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U.S. and Chinese vital interests don’t need to lead to conflict

On the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ meeting, U.S. President Joseph Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their first in-person meeting since Biden became president to discuss Indo-Pacific competition and vital interests. Both leaders indicated a desire to avoid great power conflict and explained their respective national interests. These interests – especially ones considered vital to both countries – will become increasingly important as competition intensifies. Prudently managing U.S.-China relations is possible and a disastrous conflict avoidable if the United States and China focus on their non-conflicting vital interests.

America’s vital interests are narrow: a strong economy, protecting the homeland with a powerful military, and preserving its way of life. The United States needs a prosperous economy, not just to improve the lives of its citizens, but to invest in its defense.

By improving its armed forces and developing new defense capabilities, America can maintain an edge on any foreign force. With a powerful military, Washington can best defend U.S. territorial integrity and deter aggressors. It can also better protect the American form of government and way of life from foreign influence and coercion.

Like the United States, China’s vital – or “core” as they term them – interests are equally narrow and very similar: preserving the Chinese form of government, upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty, and economic development. Most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) desires to maintain control of China. All other interests and policies are tied to this goal.

Indeed, Beijing wants to uphold China’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty because these are goals of statecraft, but they are also linked to the CCP’s governing legitimacy. The CCP is increasingly relying on nationalism to bolster its rule. The Party claims it was responsible for regaining China’s territory, reestablishing China’s sovereignty, and keeping foreign forces at bay. To maintain this narrative, the CCP has little room to make concessions on territory and is devoted to preventing secessionism.

Similarly, China’s economic development interests are twofold. As with the United States, a growing economy allows Beijing to invest in its military to defend itself and its interests. But like preserving national sovereignty and territorial integrity, economic growth is another cornerstone of the CCP’s legitimacy. An overwhelming majority of Chinese people support the CCP’s rule because it has provided improved living standards for decades. The CCP needs economic growth to maintain popular support.

Looking solely at their vital interests, the United States and China appear to have no basis for conflict. Washington and Beijing aren’t seeking to transform one another’s system of government. The CCP does not ideologically agree with the Constitution, nor does America believe in one-party rule and rights abuses. But neither side is going to start a regime change war over these disagreements. They already know such a U.S.-China war could easily risk a multi-trillion-dollar cost in treasure and potentially billions dead – not to mention the low rate of success.

Between the two countries, the United States and China don’t covet each other’s territory or officially seek to break each other up. Tensions certainly exist between U.S. allies and partners and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea, and no man’s land along the Himalayas, but these have been managed well in the past and don’t need to cross the threshold to war.

China makes no claims to U.S. territories and doesn’t support their independence. Beijing is unlikely to fan secessionist claims in the U.S. since there would be negative implications for the status of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and other minority-dominated regions

The biggest issue is Taiwan’s status. Washington and Beijing will need to tread most carefully on Taiwan to avoid a war. The United States doesn’t support Taiwan independence nor does it recognize the Republic of China’s (Taiwan’s official name) existence. Taiwan’s importance to U.S. vital interests is debatable. Chinesereunification would be unlikely to end with the destruction of the United States. Maintaining the status quo seems like the best option for everyone, including Taiwan.

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