At a recent forum examining US-China relations, both Chinese and American experts shared the same concern — the crises and conflicts between the two countries are likely to increase, and war is a possibility if such conflicts aren't managed properly.
Wu Xinbo, professor and dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan Universitysaid he is quite pessimistic about future conflicts and crises in the relationship at a forum commemorating the 45th anniversary of the normalization of US-China diplomatic relations. It was held at The Carter Center in Atlanta in early January.
Past incidents such as the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the collision of military planes near Hainan Island in 2001 were mostly incidental, said Wu. Now, the bilateral crises are increasingly structural in nature.
For the first time since the normalization or [President Richard] Nixon's visit, the US and China have locked into a series of strategic competitions in the last couple of years with the Trump administration declaring China as America's arch strategic competitor or rival, and to some extent, sometimes even a major threat, said Wu.
Dennis Wilder, senior fellow at the Initiative of US-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University and former China director at the National Security Council, echoed Wu's sentiment: We are in a period where we just don't know where this is going to go, he said.
Wu said, Both militaries are preparing for some contingencies either in Taiwan or other part of the world.
Da Wei, director of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, agreeing with Wu, said that there are some changes in our beliefs in the two capitals regarding the bilateral relations. Both sides show a kind of willingness to accept the price of a crisis'.'
Several trends make managing crises between the two countries more difficult, said Bonny Lin, senior fellow for Asia Security and director of the China Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The trends include domestic situation, public opinion, lack of people-to-people contacts, the general lack of trust, the hardening political positions within both countries, and a more anti-other attitude, Lin said.
There is a lack of trust between the two countries. Wilder said that in Washington and the Republican Party, many think that China has a new inclination to use global conflicts to undermine the United States.
China believes the US is doing something because the US wants to keep China down, while the US believes China is doing something because China wants to replace or displace the US, Da said, believing both assumptions aren't necessarily right.
Much faster information flow also makes it more difficult to control how crises might escalate compared with 10 or 15 years ago, Lin said.
There are incentives for both sides to respond quickly and take control of the situation, to try to dominate and control the narrative, she said. That creates disincentives for both sides to communicate effectively beforehand.
Of all the factors that make it difficult to manage the bilateral crises, domestic politics might contribute most to the unpredictable and difficult nature of crises management, the experts said.
Taking the balloon incident as an example, Wu said the Biden administration viewed it as a structural crisis, which showcased how China is a major challenge and threat to the US national security interests before they did any investigation to find out the truth: There was no intelligence collection device in the balloon, and there was no evidence that China collected data from the US and relayed it to China.
Conversely, US Representative Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last year was a structural crisis for Beijing, but it was incidental for the US and didn't necessarily reflect the US government's intention to provoke or challenge China on the Taiwan issue, Wu said.
Despite the November China-US summit in California having brought some stability to bilateral relations, but whether that continues beyond 2024 is uncertain.
Wilder pointed toward the Mandate for Leadership 2025: The Conservative Promise published by the Heritage Foundation. What a possible Trump administration would do if it followed this document is staggering, Wilder said.
We are talking about the end of trade with China, tax incentives to get American companies back home, banning all [Chinese] social media in the United States, prohibiting investments by the Chinese in the US high tech, and a reduction if not elimination of Chinese students in the United States, Wilder said. We are in a very, very precarious and uncertain period with the American election coming up.
Da agreed: Depending on the election outcome, the worst-case scenario is that it could shape a long-term trend for much more serious crisis and conflict between our two countries. The US election in November could generate big risk and crisis for this relationship next year.
War isn't a prospect the experts want to see down the road. Rorry Daniels, managing director at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said, If there was a war between the US and China, winning would also be losing because of all the costs of prosecuting such a conflict.
The experts agreed that keeping the dialogue open at all levels is the way to prevent crises from escalating.
Wilder recalled time spent at the hometown of Dai Bingguo, then-director of the Central Foreign Affairs Leading Group outside of Beijing under the George W. Bush administration during strategic dialogue, and how then-Treasury secretary Henry Paulson's relationship with Chinese official Wang Qishan was critical to keep American markets stable during the 2008 financial crisis.
That's the kind of thing we have to find a way to get back to, Wilder said.
Make sure all channels of dialogue remain open; dialogue should not be cut off as punishment for one side or another, said Lin.