27 October 2011

Crisis Instability and US-China Relations: The Present (If Not Clear) Danger

Avery Goldstein, Crisis Instability and US-China Relations: The Present (If Not Clear) Danger,” paper presented at American Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting.

Two concerns have driven much of the debate about international security in the post Cold War era. The principal concern has been the potentially deadly mix of nuclear proliferation, rogue states, and international terrorists, a concern that became clearly dominant after the 9/11 attacks. The second concern, one whose prominence has waxed and waned since the mid-1990s, is the potentially disruptive impact of China if it emerges as a peer competitor of the United States, challenging an international order established during the era of American preponderance. Reflecting this second concern, some have expressed reservations about the dominant post 9/11 security agenda, arguing that China could challenge American global interests in ways that terrorists and rogue states cannot. In this essay, I raise a different concern prompted by China’s changing role in the early 21st century. I suggest that a more pressing issue, one to which not enough attention has been paid, is the danger of instability during a Sino-American crisis. For at least the next decade, while China remains relatively weak, the gravest danger in Sino-American relations is the possibility they will find themselves in a crisis that could escalate to open military conflict. In contrast to the long term prospect for a new great power rivalry between the US and China that ultimately rests on uncertain forecasts about big shifts in national capabilities and debatable claims about the motivations of the two countries, the danger of instability in a crisis involving these two nuclear-armed states is clear and present. It is a danger that rests neither on hypothetical future capabilities nor questionable assumptions about each side’s intentions. In what follows, I identify not just preemptive pressures that could pose the most serious risk during such a crisis, but also related, if slightly less dramatic, incentives to use force that could produce instability. …