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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchDelusions of Détente: Why America and China Will Be Enduring Rivals

Delusions of Détente: Why America and China Will Be Enduring Rivals

Author: Michael Beckley

Affiliation: Political Science at Tufts University, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute (He worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, the RAND Corporation, and continues to advise offices within the U.S. Intelligence Community and U.S. Department of Defense)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: August 22, 2023/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 6240 



Keywords: US-Chinese Rivalry, Détente, Containment Policy, Re-Engagement Policy, Conflicting Zero-Sum Perspectives 



With U.S.-China relations at their worst point in fifty years, a number of strategic proposals have suggested the possibility of peaceful co-existence between the two powers. One of the most popular proposals suggests that the United States should adopt a policy of re-engagement with China, shifting towards accommodating its rise rather than embracing a policy of containment as it did with the Soviet Union. Through extensive conferences and talks, the United States can acknowledge the red lines set by China, mend crisis hotlines, facilitate cultural exchanges, and the two powers can alleviate tensions through active diplomacy. They can also reduce trade barriers, promote people-to-people exchanges, establish cooperative institutions, and more. 


Another proposal suggests the idea of the two powers striking a major deal to establish stable spheres of influence between them, akin to a G2 (a group comprising the two great powers), to address global issues such as climate change and pandemics. These policies may lead the two powers to enter a phase of international détente, sparing them the dangers of sliding into a devastating war. Those who advocate for these policies have long believed that the extremely poor relations between the United States and China are not the inevitable result of a clash between two ideologically conflicting superpowers over vital interests. Instead, they are due to mere misunderstandings between the two partners that are magnified by the United States’ exaggerated response when faced with China’s transgressions.

In this article, Michael Beckley criticizes these propositions, asserting that they are mere delusions that have proven their failure for various reasons. He argues that the history of great power rivalry in general, and U.S.-China relations particularly, indicates that it is unlikely that a policy of major engagement will mend relations between the two countries. If implemented hastily, it may even lead to inciting a violent conflict. He further contends that sustainable settlement only occurs when there are shifts in the balance of power. Prior to these shifts, periods of détente have typically served as opportunities to regroup and prepare for the next round of competition. In many cases, the pursuit of a détente policy by major powers paved the way for war, as seen when the United Kingdom sought to improve its relations with Germany from 1911 to 1914, and again after 1938. It is unlikely that the United States and China will deviate from this course, as their vital interests are deeply rooted and their political systems, geographies, and national historical experiences all conflict. Therefore, according to the author, it is unlikely that the U.S.-China rivalry will subside without a major shift in the balance of power. Until such a shift occurs, Beckley urges the United States and its allies to prefer a containment policy over engagement, accommodation, or capitulation. Containment enables deterring Chinese aggression in the short term and avoids making concessions that could disrupt preferred trajectories in the long term. There are reasons, he contends, to hope for a mid-term decline in Chinese power, which may pave the way for a genuine diplomatic breakthrough, if an effective containment policy is adopted.

The article is divided into three parts. The first part elucidates the underlying reasons that render the United States and China “enduring rivals,” and make it improbable that a policy of re-engagement and diplomacy could overcome them. Conversely, it emphasizes that sustainable settlements necessitate a stable balance of power, which typically comes to the forefront not through diplomatic discourse, but rather when one party realizes it is incapable of continuing the competition.

The author argues that enduring rivals do not quarrel due to a misunderstanding of each other, but rather because they know each other all too well. Deep-seated disputes over vital and indivisible interests, often involving territorial conflicts, are the main causes of war. Their spheres of influence and red lines often intersect, with each party seeking to protect itself, such as through military modernization, which inherently threatens the other party. In cases where their economies are intertwined, rivals tend to use trade as a weapon, with each party seeking to monopolize strategic goods at the expense of the other. The author provides examples of such enduring competitive countries, pointing to the recurring clashes between India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey, China and Japan, France and the United Kingdom. Another example is the United Kingdom and Germany, who engaged in fierce trade competition before resorting to exchanging blows in World War I.


Another reason for this phenomenon is the divergent ideological systems of competitors which lead them to view the growth and spread of the opposing party’s belief system as a disruptive threat to their own way of life. Some historical examples of this include Revolutionary France’s confrontation of European monarchies in the 18th century, fascist powers against democracies during World War II, or the United States’ face off against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Moreover, the history of conflict between rivals plays a major role in this regard. Their ongoing mutual enmity is fueled by past aggressive behaviors, creating a constant fear of further hostilities. This is something felt by the Chinese today, for example, towards Japan.


