To treat great-power competition as an afterthought is irresponsible, even dangerous. In 2015, Graham Allison, a longtime student of American foreign policy, wrote, “War between the United States and China in the decades ahead is … much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not.” His analysis emerged from a historical study of interactions between established and rising powers, two-thirds of which have ended in military conflict. In 2016, Steve Bannon put it more unequivocally: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in the next five to 10 years … There’s no doubt about that.”
Since Donald Trump took office, he has made Bannon’s prediction more likely. The United States has officially designated China a “strategic competitor.” American warships are sailing more frequently through the Taiwan Strait even as Beijing warns more forcefully that it is willing to use force to reintegrate the island into China. Dialogue between the American and Chinese militaries has largely collapsed. Beijing is increasingly harassing and detaining American citizens. And the U.S.-China economic relationship, which once kept hostility between the two superpowers in check, is now contributing to the animosity. Last month, some of America’s leading China scholars published an open letter to the president and Congress warning of a dangerous “downward spiral in relations” between the two most powerful nations on Earth.
It’s easy to see why Democrats don’t talk much about America’s political and military relationship with Beijing. Trade with China directly affects ordinary Americans. East Asian geopolitics, by contrast, sounds remote and obscure. But the two issues are deeply intertwined, as the Obama administration recognized when it negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership to deepen America’s Asian alliances and prevent China from creating regional blocs that exiled the United States.