The Ethics of Avoiding Conflict with China

| March 2014
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Photo credit: Flickr / Paul Sedra

Photo credit: Flickr / Paul Sedra

Whenever possible, the ethical statesman operating within the parameters of the current international order should “seek a way out of conflict within the constraints of the Westphalian system,” noted Stanley Hoffmann in his 1987 Morgenthau Memorial Lecture at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.1 Correspondingly, one can argue that policymakers should act from a related ethical obligation not simply to seek a way out from conflict but, whenever possible, take the steps that might avoid precipitating a conflict in the first place, creating the conditions for diplomacy which, as Hans Morgenthau observed, is the only “way to moderate power and pursue peace.”2

This question becomes much more salient when considering the rise of China, its desire to revise both the regional as well as global order (largely created and sustained by the United States over the last sixty years) to accommodate its interests and its new status, and the countervailing desire of the United States to preserve the status quo. Three years ago Aaron Friedberg noted “that the differences between China and the United States spring from deeply rooted sources and aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon,” and he expressed concern that “it appears that the two nations are in for a long, tense and perhaps even dangerous struggle.”3 Similarly, the Australian Defence Force’s 2009 White Paper on security in the Asia-Pacific region concludes: “As other powers rise, and the primacy of the United States is increasingly tested, power relations will inevitably change. When this happens there will be the possibility of miscalculation. There is a small but still concerning possibility of growing confrontation between some of these powers.”4 Today, there is an entire cottage industry in both the United States and China that takes as an article of faith the coming clash between Washington and Beijing,5 and believes that it can only be averted if China undergoes some sort of collapse that will put an end to its meteoric rise or if the United States is no longer willing to expend the resources needed to maintain the status quo in the region.

Ranged against these pessimists, such as John Mearsheimer, who see conflict (and with it a heightened risk of an armed clash) as inevitable, are the optimists (such as Aaron Friedberg), who maintain that a clash is indeed avoidable, and who argue for a robust U.S. “forward presence” and deep engagement in the area that will convince China of the futility of competing with the United States militarily and instead encourage accommodation. Some, such as Joseph Bosco, even argue for the United States to end its policy of “strategic ambiguity” and define clear red lines in the region so that China will not make any miscalculations that might lead to conflict.6 However, as former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley noted in a speech in Beijing in 2013, this approach still carries the risk of a “potential confrontation between the militaries of the two countries—particularly their naval forces.”7 Indeed, just weeks after Hadley’s remarks a near-collision between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea (which occurred in international waters as an American vessel shadowed the deployment of China’s new aircraft carrier) highlighted the very dangers he was warning about. So a strategy that ostensibly seeks to prevent hostilities between China and the United States might end up inadvertently provoking them—either setting up conditions for a new cold war or, even worse, for events to spiral out of control, as they did a century ago in the run-up to World War I, a concern voiced both by academics such as Margaret Macmillan and political leaders such as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.8

Given that the United States is not prepared to depart the Asia-Pacific region and that China is not going to voluntarily halt its rise as a great power, is there a policy prescription that can avoid turning predictions of a Sino-American clash into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Amitai Etzioni believes so. Drawing upon his earlier body of work developed at the height of the cold war—most notably The Hard Way to Peace (1962) and Winning Without War (1964)—Etzioni proposes what he terms a strategy of “mutually-assured restraint” (MAR) wherein “both sides limit their military build-up and coercive diplomacy as long as the other side limits itself in the same way—and the self-restraints are mutually vetted.”9

MAR is based on Etzioni’s longstanding contention that “psychological gestures initiated by one nation will be reciprocated by others with the effect of reducing international tensions” and that “this tension reduction, in turn, will lessen the probability of international conflicts and wars.”10 It seeks to build on what has been described as the “Kennedy experiment”—a period of time between June and November 1963 when unilateral measures were taken, first by the United States, then by the Soviet Union, to step back from their confrontational posture, which had nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war the previous year. These actions validated the assertion that creating the psychological space for the relaxation of tensions could lead to more substantive agreements designed to channel the U.S.-Soviet rivalry into more peaceful directions. While this fragile détente did not survive the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the overthrow of Nikita S. Khrushchev, elements of this approach resurfaced in the early 1970s and characterized the successful winding down of the cold war by the late 1980s.