Based on this, the author believes it is very difficult to end rivalries. He cites statistical studies that have identified 27 major power rivalries since 1816, each lasting on average for over 50 years and ending in one of three ways. Out of these, 19 (the vast majority) culminated in war, with one party defeating and subjugating the other. Another 6 rivalries ended with the two competing parties forming an alliance against a common enemy. For example, in the early 1900s, the United Kingdom set aside its disputes with France, Russia, and the United States to unite against Germany, resulting in the outbreak of World War I. The third potential outcome is exemplified by the end of the Cold War, when the US-USSR rivalry peacefully concluded with the collapse of the later. Therefore, it is unlikely that U.S.-China relations will take a different path in the future outside of these three trajectories.  


According to the author, a re-engagement policy with China cannot lead the two powers to reach a détente (a period of calm allowing both parties to establish guardrails on their relationship). The historical record of détente between major powers does not strongly support this argument; as such, periods rarely endure for long. The most successful case in this regard was the “Concert of Europe” – an alliance of monarchies established in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars to suppress liberal revolutions. While it may have comprised all the necessary elements to achieve a strong and sustainable détente, it began to deteriorate after 1822 and eventually fell apart in the 1830s due to a cold war between its conservative and liberal members which later escalated into a war over Crimea in 1853. A similar situation occurred after World War I, where the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war with the League of Nations established for the same purpose. However, both would prove incapable of preventing the outbreak of World War II.


Periods of détente can also, in fact, serve to facilitate war. The author provides examples, such as the Anglo-German détente between 1911 and 1914, which contributed to the outbreak of World War I by feeding Germany false hopes that the United Kingdom would maintain its neutrality in the event of a continental war. Another example is the Munich Agreement of 1938, which allowed Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia, enabling the Nazis to invade Poland the following year. Détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, as they declared their commitment to “peaceful coexistence” in 1972, also failed as the proxy conflicts between them escalated, reaching their peak with the pressing nuclear crises of the early 1980s.

The second part highlights the presence of divergent zero-sum perspectives (win-lose) between the United States and China on numerous vital issues, inevitably leading to enduring competition between them. This renders re-engagement and its associated diplomatic tools ineffective. As such, the author argues that containment seems to be the most suitable option for the United States.


Among the contentious zero-sum issues are the Taiwan dispute. Taiwan can be governed by either Taipei or Beijing, however not both simultaneously. Additionally, the East and South China seas can be either international waters or under China’s control. The issue of the alliances woven by the United States in East Asia represents a vital assurance and source of stability for it. However, for China, they appear as hostile encirclement. These are just a few examples where there seems to be no third option. Additionally, the rivals hold divergent views on the international system. Beijing aims for a situation in which it possesses the freedom to govern its traditional areas of influence. The United States, on the other hand, does not acknowledge spheres of influence and emphasizes protecting the sovereignty of weaker nations and integrating them into an open trade system. Therefore, the U.S.-China rivalry remains a struggle to promote opposing worldviews and not merely diplomatic disputes between the two powers.


The most challenging aspect of this situation is the inability for either party to make concessions without it being at their expense, without crossing their red lines, and without empowering the rival party to become stronger and exert more pressure. For example, if China were to back down militarily in Taiwan, the island would likely move towards independence. However, if the United States would halt arming Taiwan, the balance of power would significantly shift in China’s favor. According to the author, diplomatic negotiations are unable to overcome these conflicting interests, as they are deeply rooted not only in the political systems of each country, but also in their historical memories and geographies. Based on this, Beckley suggests that the United States should adopt a containment policy against China in the near future, before its strength grows to the point where it can dominate its neighbors and beyond. This is a lesson learned from the two world wars and the Cold War, which showed that powerful authoritarian regimes can be contained, and indeed, should be. It would be better to do so early on by forming strong alliances during peacetime. For these reasons, the author believes that for leaders on both sides making concessions, even on a single issue, is a difficult task.


In addition to the aforementioned points, the author believes that mutual vulnerabilities between the two powers (resulting from their economic interdependence or possession of nuclear arsenals) can exacerbate competition, contrary to what re-engagement advocates claim. For example, both countries engage in traditional military provocations, perhaps assuming that the other side would never risk engaging in a nuclear exchange. Researchers refer to this situation as the stability-instability paradox,” where an exaggerated belief in nuclear deterrence makes conventional war more likely. The same applies to mutual economic interdependence. When trading partners become geostrategic competitors, they begin to fear being subjected to economic sanctions (boycotts) on critical goods, markets, and trade routes. To mitigate their vulnerabilities, they seek self-reliance, using various tools of state power to secure their economic lifelines. The result is a “trade-security spiral” that has contributed to many major wars in history. 


