The Financial Times ran an article yesterday called “US seeks to calm Beijing containment fears“. You may not have noticed but military tension has been rising between the US and China for some time. The word containment is a reference to the stated strategy of the US during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Avoiding outright confrontation if possible (because of the risk of mutual nuclear destruction), the US aimed for a long term policy of restricting the growth of the USSR and its ideology until the regime collapsed owing to its own internal contradictions (a phrase beloved by Marxists but it turned out to be apt for the bankrupt Communist Party in Moscow). Containment worked in the end, though there were some serious problems in the implementation, not least the war in Vietnam.
China and the US are not exactly in a cold war but the rise of China economically is now being followed by a rise in military spending and sophistication. If you want some sense of the concern this is generating in the US, look at some recent articles from the journal Foreign Policy: Red Dawn; China’s American Obsession; The Brinkmanship in the South China Sea; This Week at War: Let’s Talk About China; This Week at War: The New Pacific Theatre; Should We Be Afraid of China’s New Aircraft Carrier. Much of the emphasis is on the South China Sea, where China has been throwing its weight around recently in dispute with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. These incidents have involved Chinese agencies other than the Chinese navy and so it may reflect internal divisions in the Chinese government rather than an aggressive military. But fearing the rise of a regional bully, these countries have welcomed recent US restatement of its commitment to be a global policeman in that area. China then says this is interference in its back yard.
The most likely trigger for any actual conflict between the current and rising powers is contained in Decline Watch: Can we save America by ditching Taiwan?. Taiwan is an historic curiosity. The original republican Chinese regime fled there in 1949 after losing the civil war with the Communists under Mao. Communist China regards Taiwan as an indivisible part of the nation and wants it to be reunited. Taiwan is recognised by most countries de facto but not de jure as an independent nation state, though some deny them any recognition to avoid annoying Beijing. Taiwanese periodically elect prime ministers who are hostile to Beijing though at present relations are cordial and you can fly direct between Taipai and China (until recently you had to go via Hong Kong).
The US officially recognises the People’s Republic of China, but unofficially also has diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), to which it regularly sells arms, though usually not the most advanced versions of its kit. A recent arms sale provoked predictable anger from Beijing. The US has an official policy of friendship with Taiwan under an act passed in 1979 though it does not support Taiwan independence. It opposes any attempt to re-integrate Taiwan by force and there is a strong lobby in Congress that would urge military support for Taiwan if the PRC tried to invade or attack it, partly to reassure other allies of the US round the world. This would be seen in Beijing as interference in its own sovereign business, about the most serious crime they can think of, reflecting the strong sense of victimhood over foreign interference in China over the last century (UK, Russia, Japan – the Chinese have a point).
But it would be hard to explain to the American people, many of whom have difficulty finding their own country on a map, let alone Taiwan, why the US should put its forces at risk for the defense of a distant foreign island. Nobody wants war (except possibly some warmongering generals on both sides) and China hopes that Taiwan will voluntarily re-join the mainland or at least grow closer to it. But the acquisition by China of a new aircraft carrier and development of long range anti-ship missiles that would threaten the US domination of the western Pacific are worrying to some US foreign policy analysts. The more gung-ho adopt the same attitude that their predecessors took in the 1950s with the USSR: since war is inevitable, better to get it out of the way now while we have the advantage. Luckily that thinking didn’t prevail in the 1950s. Hopefully it won’t now either.
If China wanted to hurt the US at a time of conflict over Taiwan, it could just start selling its foreign exchange reserves. It would hurt China’s pocket but it would do enormous damage to the US economy. I don’t think the reserves were built up for this reason but they do offer a new form of “soft” power for Beijing.