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Avoiding War with China: Two Nations, One World, Amitai Etzioni

Reviewed by James Steinberg


Amitai Etzioni's new book is an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on the future of Sino-U.S. relations. Like many other recent entries in this sweepstakes, Etzioni is concerned by the deteriorating relations between the world's two dominant nations. However, unlike those whom he terms “adversarians,” he contends that the friction is less a consequence of long-term Chinese plans to supplant the United States (Michael Pillsbury, China’ Secret Strategy to Replace the United States), or the structural tensions inherent in the relations with an established a rising power (Graham Allison's Destined for War), and more a result of misguided policy choices that are creating unnecessary friction and a downward spiral to conflict.

Etzioni's diagnosis of the current state of tensions is based on two broad propositions: first, the “adversarian” camp, which he believes dominates U.S. policy thinking, is too quick to label Chinese behavior as aggressive and destabilizing, and second, as a consequence, the United States has adopted a set of policies—what he terms “multifaceted containment”—that unnecessarily stoke a zero-sum competition with China. In support of the first proposition (laid out in Chapter 3, “How Aggressive Is China?”), Etzioni draws a distinction between true aggression—the use of force—which is illegitimate, and other forms of assertive behavior, which are “rather common and usually accepted as a fact of life in international relations” (p. 64). In the case of the latter, Etzioni counsels American policymakers “to understate their interpretations of Chinese actions that are merely assertive and underreact so as to defuse tensions,” while in the case of the former, the United States is justified in “drawing clear red lines” (p. 66). With respect to the second, Etzioni points to a range of U.S. policies—from the U.S. military buildup in East Asia and the commitment to defend Japan in the case of an Chinese attack on the Senkaku Islands, to U.S. opposition to the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and China's exclusion from the now-abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations—and concludes “that the Asia pivot thus appears to be ‘a thinly veiled China containment strategy” (p. 111).

As an alternative, Etzioni offers a two-pronged approach (laid out in Chapter 5, “Accommodating China”): enhance cooperation on shared and complementary interests (such as counterterrorism, nonproliferation, pandemic disease, financial stability, and climate change) while adopting tension reduction measures based on “mutually assured restraint” (such as limits on military exercises with other countries in the region, surveillance, and, perhaps most controversially, limits on U.S. forward-deployed forces and military alliances in the region).

Etzioni's strategy thus focuses on avoiding the danger of unnecessary conflict arising from the “security dilemma”—the risk that each side will view what the other considers actions to protect legitimate national interests (military and economic) as evidence of a malign intent, triggering a spiral of mistrust leading to conflict. Etzioni demonstrates in detail how this danger, well described by Robert Jervis and others (and which is central to the argument that Michael O'Hanlon and I make in Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, which in fairness I should note is favorably referenced in Etzioni's book) is at work in the U.S.-China relationship. At times he weakens his core contention by straining to justify China's actions, suggesting for example, that China's military buildup in the South China Sea is equivalent to Venezuela's unilateral deployment of military forces in connection with its maritime dispute with Guyana, to which the United States had not objected (p. 60), and by demonizing U.S. policy—arguing, for example, that the United States is “inciting India to balance China” (p. 111). But Etzioni's call for a “vigorous, comprehensive public debate about U.S.-China policy” that can avoid “a drift to war without compromising any of the core interests of the United States and its allies” is a valuable counterweight to the structural pessimism that infuses much of academic and public discussions of the future of Sino-U.S. relations today.

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