The “policy of more American engagement with China” has repeatedly proven its failure in recent decades, and should not be reconsidered today. Chinese leaders have consistently interpreted American engagement initiatives as insincere or even threatening, seeing them as part of a containment policy. They view these initiatives as a hidden attempts “to change our country’s socialist system” as stated by former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who emphasized that “some in the United States and other Western countries will not give up their political plot to westernize and divide our country” and would “put pressure on us in an attempt to overwhelm us and put us down.” Therefore, “from now on and for a relatively long period of time, the United States will be our main diplomatic adversary.”

The final part calls on Washington and its allies to prepare for challenging circumstances. The most likely scenario in the coming years is the onset of a cold war where the United States and China continue to decouple their strategic economic sectors, maintain military confrontation in East Asia, promote their competitive visions of the world order, and vie to produce solutions for transitional problems. Therefore, a cold war necessitates American containment of China, which is a strategic approach distinct from re-engagement in three foundational ways. First, containment prioritizes deterrence and denial over reassurance. The United States should seek to calm China when possible, but not at the expense of weakening American capabilities or sending mixed signals regarding American resolve on critical issues. For example, the U.S. can continue to deny support for Taiwan’s independence, while simultaneously expediting arms sales to Taipei and diversifying and strengthening the U.S. military posture in East Asia. This sends a message to China that any Chinese aggression against Taiwan will be met with a robust American response. Second, containment reverses the carrot-and-stick dynamic in diplomatic negotiations. While engagement focuses on enticing the adversary to come to the negotiating table, containment begins by building capabilities and then engaging in diplomacy from a position of strength. Third, the success of containment is measured by whether the United States effectively defends its interests and values, not by the friendliness of U.S.-China relations.


The containment policy against China will likely require making concessions to its revisionist goals and accepting that the international system will not center around a close U.S.-Chinese partnership anytime soon. Such a policy, which may seem more confrontational in the short term, has the potential to offer a better chance for lasting peace. On the other hand, a policy that appears more conciliatory and secure in the immediate moment may prove disastrous in the long term. Re-engagement, which may appear as a middle ground between appeasement and containment, could be the riskiest option of all because it is both unlikely to satisfy Chinese demands and unable to effectively deter Beijing or prevent it from getting what it wants through force. Therefore, the author argues that the United States should adopt a clear and decisive path of containment, which at least holds some hope for deterring Chinese aggression.


There is another option, which is capitulation (i.e., acquiescing to the demands and conditions imposed by the other party, often under specific circumstances). Advocates of this option believe that the United States can avoid conflict with China, at least in the short term, by recognizing China’s regional demands and withdrawing American forces from East Asia. The author responds to this by stating that the problem with capitulation lies in the fact that Chinese demands cannot be satisfied and appeased by the United States alone. To appease the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan must accept being swallowed up by a brutal dictatorship, and neighboring countries must beg Beijing for approval to invest beyond their shores. It is unlikely that any of this will happen. Therefore, the most probable outcome of American retrenchment will not be a smooth transition towards peaceful Chinese hegemony, but rather towards violent chaos. This may manifest in a fully armed Japan, nuclear penetration by Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo, daring moves from North Korea, and even the possibility of indirect harmful effects, such as disruptions in Asian supply chains and repercussions for U.S. alliances in Europe. Thus, the author urges the United States at the very least to arm itself well to hedge against the possibility of such chaos, and to hedge against the potential of the Chinese giant setting its sights on American territory in the Western Pacific after sweeping through East Asia.


The author also believes that there are reasons to be hopeful that American containment of China may be a temporary stage on a path towards a brighter future. During the original Cold War, containment was designed to halt the Soviet advance until the weaknesses of the communist regime led to the draining of Moscow’s power and forced the Soviets to drastically lower their aspirations. The same goal should be adopted towards China today. However, this time it may not necessarily take four decades to achieve, as it did with the Soviets. There are several reasons that prompt the author to adopt this argument, including the fact that China’s rise is already experiencing stagnation. Slow growth, high debt, authoritarian inefficiency, capital flight, youth unemployment, and a shrinking population are all factors that are negatively impacting China’s overall national strength. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party has created both nearby and distant enemies. All of this makes the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s dream of Chinese dominance appear increasingly unattainable. His successors may feel compelled to address economic stagnation and the geopolitical siege facing the country through a more moderate diplomatic approach and internal reforms. Therefore, American containment of China should not be seen as a permanent state.


At the same time, containment should not lead to violent conflict. The competition between the United States and China could drive them to engage in a technological race that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge towards new, elevated horizons, creating innovative solutions to transitional problems. This type of competition may not be ideal for the world, but it would certainly be preferable to the great power wars that have characterized much of modern history.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow



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