel that China posed a “manifest” threat of invading Taiwan “in the next six years.”
No senior official had ever issued such a specific or urgent warning about the fate of the tiny democratic island 100 miles off China’s eastern coast. But Davidson’s testimony inspired a boatload of other active and retired officers to sound the alarms; one guessed that an invasion could happen as early as 2023.
Against all precedent and policy, Davidson did not consult his superiors before making his banner-headline comment. There is reason for this negligence: They would have told him to delete it from his testimony, not just because it would cause a stir, but more because it wasn’t true—it didn’t align with the Defense Department’s own intelligence agency, which tends to be more hawkish and alarmist than other branches of the intelligence community.
In November 2021, eight months after Davidson’s testimony, the Pentagon published its latest edition of a congressionally mandated report titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. That year’s version—173 pages—noted several concerning trends about Chinese military power, but it also downplayed the notion of a threat in the coming few years.
The Pentagon published an updated version of the report in November 2022—and its caveats are repeated almost verbatim. China, the report concludes, has neither the desire nor the capability to mount a large-scale amphibious assault on Taiwan. The Chinese army’s own media recite “shortcomings in military training and education.” These include the “Five Incapables,” tasks that many Chinese commanders are simply unable to do—judge situations, deploy forces, understand the intentions of higher authorities, make operational decisions in combat, or manage unexpected developments. The military is only beginning to train in “combined operations” (coordinated fighting by two branches, e.g., infantry and artillery). In general, “significant additional equipment and fielding is necessary to complete the transformation of the [Chinese army] into a fully modern force.”
As for the notion of some global reach, the latest report says that China’s ability to conduct military operations outside the First Island Chain “remains in its infancy.” (The First Island Chain refers to the Taiwan Strait and areas of the South China Sea and East China Sea that Beijing claims as its waters.)
Finally, though neither report says so, the last time China fought a war was in 1979, in brief, bloody battle with Vietnam, which the Chinese lost. In other words, there are at most a handful of Chinese soldiers—and they would be very old officers—who have ever fired a shot with the intention of killing an enemy soldier. True, Taiwan’s soldiers have never fought a real war either, but they are being armed and trained by American advisers who have.
Is the Chinese military worth worrying about at all? Yes. The sheer numbers of anti-ship and air-defense weapons, the growth in cyber and anti-satellite capabilities, and the increased training exercises (for instance, more than 20 naval exercises with an “island-capturing dimension” in 2021, up from 13 in 2020)—all signal that China is getting more serious, and better, at doing things to keep the U.S. military away from its shores.
This is the essence of China’s military strategy—“Anti-Access/Area Denial” (A2/AD). While this is essentially a defensive strategy, it can also mean a strategy to keep outside powers (especially U.S. air and naval forces) far away while Chinese armed forces take aggressive action against Taiwan or other areas of interest.
A former senior CIA analyst with a specialty on China told me that starting about 20 years ago, China—anticipating the possibility of a war—began examining the pillars of U.S. power projection in the East Pacific. The pillars were aircraft carriers, regional bases, air power, the domination of outer space, and command, control, and intelligence. China then started developing weapons and strategies that could topple each of those pillars—and thus counter the Americans’ ability to intervene in the areas that China regards as its territory.
For most of those 20 years, the U.S. was busy fighting the “global war on terror,” especially the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and therefore ignored what China was doing. After one briefing, a four-star officer told the former CIA analyst, “Don’t tell me about the war I might fight 10 years from now while I’m fighting two wars today.”
Even now, though well aware of China’s growing military power, the U.S. is doing little to address the emerging gaps. In the old days, sending an aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait would make Beijing shudder and dial back any threat. Now China has enough anti-ship missiles to inflict serious damage on a carrier and its large escort vessels—yet we are responding by building more carriers and escort vessels.
The former CIA analyst stressed that China is not set to go to war with the U.S. today, or—contrary to what Adm. Davidson said—by 2027. However, he said, Beijing has declared 2035—a dozen years from now—as a goal for attaining the status of a serious military power, and the pace of their activities is “aligned with that.”
That does not mean, he hastened to add, that China will go to war as soon as they’ve crossed some magic line of capability. “War with the U.S. would mean turning the page on everything they’ve invested in”—meaning their economic investments around the world—“for a war that they know would be long.” The Pentagon’s report agrees: China, it notes, “appears willing to defer the use of military force as long as it considers … the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits.”
It’s also worth noting that much of China’s rapid buildup has been in response to what its leaders see as a threat from the United States. The Pentagon’s report makes this point up front. China’s leaders, it states, “believe that structural changes in the international system and an increasingly confrontational United States are the root causes of intensifying strategic competition” between Washington and Beijing. (Emphasis added.)
This is a big part of the conflicting interests between the two countries. Beijing sees a substantial area of the Pacific (Taiwan, the South China Sea, and a bit beyond) as China’s rightful territory; Washington sees this view as an encroachment on its allies’ territory.
In other words, what Beijing sees as “active defense,” Washington sees as offense against its allies. When each takes steps to bolster its position, the other sees these steps as “confrontational.” In a way, both sides are right. This is the sort of thing that could spark a war—but it doesn’t have to.
Chairman Xi also believes that China is a rising power, the United States is a declining power, and all he—or his successor—needs to do is to hang on till the balance of forces tip decisively in Beijing’s direction.
Under these circumstances, an American president should do three things: deploy enough military force in the area that no reasonable Chinese leader would think that he can get away with aggression at little cost, bolster America’s strengths (domestically as well as internationally) to dispel the impression that we’re fading, and, in the meantime, say as often and as persuasively as possible that the United States has no interest in overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party or recognizing Taiwan as an independent state.
It’s a tricky balancing act to manage all three tasks at once. It’s what Biden has been trying to do since he took office. It’s impossible to pull off if both sides’ diplomats and officers are barely talking with one another; among other things, the lack of communication allows each side to assume the worst about the other and to treat worst-case scenarios as plausible forecasts.
The Sullivan–Wang talks, and now Biden’s confident talk of an imminent “thaw,” are all about digging themselves—Washington and Beijing—out of the abyss. Whether both sides can shimmy back up to the surface and start treating each other as some hybrid of collaborators and competitors, we will probably see by the end of the year.