The Ethical Challenge in Sino-U.S. Relations: The Threat of War

The Ethical Challenge in Sino-U.S. Relations: The Threat of War


The greatest ethical challenge confronting the U.S. and China is that in both countries, decision-makers are increasingly scoping out foreign policy strategies that will inevitably lead to military conflict. On the U.S. side, decision-makers often look for military solutions to what are really political problems. They consider geopolitics, and in fact fall back on geopolitical fatalism, in thinking about China as an inevitable enemy. In China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is buffeted everyday by internal pressures, and is thus coming up with new foreign policies that the CCP thinks can legitimize itself and distract the people from domestic problems. But in reality these policies have the side effect of rationalizing hyper-nationalism, which could push the CCP into being more antagonistic against the U.S. Taken together, problems in both countries could create a security dilemma, or put in more colloquial terms, a death spiral into conflict.

It didn’t use to be this way. Forty years ago, the U.S. and China reconciled their vast ideological differences and previous hostility towards each other because of a very practical challenge: the threat of the Soviet Union. The decision-making calculus on both sides was predominately realist—by joining forces, the U.S. and China could rebalance international relations and put the Soviet Union in a weaker position. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China had to come up with a new paradigm for the relationship. Although this rationale for the relationship has never been completely settled, for the most part, good relations have been realized through mutual economic benefit—the U.S. has invested billions of dollars into the Chinese economy and helped it develop, while the Chinese have in time sold us cheap goods and offered the U.S. cheap credit. In fact, economics has been the brightest part of our relationship, and indeed what has kept the relationship going along as well as it has.

But today, mutual economic benefit is widely perceived as inadequate to indefinitely sustain good relations. On the U.S. side, the military plays an outsized role in determining the character of the Sino-US relationship. Overwhelmingly, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) relies on geopolitics to predict a powerful, antagonistic China; after that, it simply plans based on that assumption. Starting late 2011 and early 2012, the Obama administration rolled out a new Asia-Pacific strategy: the Pivot (or Rebalance) to Asia. The Pivot was supposed to be comprehensive, striking a balance between engagement and hedging, between soft and hard power, and between the diplomatic, international development, and military components of the U.S.’s foreign policy apparatus. And to some extent, the economic and diplomatic sides have materialized: for example, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement currently being negotiated with countries spanning both sides of the Pacific (although it excludes China, partially by China’s choice).

However, what has mainly appeared instead of diplomatic and economic engagement is an overemphasis on military hedging. Starting shortly before the official unveiling of the Pivot to Asia, it was made public that the DoD was designing a new operational concept, intended especially for use in the Asia Pacific. This new operational concept is called AirSea Battle. It is a concept that combines the strengths of the Navy and the Air Force to combat what is known in military jargon as A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial). A2/AD in turn refers to a combination of asymmetric threats that are intended to thwart a conventional military (like the U.S. military) as it approaches the coast of a foreign country. Such technologies could include ballistic and cruise missiles, diesel and nuclear submarines, land-based attack aircraft, anti-satellite technology, and cyberwarfare in order to cripple the U.S. military. While the DoD and outside thinktanks have strenuously denied that the Pivot to Asia or AirSea Battle is intended to combat China, it is clear that China is the target, because it is developing precisely this A2/AD strategy (Iran is to a lesser extent developing it as well).

AirSea Battle proposes many ways to negate the Chinese asymmetric threat in the event of a conflict: by hardening forward operating bases from attack (such as in Guam or eastern Japan); incapacitating Chinese ground and space-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities; conducting strikes on ballistic and cruise missile launch and production sites in Chinese territory; and eventually enforcing blockades against Chinese commerce and energy shipments.

Of all these potential missions, striking targets deep within Chinese territory would be the most difficult, the most expensive, and the most contentious. Official publications emphasize that “attacking in depth” (more jargon meaning attacking deep within enemy territory) is essential to the success of the AirSea Battle concept and that current DoD assets will be less useful to conduct this mission into the future.

For this reason, the DoD is currently developing new weapons systems, such as Prompt Global Strike (PGS) and the new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), both of which are designed primarily to hit targets deep within mainland China. Prompt Global Strike consists of a hypersonic glider launched on top of a ballistic missile, delivering a conventional warhead anywhere in the world in under an hour. But there is a catch—it is possible that the launch of such a missile could be confused by Russia or China as a nuclear launch. The LRS-B, meanwhile, completes similar missions without quite the destabilizing factor. But still, given how expensive it is likely to be (at least $500 million each but likely much more given cost overruns), we must always ask the question: is there a strategic reason for developing this weapons system?

