International rules make US-Chinese conflict more likely


Ben Scott is Director of Australian Security and Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute.

Unlike previous great power contests, the competition between the United States and China takes place through and on the content of international rules.

The victors of World War I sought to reorganize the world in the form of the League of Nations. They did it again after World War II, albeit in a more inclusive way, by creating the United Nations. Something similar happened after the Cold War, as the “Washington Consensus” spread across the world.

Neither China nor the United States seeks to reorganize the world by winning a decisive war. Because both recognize that such a conflict could be catastrophic, they try to win without a fight and use international rules and rule writing as tools to coerce their opponents and shape the world in their favor.

Long before the United States was willing to recognize its strategic competition with China, then US President Barack Obama called for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to be passed because it would allow “America – and no to countries like China – to write the rules of the road in the 21st century. President Joe Biden’s interim national security guidelines released in March ended with a similar statement that the United States, not China, would shape “new global standards and agreements.”

Under Xi Jinping, China has become more open about its intention to establish, rather than just make, rules. Contrary to some foreign policy realists, the Chinese Communist Party understands that military or even economic power is not the only source of international influence.

Competition on new technologies is at the heart of this new field of competition rule writing. The battle to set global standards and dominate the 5G broadband cellular network market is played out over other emerging technologies such as the rules regarding the development of facial recognition technology which involve fundamental questions of value.

But competition on the rules could, paradoxically, make a military conflict more likely. The fundamental rules of international relations – many of which are enshrined in international law – exist to manage competition and enable cooperation. These rules only exist to the extent that they are accepted by States. Trying to determine them competitively is pointless. The great powers can simply decide to withdraw.

Washington now more clearly recognizes the need for rules that will prevent conflict, with President Biden recently stressing the need for “responsible competition” delimited by “guardrails” to “ensure that competition does not degenerate into conflict”.

The recent increase in the number of Chinese planes entering the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone has underscored the need for a functioning hotline. When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, recently revealed that during Donald Trump’s final months, he found it necessary to reassure his Chinese counterpart that they were not about to be attacked, he added that such phone calls could take days or weeks to install.

Under Xi Jinping, China has become more open about its intention to establish, rather than just make, international rules. © Reuters

Washington’s need to cooperate more with Beijing goes beyond crisis management. More generally, there is a need to tackle climate change – still at the top of Biden’s agenda – and to start arms control talks, a need expressed by China’s successful test of a fractional orbital bombardment.

China seems much less enthusiastic about “safeguards”, with Beijing probably suspecting that such a concept is, in fact, another form of competitive rule-making and a thinly veiled attempt to lock in the status quo. China itself is no stranger to using conflict management for geopolitical purposes. He is proposing a seemingly neutral “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, which would consolidate its dominance over this body of water.

Competition without a guardrail is a pool game that Beijing seems more ready to play. He may view Washington’s recent pivot to “responsible competition” as a sign of weakness. Experience has shown that, aside from Trump, most US presidents come into office arguing harshly with China but, over time, come to realize the importance of engaging and accommodating them.

The stake for Washington is to sell the concept of responsible competition as mutually beneficial without nourishing the perception that this offer is a sign of weakness to be exploited. The chain of recent exchanges suggests that this is a delicate balance.

During Biden’s September 9 call with Xi, he presumably sealed the conciliatory “hostage exchange” deal involving the release from house arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in exchange for the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. It is also likely that Biden provided a general warning of the trilateral security partnership involving the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

AUKUS was announced on September 15 while the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was announced on September 24. The latter touched on one of the items on China’s “List of US Wrongdoing that Must Cease” and thus enabled the Xi-Biden virtual meeting to take place by the end of the year. But Beijing has since shown that it remains willing to risk conflict over Taiwan in order to change the status quo.

All is not lost if guardrails cannot be put in place. Public outreach from Washington to Beijing supports the message it sends to the rest of the world. It is, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris have pointed out, that the United States is determined to compete with China but that it is not “seeking conflict.”


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