If you read a lot of history, you know at least one thing is abundantly clear: there are always unexpected twists and turns in the timeline.
We like to say after the fact that some things were inevitable. But it’s rare that we see the inevitabilities in the moment. After all, we’re just 20 years into this new century and millennium, and hardly anything we’ve experienced so far was foreseen.
The increasingly sour relationship between the United States and China is part of that.
American’s newfound hawkishness on China was unexpected. In 2007, historian Niall Ferguson coined the term “Chimerica.” Ferguson saw a future where the U.S. and China, ever closer due to their strong economies, would combine into a powerful partnership that powered the globe.
His article came out in December of 2007 — the year before the world plunged into financial crisis and the Great Recession. In the midst of that, Vladimir Putin tried to get China to sink the U.S. economy even further. China backed away from that idea, and people moved on to arguing over the “Chimerica” moment.
Ferguson wasn’t alone in viewing the future this way, however; in fact, he was slow in noticing it.
In 2002–2003, Joss Whedon created his cult-classic sci-fi show Firefly. The futuristic show explored a universe where American and Chinese cultures had merged over 500 years after humanity had to flee Earth for a new solar system. The U.S. and China had combined economic power to forge a trail to this new universe where you hear everyone communicate using both English and Mandarin phrases.
The inevitability of a shared, fusionist future has now been replaced by the new inevitability of a cold war between the two countries.
The way both sides of the coin have described U.S.–China relations over the last 20 years, it seemed like we were bound together by historical forces beyond our control. On the one hand, capitalism and economic relations force us together, and on the other, adverse events repel us apart.
At the end of the day, whether something is inevitable will forever be the providence of historians to debate — but for us, in this moment, remains the task of planning, reacting, and plodding through to the future. For the United States, this is only the second time in our history that we’ve encountered a “Great Power” competition with another country with both nuclear and economic powers rivaling our own.
The proliferation of nuclear power, economic riches, and technological advances since the fall of the Soviet Union shifts the “battlefield” of a new cold war. We engage in cyber warfare, proxy battles, and competition in international organizations. China’s access to the global economy gives it an edge the Soviet Union could only dream of having against the United States.
But even given all these differences, it’s still not inevitable that a cold war with China would be long and protracted, or even cold. The Defense Department has funded efforts for years by futurists and novelists to try and sketch out the wars of the future. One such example, Ghost Fleet, imagines World War III as being between the United States and a union of China and Russia. Some of the passages in that book are near prophetic, talking about how the U.S. and China sparred over technological advances in areas like semiconductors.
The point here is that nothing can be seen as inevitable. We cannot predict the future with any degree of accuracy — and that includes the experts. Richard Nixon’s secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, told an audience in the 1970s that the Cold War with the Soviets “will not go away” and explained “the stark reality that the challenge is unending, that there is no easy and surely no final answer, that there are no automatic solutions.”
So what are we to do in front of an unknown future with a looming adversary in China? Follow Winston Churchill’s advice. He was fond of quoting a line from the Romans: “If you wish peace, then prepare for war.”
We have little choice at the moment but for preparing for war with China on multiple fronts. That does not mean we desire war with China; in fact, we should work toward avoiding it.
China has nuclear missiles, and any direct conflict with another nuclear power would cause everyone to lose. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower told a newly formed United Nations, “no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation.”
But prepare we must, because the alternative is unpreparedness, which leads the way to defeat. The Chinese Communist Party’s model of governance is not compatible with American notions of liberty and self-governance.
Preserving our way of life means confronting this challenge and being prepared for it, across all fronts. It’s not about rattling a saber or presenting some form of false-machismo to the world. It simply means keeping preparedness levels high and having multiple contingency plans.
History can rule on the inevitability of events. We have no such luxury. We have to plan on the unexpected twists and turns of history to send us to unexplained destinations with unforeseen choices. That takes preparedness.