Skeptics of the mutually-assured restraint approach fear that it calls for a U.S. withdrawal from East Asia, leaving a vacuum that many believe a rising China would be only too happy to fill. Etzioni has always believed, however, that the modern-day revolution in military affairs—including recent developments in transport, logistics, and targeting—has given the United States a unique luxury: the ability to engage in what he termed sixty years ago as “remote deterrence.” In contrast to any other great power, only the United States is able to place over 100,000 troops 8,000 miles from home and sustain them indefinitely under combat conditions; only the United States can launch aircraft from its own territory to strike targets anywhere on the globe; only the United States can surge massive naval task forces into any maritime domain in any part of the world. As a result, Etzioni has maintained, the United States can afford to withdraw forces that are currently forward deployed in the Western Pacific in order to give Beijing the psychological space to, in turn, make diplomatic concessions—without significantly jeopardizing America’s overall strategic position should China fail to respond to such overtures.

Etzioni maintains that a redeployment would not expose the American strategic position in the Western Pacific to unnecessary risk—even though it could complicate matters for U.S. strategic planners—while other means of technical collection would make up any of the gaps in intelligence that termination of the existing ship and air patrols would entail. Etzioni hopes that MAR might also make Beijing more willing to negotiate verifiable limits on the number of anti-ship missiles and other pieces of military equipment that it currently deploys in an offensive capacity against Taiwan and other neighbors. This, in turn, could be followed by a U.S. commitment to keep its most advanced weapons systems out of the region. Over time, it could lead both countries to agree to significant limitations on various types of arms produced or deployed by either country, which in turn could help promote strategic stability.

This approach is an outgrowth of Etzioni’s 1964 recommendations for moving the cold war away from its reliance on the balance of nuclear terror as the basis for avoiding conflict. This approach does not, however, ask either side to take any step based on faith alone. Indeed, as Etzioni argued

The West does not have to “trust” the East or vice versa to lay down arms. The strategy . . . combines remote deterrence in third countries and a pure retaliatory posture . . . with inspection and observer forces. Its limitation to peaceful means is not based on trust, but on interest; it is not a question of giving or breaking one’s word, but of setting up the necessary machinery to verify and enforce commitments.11

With both sides pulling back their militaries, and thus reducing the prospects of an incident or accident that could spark confrontation, Etzioni is hopeful that MAR could lay the basis for a diplomatic settlement of the outstanding maritime territorial claims in the South and East China seas. If restraint prevails over a head-to-head approach—with the assumption being that the United States will back the claims of its allies to the hilt—Etzioni believes compromise solutions (including proposals for joint sovereignty over disputed islands or consortia to allocate resources to all claimants), which have been used to settle disputes over similarly contested territories in Europe and Eurasia, could similarly come to pass in East Asia. If the military postures now present in the area could be relaxed, it might be possible to discuss compromises, swaps, and collaborative regimes to share resources. Indeed, there is an important precedent: the seemingly-intractable border disputes between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, which flared up into open conflict in 1969 and which were similarly judged to be insolvable, began to be seriously addressed after Mikhail Gorbachev took deliberate steps to reduce the Soviet military posture in the Far East. All outstanding territorial claims between Beijing and the successor states of the Soviet Union were settled during the 1990s—in part because the collapse of the USSR removed what was seen as an existential threat to the People’s Republic and created the psychological space needed to conduct meaningful negotiations and to reach compromise settlements.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the MAR proposal, however, is Etzioni’s call for the creation of “buffer zones” surrounding China, “similar to Austria during the Cold War”12—composed of countries that are formally recognized by mutual agreement as neutral, belong to no military alliances, and have no U.S. (or Chinese) forces stationed on their territories. (He has, in the past, envisioned a post-Kim North Korea and Vietnam as two examples of states that could serve as buffers.13) However, the term (and the Austria analogy) conjures up the image of a belt of surrounding states that are at worst forced to become satellites of their powerful geographic neighbor—with significant interference in both their foreign and domestic affairs; and that are at best “Finlandized,” that is, expected to undertake a precarious balancing act to accommodate the wishes of the great power next door while preserving as much of its sovereignty as possible. Neither prospect fits in well with declared U.S. policy that every state should have the full right to freely choose its policies, alliances, and commitments—particularly when those commitments reflect the will of that country’s majority—without fear of coercion from any of the major powers. In 2013 Vice President Joe Biden reiterated the U.S. position: “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain America’s view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances. All that remains the U.S. position; it will not change.”14

Could Etzioni’s strategy of mutual restraint violate other ethical guidelines for foreign policy? Just as statesmen are expected to avoid conflict whenever possible, a competing (and sometimes contradictory) imperative is to fulfill one’s international obligations and commitments.15 The United States has a number of defensive alliances with states in the region that have territorial disputes with China (such as Japan) and has guaranteed, explicitly in some cases, implicitly in others, that it will take measures to prevent any country, including China, from changing the current status quo by force. A principal objection to MAR, therefore, is that it would effectively remove the United States as a necessary counterbalance to growing Chinese military power, abandoning U.S. allies and forcing neighboring countries to acquiesce to a Chinese sphere of influence.

