In the summer of 1914, few wanted war or thought a major war was possible. My grandparents were married that spring in Lviv, Austria-Hungary, and I look at their giddy wedding photos and realise they had no clue that a cataclysm would soon erase their country, shatter their lives and eventually send a branch of the family fleeing to the New World.
This year I sometimes worry that we’re again too complacent about the risks of conflict ahead. And perhaps the worst geopolitical risk over the next decade or two is a war with China. While neither side wants war, each now accepts that conflict may be looming and is preparing accordingly — driving suspicions on the other side and fueling an arms race.
It’s time for both sides to take a deep breath and step back from rhetoric and symbolic jabs that rally nationalists at home but that also increase the risks of a global catastrophe. A reminder of the risks came on Monday when China responded to the warm welcome given in the United States to Taiwan’s president by sending a record number of military aircraft near Taiwan.
“Things done publicly, symbolically, to stand up to Beijing don’t necessarily lead Taiwan to be any more secure,” noted Jessica Chen Weiss of Cornell University. For example, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan last year in what was meant to be a symbolic show of support. Polling found that Taiwan’s residents concluded by a 2-to-1 majority that the Pelosi visit made them less secure.
If we want to help Taiwan, Weiss said, we need more deterrence and less provocation.
In my view, the risks of conflict are primarily driven by Xi Jinping, from his brutal repression in Xinjiang to the enormous expansion of his nuclear arsenal that is now underway, and tensions will become far worse if he supplies Russia with artillery shells. But American domestic politics are also steering a collision course, and that may get worse as Democrats and Republicans compete to denounce China.
From an American vantage point, another cold war may not seem so terrible, since we and the Russians managed to avoid incinerating each other in the last one. But millions died in the last cold war in proxy war zones from Vietnam to Angola. And Russia and the United States avoided nuclear war in part because leaders on each side had memories of World War II that made them cautious. I worry that today, as in 1914, overconfidence and myopic political pressures on each side might drive continuing escalation.
I need no reminder of how oppressive China can be. I was on Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and witnessed as the People’s Liberation Army fired on the crowd that I was in. But I also saw China lifting more people out of poverty than any other country in history and vastly improving education and health outcomes. We in the United States have to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that a newborn in Beijing may not be able to look forward to a meaningful vote or to free speech but has a life expectancy seven years longer than that of a newborn in Washington, D.C.
When I say we must talk to each other, I am not downplaying American concerns. I’m among those wary of TikTok because of the risk that it might be used for spying. But I also know that the United States has similarly used private businesses to spy on China. When China purchased a new Boeing 767 in 2000 to be the Chinese equivalent of Air Force One, American officials planted at least 27 bugs in it.
I think the United States should press China harder on some issues, such as the reckless way Chinese companies export chemicals to Mexico that are turned into fentanyl. That Chinese-origin fentanyl kills many thousands of Americans each year, and it’s hard to see why the deaths of so many aren’t higher on the bilateral agenda.
But we also need humility. America’s politicians, pharma companies and regulators themselves catastrophically bungled the opioid crisis. Why should we expect Chinese leaders to care more about young American lives than our own leaders do?
Fulmination is not a policy, and it alienates the ordinary Chinese citizens who are that country’s best hope after Xi has left the scene. That’s the long game.
Anti-Chinese rhetoric and over-the-top security concerns magnify racism toward Asian Americans and make Chinese feel unwelcome in America — and that hurts all of us. In 2020, 17 per cent of American doctoral degrees given in science and engineering went to Chinese students, underscoring that the United States has been a huge beneficiary of China’s brain drain. But that could now reverse. A poll found deep disquiet among Chinese scholars in America, with 61 per cent saying they have thought about leaving.
I support President Joe Biden’s steps to bolster American industry and his remarkable efforts to increase military preparedness in the Western Pacific. But let’s recognise that the single most important step we can take to strengthen America vis-à-vis China has nothing to do with the military.
It would simply be to tackle American dysfunction — from addiction to child poverty and our failed foster care system — and to invest in our education system so as to produce stronger citizens and a more robust nation. That, not prickly nationalism, is the lesson we should take from China — and is the best way for us to meet the China challenge.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes — for coverage of the Tiananmen democracy movement in China and columns about mass atrocities in Darfur, Sudan — and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.