How to Avoid Hot War With Ruthless China | Opinion

"I have not spoken to him in a while because I don't want to speak to him," President Trump told the Fox Business Network's Stuart Varney on October 15, referring to Xi Jinping, the Chinese ruler.

Trump spoke as national security professionals have been urging him to enter into long-term discussions with China.

Among them is the architect of modern American China policy. Washington and Beijing, Henry Kissinger said this month, must talk to each other to establish "the limits beyond which they will not push threats."

"You can say this is totally impossible, but if it is, we will slide into a situation similar to World War I," he warned.

From Kissinger to the secretary-general of the U.N. to the editorial board of the Financial Times, everyone is worried about descending into a "New Cold War" or worse.

And just about everyone recommends dialogue. Dialogue may sound smart, but it is actually divorced from reality and therefore deeply misguided. The international community, unfortunately, is now at a point where discussions with a militant Chinese regime will almost certainly lead to unfavorable outcomes.

The world needs to stop talking to Beijing and start confronting it with vigor.

It seems everybody wants agreements with China. China also wants more of them. "Both sides will almost certainly need to put more rules in place, not only in areas like antipiracy or disaster relief—where the two countries already have been cooperating—but also regarding space exploration, cyberspace and artificial intelligence," wrote Zhou Bo, a senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army, in The New York Times this February.

It is futile trying to constrain China's militant regime with words, however. The international community, after all, has been attempting that for five decades with poor results. Beijing is, at this moment, ignoring its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the U.N. Convention on the Law of Sea and the Phase One trade deal with the U.S. China is making a mockery of two September 2015 promises to President Obama, on commercial hacking and South China Sea militarization.

Agreements with China, therefore, are one-way. China violates obligations and expects counter-parties to comply with theirs. Take the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and the 2014 Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.

Everyone—especially China—lauds these rules-of-the-road agreements, but they have failed. As James Fanell, a former director of Intelligence and Information Operations at the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told me in August, "The problem is that agreements can work only if both sides really do wish to avoid a military crisis and violent encounter."

China, on the other hand, is trying to provoke crises with its dangerous intercepts of the U.S. Navy and Air Force in international water and airspace. China's generals and admirals act as if they crave conflict.

Agreements with China are also dangerous. In early 2012, Chinese vessels swarmed Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea. In June of that year, the Obama administration brokered a deal for both sides to withdraw their craft. Manila complied; Beijing did not, leaving China in firm control of the strategic feature.

The White House, not wanting to confront the Chinese, did nothing to enforce the arrangement it had put together. Almost immediately, there were adverse consequences.

The failure to hold China accountable empowered the worst elements in the Chinese political system. So Beijing, within months of taking control of Scarborough, went on a bender, stepping up dangerous incursions around Japan's Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, upping the pressure in the South China Sea on other Philippine features, such as Second Thomas Shoal, and starting to reclaim features in the Spratly Islands chain to turn them into military outposts.

Forbidden City, Beijing
Forbidden City, Beijing Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Longer term, Manila was unnerved by Washington's failure to defend territory covered by the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty, leading to the almost complete breakdown in relations when Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016.

Yet there is a more fundamental failure with the Scarborough pact. Even if President Obama had enforced it, the arrangement would have failed to deal with Chinese aggression. Scarborough, 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon and about 550 nautical miles from China's Hainan Island, has generally been thought to be part of the Philippines. The agreement ejected an American ally from its own territory.

The proper response for the U.S. would have been to confront Beijing. Since the U.S. failed to do so, China has seen a green light to pursue expansive—and in most cases, baseless—claims to territory held by others. In the middle of June, it killed 20 Indian soldiers on Indian-controlled land in a move to enforce dubious territorial demands. Moreover, Beijing is preparing to make additional sovereignty claims on Tajikistan, despite finally settling boundaries in 2011; to Japan's Ryukyu chain, including Okinawa; and to the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok.

A better approach to Chinese aggression at Scarborough in 2012 would have been to demand withdrawal and then impose costs if Beijing failed to oblige. Chinese leaders sensed American weakness in 2012 and then pressed the advantage, exacerbating the problem.

By trying to talk, as various administrations have done, China perceives an American unwillingness to act. In any event, the let's-talk-to-China approach has, in fact, failed over the course of a half century. "The time has come to accept that dialogue and agreements will not persuade or compel the People's Republic of China to change," said National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien this month. "There's nothing to be gained from looking the other way or turning the other cheek. We've been doing that for far too long."

Chinese leaders do understand power. Even if they think they are more powerful than the United States, as Julian Gewirtz argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, they cannot think they are more powerful than the United States, India, Japan and Australia—the grouping known as the "Quad."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now trying to formalize the Quad relationship to "counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us." As he said to Nikkei Asia earlier this month, "Once we've institutionalized what we're doing—the four of us together—we can begin to build out a true security framework."

China has continually denigrated the Quad, saying it cannot work. That means, of course, that it can.

Kissinger, I suspect, also understands this. "Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community," he wrote in his masterful A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-22. "Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable."

The world cannot be safe if it is at the mercy of a ruthless China. Kissinger, in the 1950s, actually devised the proper way to deal with the Chinese communists of today.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.