Critics argue that such a policy would be doubly ethically unsound, as it would entail the United States breaching its covenants with other states while providing no guarantee that conflict would, in fact, be avoided. Indeed, the argument over Etzioni’s strategy fits into the much larger debate over whether a state ought to prioritize defense of “the right” (say, its claim to particular territories or the right to enter into binding alliances with other states) or peace (defined as the absence of open conflict). Nonetheless, one can respond to the criticism by noting that it is possible to reconcile Etzioni’s concept of buffer zones with maintaining U.S. promises to defend states in South and East Asia against aggression or assault. This has to do with the stationing of equipment and forces; the United States would not need to abrogate any of its alliance commitments, but would restrict where it might position its military assets in the region.

The 1990 negotiations over the reunification of Germany can provide a useful template. Under the agreements reached, a united Germany would remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) rather than having to leave the alliance altogether and would adopt a “neutral” position (in essence, becoming a large version of Austria); however, no foreign NATO troops or nuclear weapons were to be permitted in the territories of the former east Germany. At the time there was still an expectation that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would remain in existence; had the USSR not collapsed the following year, this arrangement would have created a guaranteed buffer between Soviet forward deployments in Poland and U.S. and other allied positions in western Germany.16

Similarly, the United States could maintain its commitments to defend allies in Asia, but acknowledge the existence of forward zones (both at sea and on land) where U.S. forces would not be stationed, thereby providing a degree of breathing room. The German precedent may also prove to be quite useful if and when the question of reunification on the Korean peninsula becomes a realistic prospect, since Beijing would look askance at any settlement that opened the possibility of U.S. forces being able to move directly to the Sino-Korean border. Indeed, China intervened in the Korean War not after the south had been liberated but once U.S. forces reached the Yalu River. MAR, in the end, is not a sure thing but a calculated risk—but one which, in Etzioni’s opinion, has a good chance to de-escalate a possible clash.

Robert Merry has argued that, in order to prevent conflict from erupting between the United States and China, the Obama administration (and subsequent U.S. presidential teams) ought to “follow a carefully-calibrated policy in which America shows some empathy to legitimate Chinese security concerns while also demonstrating that it will not simply wink at bellicose actions. . . . Areas of cooperation should include proposing clearer rules of the game. A détente also needs to be encouraged between China and its neighbors.”17 The ethical tightrope that U.S. policymakers must walk is how to steer away from the apparent inevitability of conflict with a rising China without sacrificing U.S. interests or the interests of allies. The mutually-assured restraint approach may offer such a way forward.

  1. Stanley Hoffmann, The Political Ethics of International Relations, Seventh Annual Morgenthau Lecture on Ethics and Foreign Policy, delivered May 22, 1987 (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, 1988), p. 11.
  2. Anthony F. Lang, Jr., “Phronesis, Morgenthau and Diplomacy,” E-International Relations, November 7, 2013, at
  3. Aaron L. Friedberg, “Future Tense,” New Republic, May 5, 2011, at
  4. Department of Defence, Australian Government, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 (2009), 33, at
  5. See for instance Amitai Etzioni, “Making a New Enemy,” Huffington Post, March 1, 2013.
  6. Joseph A. Bosco, “Draw a Big Red Line in Asia,” National Interest, February 5, 2014.
  7. Stephen J. Hadley, “US-China: A New Model of Great Power Relations” (speech delivered at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, October 10, 2013), New Atlanticist, October 11, 2013, at
  8. Ian Johnston, “Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian,” The Independent, January 5, 2014, at; Kiyoshi Takenaka, “Abe sees World War One echoes in Japan-China tensions,” Reuters, January 23, 2014, at
  9. Amitai Etzioni, “For a New Sino-American Relationship,” Huffington Post, September 23, 2013, at
  10. Amitai Etzioni, “For a New Sino-American Relationship,” Huffington Post, September 23, 2013, at
  11. Amitai Etzioni, Winning Without War (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co, 1964), p. 219.
  12. Etzioni, “For a New Sino-American,” op. cit.
  13. Etzioni, “For a New Sino-American,” op. cit.
  14. Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to the Munich Security Conference. Hotel Bayerischer Hof Munich, Germany, February 2, 2013, at
  15. See, for instance, Harold Hongju Koh, “Why Do Nations Obey International Law,” Yale Law Journal 106 (1996-97), esp. pp. 2599-2600.
  16. Klaus Wiegrefe, “Germany’s Unlikely Diplomatic Triumph: An Inside Look at the Reunification Negotiations,” Spiegel Online International, September 29, 2010, at
  17. Robert W. Merry, “Asia First,” The National Interest 130 (March/April 2014), p. 8.
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