Biden admin needs two contradictory minds to deal with China challenge: Graham Allison
Published: Sep 26, 2021 10:13 PM
Graham Allison Photo: Courtesy of Allison

Graham Allison Photo: Courtesy of Allison

Editor's Note

The strategic competition between China and the US is seeing no signs of easing. Chinese and US leaders held their second phone conversation on September 10. Nonetheless, the US just formed a new security partnership with the UK and Australia and hosted an in-person QUAD summit last week. Both have an apparent target - China. How to evaluate the China policy adopted by Biden? Many hype up war scenarios between the two countries. But realistically speaking, under what conditions would a war occur? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen interviewed Graham Allison (Allison), the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard's Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

GT: Does Biden's China policy have consistency? Who dominates the China policy of the Biden administration? 

Allison: The rise of China presents the most complex international challenge any American president has ever faced. I applaud the Biden Administration's current search for a conception of this challenge that recognizes that China is simultaneously both a fierce rival and an inescapable partner. To do so, the Administration has had to craft a strategy that passes what F. Scott Fitzgerald defines as the test of a first-class mind. In Fitzgerald's words, it is "to hold two contradictory ideas in one's head at the same time and still function."

On the one hand, Biden understands China is a genuine Thucydidean rival that has the potential to become, as Lee Kuan Yew, once put it, "the biggest player in the history of the world." With four times as many people as the United States, if the Chinese were only one-half as productive as Americans, China would have a GDP twice our size. Thus, to create a correlation of forces that can shape China's behavior, the Biden Administration is determined to attract other nations with heft to sit on our side of the seesaw of power. The new security partnership with the UK and Australia - in addition to deeper engagement with the Quad - is an essential part of this approach. 

On the other hand, as a veteran Cold Warrior, Biden knows full well that the United States and China share a small globe on which each faces existential challenges that it cannot defeat by itself. Technology (nuclear weapons) and nature (climate change) have condemned these two great powers to coexist: to find ways to live together in order to avoid dying together. Surviving in this environment requires four Cs: thick communication (to minimize misunderstandings and miscalculations); constraints (on initiatives that could trigger escalation to unwanted conflict); coordination and even cooperation to ensure that third-party provocations or accidents don't drag them into an unwanted war. With the phone call on September 10, Biden again demonstrated both his commitment to establishing thick communication between the US and China, and his desire for China and the US to get beyond the microphone diplomacy of Anchorage to serious, candid conversation about how they can compete as each pursues its interests and values while they simultaneously cooperate to avoid war and ensure a livable environment.

GT: Whether or not a war breaks out between China and the US over Taiwan has different answers from different people. Under what conditions would a war occur? What can be done to prevent a war?

Allison: As Thucydides taught us, in cases in which a rising power like Athens in classical Greece, Germany a hundred years ago, or China today threatens to displace a ruling power like Sparta, Great Britain, or the US, the most frequent outcome is war. In the last 500 years, as shown in my book Destined for War, there have been 16 cases in which a rising power challenged a ruling power, and 12 of those ended in war.

In such Thucydidean rivalries, misperceptions are magnified, miscalculations multiplied, and risks of escalation amplified. Thus, sparks that would have otherwise proven inconsequential or manageable can trigger a vicious cycle of reactions that drag two powers into a catastrophic war neither wanted. We should never forget that the assassination of an Archduke in Sarajevo in June 1914 provided a spark that became a conflagration that burned down most of Europe.

For the US and China today, the most dangerous of these potential hotspots is Taiwan. If Taiwan were to make a decisive move towards independence, and Beijing took that as a provocation to use military force to reunify the island with the mainland, how would the US respond? And if the US should decide to come to the defense of Taiwan, what would the likely outcome of that conflict be? Moreover, if the US were on the verge of defeat in a local war over Taiwan, would it accept defeat, or choose to escalate? And if it did, where could that end?

Obviously this has increasingly been a subject of discussion in both the US and China. Because there are no good answers to any of these questions, the lesson for us all is to recognize the risk and act in advance to prevent crises that could lead to confrontations and conflict that could escalate to catastrophic war. Success in preventing Taiwan becoming the Sarajevo of the 21st century will require extended, thoughtful, candid conversations between Xi and Biden and the governments they lead. The lack of such communication today leaves both nations vulnerable to an accident or incident that could lead to outcomes that would be catastrophic for both nations.