Mutually Assured Restraint: A New Approach for United States-China Relations

By Etzioni, Amitai | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring/Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Mutually Assured Restraint: A New Approach for United States-China Relations


Etzioni, Amitai, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


TO AVOID THE UNITED STATES and China falling into the Thucydides trap in which a dominant power's fear of a rising power leads to war, both nations would be well-served by further embracing a strategy of mutually assured restraint proposed here, of which some elements are already in place. Political scientists argue that when a new power arises and an old power does not yield ground and privileges, wars ensue.1 However, the record shows that there are no historical iron laws or trends that inevitably unfold. Harvard University's Graham Allison points to four cases out of 15 since the sixteenth century in which the emergence of a new power was not followed by war, including the United States' rise as a global power in the 1890s.2 Thus, it may not be written in the stars that the United States and China are fated to clash. War-to paraphrase the UNESCO Constitution-starts in the minds of men, and there it can be ended.3 It is precisely this kind of violent confrontation that mutually assured restraint, if embraced, could help the United States and China avoid by creating the conditions for addressing China's legitimate concerns while leaving ample room for the United States to discharge that which it considers to be its international obligations.

Distrust between the United States and China has increased in recent years despite a close connection between the two countries' economic wellbeing and an increase in trade between the two nations. The United States is a key market for China's goods, and China is a leading foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities. A study by Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi illustrates the rising tensions reflected in statements in which China accuses the United States of attempting to " sabotage the Communist Party's leadership" and the United States holds that China's "mercantilist policies harm the chances of American economic recovery."4 The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which maintains an inflation-adjusted database of military expenditure for each country worldwide, reports that China spent $33 billion in 2000 and $129 billion in 2011-an 11-year compound annual growth rate of about 13 percent.5 By contrast, the United States spent $382 billion in 2000 and $690 billion in 2011, an 11-year compound annual growth rate of 5.5 percent.

That China's economy is growing at a rapid pace suggests it could afford a still stronger military. Its annual GDP percentage growth rate is still more than twice that of the United States' GDP in 2012 despite a recent slowdown.6 Above all, China has developed a series of antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) weapons reportedly capable of preventing the United States from effectively protecting Taiwan and Japan or exercising free navigation in the region; these developments are viewed by the U.S. military as a challenge to the United States' position in the region. The most prominent example of these A2/AD weapons is antiship missiles, which cost little and can incapacitate the expensive American aircraft carriers that represent a key component of U.S. power projection. In response, the United States developed the Air-Sea Battle concept.7 It seeks to build faster, smaller ships and develop weapons-including direct energy arms, a type of laser that if positioned on ships could burn incoming missiles-that can neutralize the new Chinese A2/AD ones. Critics have been particularly alarmed that, because direct energy arms have yet to be developed, the Air-Sea Battle concept calls for striking antiship missiles on the Chinese mainland. Such an attack is more likely to result in full-fledged war with China rather than a local skirmish over control of the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.8 If current trends continue, with tensions and militaries building up, the prophets of a war between a rising power and an established one may be proven correct. For this reason, curbing tensions and capping military buildups-both objectives of mutually assured restraint-are paramount. …

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