The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Washington and Beijing won’t admit it but they need each other. It’s a dysfunctional relationship but the breakup would be too messy.

On both sides of the uneasy U.S.-China relationship, the economic incentives for not having a war far outweigh the minor disputes that tend to make headlines. In the recent events with Chinese spy balloons, and the ever-increasing interdependence between the two countries, the talk of a possible war is simply a distraction manufactured by some in power, or those hoping to be in power.

‘99 Luftballons’

While China has sent ‘weather balloons’ into U.S. airspace, these actions serve as a way to reassure the stability of their relationship. The U.S. military deployed its F-22, in combination with F-15 fighter jets, to shoot down one such spy balloon. The U.S. knows that the balloons are equipped with some of the world’s best intelligence-gathering technology, and yet it still wants to expose the operations and combat parameters of the F-22. From China’s perspective, the data it receives from these balloons are worth the risks.

Some may interpret this as Chinese President Xi Jinping taking steps to be more assertive towards the United States, but this may not be the only reason for Xi’s actions. China knows that any acts of aggression towards the United States involve enormous risks, as even the slightest shift in trade could lead to huge economic losses for China, thus affecting Xi’s job security, which he is determined to maintain at all costs.

How the world approaches equilibrium

Throughout much of modern history, there has always been a sort of G2 situation, where two nations were the most powerful and influential in the world. Taking a look back at the Cold War, it is clear that the United States and the Soviet Union were the two most powerful nations in the world, while everyone else aligned themselves (or were forcefully aligned) with either one. While countless people died during the Cold War under oppressive regimes and proxy wars, both the United States and the Soviet Union saw significant developments in science, technology, and economic growth.

When only one nation is the sole superpower, there is no strong incentive to grow and expand. For example, China during the Ming Dynasty was both technologically and economically superior in several respects. China’s non-expansionist policy made it fall from being the economic powerhouse of the world for centuries to being beaten by the British in the 19th century. From then on, the duopoly was composed of the United Kingdom and the United States until the 1920s. The stability of the G2 system has proven its validity for centuries.

The interdependence of the U.S. and China prevents the possibility of a direct military confrontation. China imports energy, food, and tech hardware needed for manufacturing from the United States and its allies. America imports almost all of its finished products and rare-earth metals from China (as does most of the rest of the world). The relationship between American and Chinese businesses is symbiotic. Any sort of embargo placed on China by Washington would be devastating to American businesses. While China is America’s number one external target for politicians, the decline of both American and Chinese businesses would be catastrophic if sanctions similar to those on Russia were placed on China. It would be mutually assured destruction of both economies.

Before 2018, most Americans did not think negatively of China, but since then, that view has changed significantly. During both the Trump and Biden administrations, there has been a huge increase in the public’s hostility toward China, which parallels U.S. foreign policy towards China. While the criticisms made against China are largely reasonable, the complaints about China’s domestic issues have rarely led to anything substantial. In the last 7 years, many politicians have used China as a means to achieve their goals through the old strategy of riling up their political bases. Politicians are only willing to go so far until the general opinion of the voters turns against them and not China. By starting an actual war with China and having Americans die in combat, politicians would begin to lose power.

Since the 1940s, China and the United States have fought against one another during several wars. During the Chinese Civil War, the United States supported the nationalist government, which was defeated in 1949, and subsequently fled to Taiwan. In the early 1950s, in Korea, American and Chinese soldiers fought directly against one another with hundreds of thousands killed. Then, during the Vietnam War, the United States fought the North Vietnamese who were supported by China. All these wars have produced a great loss in life and wealth for both the United States and China. It has been 50 years since the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. War planners in Beijing and Washington have a firm grasp of history to know better than to start another unwinnable war.

Xi is not Putin

The war in Ukraine has exposed the dark side of Vladimir Putin to the world. Since both China and Russia are authoritarian, many people in the West may think these two leaders are quite similar. But, the truth is that Xi is extremely cautious in his methods of dealing with internal and external problems. Putin’s policy of full aggression towards Ukraine over the past year and his setbacks show that he can stretch Russia to a much greater extent than many had realized. But, for Xi, the reason for his dominance in China are the policies he enacted that brought him and his country great wealth and relative stability.

Compared to Russia, China’s dependence on trade and the rest of the world is enormous, as it would not be able to get all the resources and products it needs on its own. Russia’s stagnant GDP compared to China’s rapidly growing GDP is the main reason for their very different international policies. Compared to Putin, who leads Russia by inspiring strong indignation against the West using whatever means necessary, Xi plays on a much longer time horizon based on peace and trade.

By taking a closer look into the perspectives of the U.S. and China, one can realize some of the motives of their leaders. Through a historical analysis, one can understand the patterns that have repeated themselves throughout history. The minor conflicts between the United States and China, including the spy balloons, reveal the facade that the two leaders are putting up to get what they want. The relationship between the United States and China needs to be constantly recalibrated to prevent irreversible escalation. Both countries know exactly what they are doing.

Kevin Feng is student at Williamsville North High School. He is keenly interested in political science and history.