These developments are ethically troubling in of themselves, but in reality they are only a small part of a larger system. The DoD and others believe that AirSea Battle will prevent a future Sino-U.S. conflict. And to some degree, they are right. It is important to have a credible deterrent in order to avert war. But is AirSea Battle, especially weapon systems like PGS, the right kind of deterrent? Under the geopolitical logic that the DoD has adopted (well represented by the book A Contest for Supremacy, by Aaron Friedberg), war is seen as almost inevitable, as if the U.S. and China were the British Empire and Germany on the eve of World War I. If left unchecked this kind of thinking will result in ever-greater tit for tat as both sides attempt to achieve virtually impossible levels of security. It is the sad truth that the current Sino-U.S. military situation has the makings of a security dilemma: if we let geopolitics determine U.S. relations with China, we are going to end up with World War III.

In reality, a Sino-U.S. war would be overwhelmingly against the national interest on both sides. Actual conflict would represent the complete failure of both U.S. and Chinese foreign policy. Both sides would be economically crippled by war, but China would suffer more. Blockade operations alone would immediately cut off seaborne trade and energy conduits, slowly suffocating and circumscribing Chinese action. The economic consequences of war would be received highly unfavorably by the Chinese public, and could even threaten the CCP’s hold on power. Finally, the DoD assumes that China would start this hypothetical war; this however has serious logical flaws, given that China could not support such a war if it started it. China does not have the ability to project power that the U.S. does; A2/AD as a strategy is not geared to projecting power, but rather defending and controlling the maritime area around China. In a potential conflict, China would be limited close to home. This is contradictory to an offensive, power-projection strategy.

As it stands, AirSea Battle is a strategy that will largely exacerbate the latent Sino-U.S. security dilemma, not prevent war. The failure to craft an appropriately comprehensive strategy lies as much with the U.S.’s civilian leaders as its military leaders. The Sino-U.S. relationship is at its heart a political problem, not a military one. And yet the current administration has let the military largely define the Pivot to Asia. This is a mistake. The President has an ethical obligation to craft national strategies that explicitly attach political purposes to the use of military force. Historically the US military has been a force for good in the Asia Pacific, by upholding stable governments, free markets, and a just international order. But this too was as much about good diplomacy as it was about smart military deployments; the U.S.’s modern Asia Pacific strategy must be also.

On the other side, China is marching towards a security dilemma, but from a different angle. Domestically, China suffers from stark insecurities. The economy is unbalanced, social and economic inequality is stark, environmental problems loom large, corruption seems intractable, and citizen discontent boils upwards in the form of mass protests. But the largest problem is currently the lack of legitimization of the CCP. The CCP, of course, previously relied on revolutionary Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought. But in the last thirty years, this has been insufficient since China moved towards a capitalist market. So China now emphasizes nationalism and a historical narrative of “national humiliation” perpetrated upon China by the Western imperial powers in the century before China’s unification under Mao. Taken together, these are not just ideologies to legitimize the CCP, but also methods to quell internal dissent, by encouraging average people to take their discontent and latch it onto foreign countries.

In recent years nationalist figures in Chinese foreign policy have sought to systematize this thought and make it more coherent. There is a dangerous possibility that they will succeed in adopting an ancient Chinese concept, Tianxia, meaning “all under heaven,” which places China at the center of a hierarchical world order. Tianxia at its heart is a way to provide justification for Chinese exceptionalism. During recent years there have been Chinese scholars like Zhao Tingyang, Qin Yaqing, and Yan Xuetong, who advocate a Chinese model of international relations theory based on “Tianxia.” According to them, Tianxia embraces a universal ethical system that is superior to the Westphalian system, which allows for too much conflict among nation states. They urge Beijing to use its increasing power to reassert China’s traditional moral world order. As Zhao Tingyang, a well-known intellectual in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences wrote on the back of his book “Tianxia Tixi,” “the real problem facing the world is not the existence of failed States, but the presence of a failed world.” Some Chinese scholars tend to believe that Tianxia will create a great utopia on the international stage. Tianxia can also be seen as the philosophical foundation for the “Harmonious World” promoted by CCP’s ex-party chief Hu Jintao.

The CCP itself will actually be too happy to encourage such an intellectual development. Being assertive in foreign affairs provides them the cover that the party desperately need so as to distract the Chinese people from domestic conflicts. In addition, Chinese exceptionalism based on Tianxia also responds to the party’s need to label everything as “having Chinese characteristics.” It could justify the party’s refusal to adopt liberal democratic political reforms. After all, if China could refuse Western modes of thinking in international relations, why could it not refuse Western political systems? In other words, Tianxia may give the CCP additional legitimacy and staying power.

