What Will Drive China to War?

The Atlantic

A cold war is already under way. The question is whether Washington can deter Beijing from initiating a hot one.By Michael Beckley and Hal Brands

A hand reaches out to grab various flags.
Ben Hickey

NOVEMBER 1, 2021SHARE

About the authors: Michael Beckley is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research focuses on U.S.-China competition, and is an associate professor at Tufts University. Hal Brands is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies US foreign policy and defense strategy, and is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

President xi jinping declared in July that those who get in the way of China’s ascent will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.” The People’s Liberation Army Navy is churning out ships at a rate not seen since World War II, as Beijing issues threats against Taiwan and other neighbors. Top Pentagon officials have warned that China could start a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait or other geopolitical hot spots sometime this decade.

Analysts and officials in Washington are fretting over worsening tensions between the United States and China and the risks to the world of two superpowers once again clashing rather than cooperating. President Joe Biden has said that America “is not seeking a new cold war.” But that is the wrong way to look at U.S.-China relations. A cold war with Beijing is already under way. The right question, instead, is whether America can deter China from initiating a hot one.

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Beijing is a remarkably ambitious revanchist power, one determined to make China whole again by “reuniting” Taiwan with the mainland, turning the East and South China Seas into Chinese lakes, and grabbing regional primacy as a stepping-stone to global power. It is also increasingly encircled, and faces growing resistance on many fronts—just the sort of scenario that has led it to lash out in the past.

The historical record since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is clear: When confronted by a mounting threat to its geopolitical interests, Beijing does not wait to be attacked; it shoots first to gain the advantage of surprise.

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