The Future of U.S.-China Relations Begins at Home

Kori Schake’s essay (and the book from which it is adapted) provides a serious, penetrating, and provocative invitation to debate the overriding geostrategic challenge of our time: what to do about the rise of China. Safe Passage is an outstanding example of the sort of work we champion at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Applied History Project. It illuminates current challenges by careful analysis of the historical record. And the case she examines in which the United States rose to rival and eventually surpass the British global hegemony is among the most instructive of the 16 cases in the Harvard Thucydides’ Trap case file for policymakers seeking to cope with the current U.S.-China competition.

I find so much more to agree with in Schake’s analysis that identifying significant differences requires a bit of a stretch. But since the format calls for debate, I will focus on three areas of potential disagreement.

First, the central question of Schake’s book is as follows: what accounts for the exceptional transition from British to American predominance without war? Her answer is “cultural affinity.” As she puts it, “for the crucial years in which the two countries were peers and competitors, the acknowledged similarities between them created space for policy compromises during crises.” Noting the distinct absence of cultural affinity between China and the United States, she is more reserved than I think she should be when she turns to the question of what we can learn from this case for the current challenge.

My analysis of her case agrees that shared culture and values were very important. But I find them less significant than the geopolitical realities Britain confronted, and the artful diplomacy British statesmen demonstrated in addressing them. Had Britain not faced other more proximate and potent rising powers― Germany and Russia―would it have been so tolerant of American offenses? Had British diplomacy been as unimaginative in dealing with crises in Venezuela, or American territorial claims in Alaska, as it was in the month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, would war have been avoided?

I applaud Schake’s vivid reminder of the echoes of the U.S.-UK rivalry we can hear today in the current U.S.-Chinese competition. One chapter in my own work Destined For War invites readers to review America’s rise through the eyes of a youthful Theodore Roosevelt as he led his country into what he was supremely confident would be an American Century. TR came to Washington in 1897 to become the number two civilian in the Department of the Navy. In the decade that followed, the United States seized a mysterious explosion in Havana harbor as an opportunity to declare war on Spain, liberate Cuba, and take Puerto Rico and Guam as spoils of war; supported a coup in Colombia to create a new country―Panama―that immediately agreed to the construction of the canal TR wanted so that his navy could move between the Atlantic and Pacific; threatened war with Germany and Britain unless they backed out of a dispute with Venezuela; stole the largest part of the fat tail of Alaska; declared the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the right to change any government in the Western Hemisphere that misbehaved; and sent Marines to do just that every year in the decade that followed.

If in the years ahead Xi’s China were to behave “just like us” in this era, could war be avoided? Almost certainly not.

Why then was there a “safe passage” from Britain to the United States? Mainly because the British found ways to “tolerate the intolerable,” ignore repeated instances of disrespect to their honor, and carry on. And why did they do this? Primarily because they faced what they saw as direct threats to their survival in the rapidly rising Germany and Russia.

After London and Washington went to the brink of war over Venezuela’s borders in 1895, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury advised his government that war with the United States “in the not distant future has become something more than a possibility.” He instructed the Admiralty—at the time the cockpit of British national security planning—to prepare accordingly. Within a decade, however, the Admiralty had convinced his government that the threat posed by nearby European naval powers, particularly Germany, and the consequences of war with the United States for the Empire given the vulnerability of Canada, made it necessary to do whatever was required to avoid war with the Americans. As Salisbury reflected wistfully in 1902, “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate Wars it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career.”

A major takeaway from this case for statecraft today was Britain’s clarity in distinguishing between its “vital” national interests, on the one hand, and interests that were simply “vested” or “vivid” on the other. While American leaders use the term “vital” promiscuously, the dictionary reminds us that vital means “essential for survival or wellbeing.” To prevent German domination of the continent and a possible invasion of their island from the Low Countries, in 1914 Britain went to war against Germany. But in the Western Hemisphere, Britain’s only vital interest was to protect its Canadian dominion. Clinging to the role it had played for a century as the dominant navy in the Western Hemisphere or arbiter of territorial disputes in Latin America were lesser interests on which it could be accommodating.

In finding ways to satisfy even unreasonable American demands, British diplomacy was so agile and artful that American statesmen came to see U.S. interests as largely aligned with British interests. Thus when war came in 1914, the United States became the lifeline providing essential loans and supplies for the British war effort. And when the United States entered the war in 1917, it did so alongside Britain, making victory possible.

