t a Nov. 12 news conference in Beijing, General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to notify the other side before major military activities, and to develop a set of rules of behavior for sea and air encounters, in order to avoid military confrontations in Asia. “It’s incredibly important that we avoid inadvertent escalation,” Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security advisor, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying. An “accidental circumstance,” he said, could “lead into something that could precipitate conflict.”
Should we really be worried about war between the United States and China? Yes. Over the last four decades of studying China, I have spoken with hundreds of members of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and read countless Chinese military journals and strategy articles. Chinese military and political leaders believe that their country is at the center of American war planning. In other words, Beijing believes that the United States is readying itself for the possibility of a conflict with China — and that it must prepare for that eventuality.
Tensions are high not just because of Beijing’s rapidly expanding military budget, or because the United States continues to commit an increasingly high percentage of its military assets to the Pacific as part of its “rebalance” strategy. Rather, the biggest problem is Chinese opacity. While it’s heartening to hear Xi agree to instruct the PLA to be more open with regard to the United States, it is doubtful this will lead to any real changes.