Although their numbers have dwindled, advocates of engagement remain, and they still think the United States can find common ground with China. As late as July 2019, 100 China watchers signed an open letter to Trump and members of Congress rejecting the idea that Beijing was a threat. “Many Chinese officials and other elites know that a moderate, pragmatic and genuinely cooperative approach with the West serves China’s interests,” they wrote, before calling on Washington to “work with our allies and partners to create a more open and prosperous world in which China is offered the opportunity to participate.”
But great powers are simply unwilling to let other great powers grow stronger at their expense. The driving force behind this great-power rivalry is structural, which means that the problem cannot be eliminated with clever policymaking. The only thing that could change the underlying dynamic would be a major crisis that halted China’s rise—an eventuality that seems unlikely considering the country’s long record of stability, competence, and economic growth. And so a dangerous security competition is all but unavoidable.
At best, this rivalry can be managed in the hope of avoiding a war. That would require Washington to maintain formidable conventional forces in East Asia to persuade Beijing that a clash of arms would at best yield a Pyrrhic victory. Convincing adversaries that they cannot achieve quick and decisive wins deters wars. Furthermore, U.S. policymakers must constantly remind themselves—and Chinese leaders—about the ever-present possibility of nuclear escalation in wartime. Nuclear weapons, after all, are the ultimate deterrent. Washington can also work to establish clear rules of the road for waging this security competition—for example, agreements to avoid incidents at sea or other accidental military clashes. If each side understands what crossing the other side’s redlines would mean, war becomes less likely.
These measures can only do so much to minimize the dangers inherent in the growing U.S.-Chinese rivalry. But that is the price the United States must pay for ignoring realist logic and turning China into a powerful state that is determined to challenge it on every front.
U.S. policymakers failed to contain the rapid rise of China. Now, they confront a competitor that may be even more powerful than the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War, argues John J. Mearsheimer. https://t.co/AXhQNqs7by
— Foreign Affairs (@ForeignAffairs) October 19, 2021