So in Schake’s analysis, if American statecraft were clear about the hierarchy of American national interests, would the necessity for allies to counter-balance a rising China reorder this administration’s priorities in dealing with Japan, South Korea, and India, including issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement? If American statesmen were able to think as clearly about their vital national interests as the British did, could they find their way to what Kissinger has called “co-evolution,” or what in a later stage of the Cold War was termed “peaceful coexistence” or “peaceful competition,” with China?

Second: to meet the challenge of a rising China, what basic strategy is Schake recommending? On the one hand, she seems to share the view of the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy that China should be recognized as a “strategic rival” seeking to undermine the American-led order. She is ruthlessly realistic in recognizing that a China-led international order would be a “macrocosm of its domestic political order”—emphasizing “privileges rather than rights, power rather than law, fealty rather than alliance.” She discounts the hope of some Washingtonians that China’s bubble may burst or that it may undergo a miraculous conversion.

Thus she recommends “contesting China’s rise.” But on the issue of how, she should say more. In the absence of alternatives, she seems to reluctantly back into some version of a new “Cold War.” But she never explains what that could mean in a world in which China already has an economy larger than that of the United States, and is now a central pillar of the global economy as the dominant trading partner of every one of our Asian allies. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed the deep anxiety felt by leaders across the region about the prospect of being “coerced to choose between being friends with America”―the country currently providing their security―“and being friends with China”―the country making them rich.

Third: who poses the greatest threat to American national security today? Who poses the greatest threat to America’s position in the world today? In answering those questions, Schake courageously steps over the boundaries of most foreign policy wonks. The final line of her essay concludes somberly “America’s own behavior is chewing into our margin for error and probably remains a stronger indicator of our fate than any choices made by China.”

Similarities between her answer and views expressed by her sometimes co-author, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in unveiling his new National Defense Strategy are not likely to be coincidental. As Mattis put it speaking pointedly to members of Congress: “Let me be clear. As hard as the last 16 years have been for our military, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending cuts, worsened by us operating 9 of the last 10 years under continuing resolutions, wasting copious amounts of precious taxpayer dollars.”

To these views I would only say: Amen. What nations do inside their borders matters at least as much as what they do abroad. My own attempt to address this issue concludes by urging American leaders, as well as Chinese, to listen to the counsel of the wisest strategic analyst of both countries: Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and builder of Singapore. Lee urged both to focus first on what matters most. Clear-eyed observers in both societies recognize that neither “dysfunctional ” democracy nor “responsive” authoritarianism is fit for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. While DC has become an acronym for Dysfunctional Capital, as Lee explained trenchantly, China’s “operating system” is increasingly outmoded in an era when Chinese citizens are the world’s largest population of internet users, and a smartphone in every pocket allows them to see the world beyond their borders.

If leaders in each society grasped the seriousness of the problems they face on the home front and gave them the priority they deserved, statesmen would discover that devising a way to “share the twenty-first century in Asia,” as Lee put it, was not their most serious challenge.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kori Schake is skeptical about the idea that rising prosperity inclines modern polities toward democracy and peaceful international relations. China, though, will be the essential test of the theory in our time. Many things could still stop China’s rise, but if they don’t, then she argues we must prepare for a new policy of containment - or, if that fails, we must eventually learn to live under China’s rules.

Response Essays

  • Graham Allison expresses broad agreement with Kori Schake and admiration for her work. He notes three areas of potential discussion, however: First, he notes that strategic realities particular to the nineteenth century shaped the transfer of hegemony from the UK to the United States; second, he suggests we need to be clearer on what is meant by “contesting” China’s rise; and third, he argues that each country’s domestic challenges are likely to be more important than we may know.

  • Oriana Skylar Mastro is pessimistic about the rise of China to great power status and the effects it will have on the achievement of U.S. strategic objectives. China faces few significant obstacles to its continued rise, and the Communist Party has been largely successful in securing domestic loyalty. It has made a successful end run around the U.S.-sponsored world order largely through economic and soft power methods. The United States has been slow to rise to this challenge.

  • Jude Blanchette urges us to remember contingency and chance: Nothing that America did necessarily “lost” China; many factors beyond American control, and beyond most Americans’ knowledge, were also at work in China’s recent return toward greater authoritarianism. This may seem a counsel of despair, but it isn’t necessarily the case. The lack of inevitability in China’s recent political life means that further changes in direction may be on the horizon. Pendulum swings have been the norm in China’s modern history, not the exception.