What ethical challenge does this pose for Sino-U.S relations? There are two types of the Tianxia system that will pose problems. The “hard” version, if implemented, will be a total disaster for Sino-U.S relations. There is no doubt that the hard version of Tianxia is a hierarchical order with China in the dominant position. Ancient China, under the influence of Tianxia, never viewed its neighbors as sovereign nations equal to itself. Instead it always treated them as inferior partners or vassal states. The massive naval power of the fleet of 27,000 soldiers on 250 ships led by Zheng He during the Ming Dynasty after all did "shock and awe" foreigners into submission. Moreover, the supposedly peaceful Zheng He used military force at least three times; he even captured the king of modern-day Sri Lanka and delivered him to China for disobeying Ming authority. So if the CCP chose to enforce this hard-version of the Tianxia system, whether because they truly believe it or they merely want to distract people’s attention from domestic unrest, China will increasingly be in conflict with its neighbors. And with America’s return to the Asia Pacific, this will definitely result in military conflict with the U.S.

The “soft” version of Tianxia, however more peaceful and open-minded than the hard version, could still create problems for Sino-U.S. relations. It reflects a more cultural missionary attitude of Tianxia. The construction of Confucius Academies around the globe is a good example. It advocates Chinese exceptionalism by spreading exceptional Chinese ethics around the globe. After all, under the ancient Tianxia system, China did not colonize neighboring states like the Roman Empire did. The neighboring states submitted to China because of its cultural dominance. With China’s revival, many Chinese intellectuals are reviving the great traditions of Chinese culture. There is no doubt that China now is going through a great cultural renaissance. Traditional Chinese clothes are increasingly popular and the government directly promotes the celebration of traditional Chinese festivals. There are even markets for traditional Chinese schooling based on the Confucius style.

The problem is that no matter how hard China tries to advertise Tianxia as being benign (for example, they may claim that “harmony with difference” has a great place in traditional Chinese culture), the soft version of Tianxia is still a comprehensive ethical doctrine which is only accepted in China. It will definitely result in ideological conflicts with the ethical code based on Western liberalism shared by most Americans, and indeed, the entire modern international order. Under the geopolitically fatalistic assumptions being made by many decision-makers in the U.S., it is entirely possible that the U.S. could mistake attempts to implement “soft Tianxia” as actually “hard Tianxia,” thus provoking even more serious conflict. The soft version of Tianxia, through advocating the application of traditional Chinese ethical codes on a global scale, tries to accomplish something impossible.

How do we handle this great ethical challenge? There is no doubt that political reforms will be necessary in China. Otherwise the CCP will continue to manipulate this “Tianxia” concept so as to stay in power. After all, nationalism through revival of one’s national traditions has been used by all authoritarian regimes around the globe. And the discussions above show that the CCP will try to use the hard side of “Tianxia” as much as they can. Communism has few true believers in China now; thus nationalism is the best chance for CCP to keep its legitimacy.

Chinese citizens, intellectuals, and especially the Chinese government need to face the fact that this is a pluralistic world. The utopian dream based on Tianxia may have little appeal to people believing in different comprehensive doctrines. The U.S, with its tradition of liberalism, will never be converted to this traditional style of Chinese thinking. The ideological conflict between communism and capitalism resulted in a Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The same scenario may happen again if we let Tianxia define Chinese foreign policy. In order to deal with insuperable ideological differences, a real strategy would be to focus on practical measures to improve Sino-U.S relations. The same applies to the U.S. as well. Both sides desperately need to compromise, and have a more nuanced historical perspective of the other.

In the end, these two massive problems—the United States’ predilection to find military solutions to political problems, and China’s failing search to legitimize an ailing political system—are paradoxically different and yet two heads of the same coin. The two can be seen to be one unity because they exacerbate the dangers of the other—if China were to descend into an economic slump and decided it had to pump Chinese nationalism and Tianxia into overdrive, then the U.S. would be forced to conclude that its military buildup is rational and well-reasoned. And if the U.S. continues to give China the impression that it seeks to “contain” China with the Pivot to Asia, then to China, “Tianxia” only makes more sense as a strategy to combat an antagonistic U.S. But if both can exacerbate each other, then the amelioration of either strategy can also improve outcomes in the other country. This will require strategic trust, which in turn will require solid, practical moves by both sides to clarify their long-term intentions and strategies.


William Yale
Hopkins-Nanjing Center (Johns Hopkins SAIS)
Nationality: USA


Tong Zhichao
Hopkins-Nanjing Center (Nanjing University)
Nationality: China

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