The risk of an “accidental conflict” between the US and China has risen as a result of the heightened tensions between the two sides, a number of current and former officials have warned.
While they said it was difficult to imagine a full-scale conflict breaking out, they warned that the current strategic, technological and ideological stand-offs between the two sides would inevitably damage relations even if they are able to reach a trade deal.
Their warnings echoed recent comments by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who told a forum in Beijing last month that even a “relatively minor crisis” could spiral out of control, giving as an example the start of the first world war.
Li Ruogu, the former president of the Export and Import Bank of China, told the Sanya economic forum in Hainan on Saturday that a recent visit to Singapore had shown him that this concern was shared across the region.
“A hot war is possible. As Kissinger warned previously, armed conflict between China and the States is possible if a crisis is not contained,” said Li, who was also a former vice-president of the central bank.
Li’s concerns were echoed by Zhang Baijia, a former deputy director of Party History Research Centre.
Zhang said a full-scale war was “hard to imagine”, but miscalculating each other’s intentions could lead to an unintended conflict.
“The possibility of hi-tech wars like large scale cyberattacks are increasing. We have to be alert to any new form of confrontation,” he said.
Li and Zhang are both from influential families with deep roots in the Communist Party.
Li is the son of Li Zhuoran, a first generation revolutionary who fought alongside Mao Zedong.
Zhang’s father, Zhang Wenjin, was a former deputy foreign minister and ambassador who took part in the talks with Kissinger that led to the normalisation of relations between Washington and Beijing.
In recent months a number of Chinese officials and government advisers have warned about the trade conflict spilling over into other fronts – particularly given the uncertain prospects for a trade deal.
Former finance minister Lou Jiwei said last month that China did not seek to “export revolution or start a proxy war”, but was prepared to defend its “bottom line” on issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.
Lou, who is now director of foreign affairs committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said a stand-off such as the cold war between the US and Soviet Union was unlikely, but Washington would look to contain China in the longer run.
Relations between the two sides further deteriorated last week after Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law and the US House passed a bill that would allow sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Xinjiang.
On Saturday China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi expressed his opposition to the two pieces of legislation in a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Yang demanded that the US should immediately correct its mistake and said no one could expect China to “swallow the bitter fruits of having its interests harmed”, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Earlier this week the Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai accused Washington of building a “Berlin Wall” between the two sides, while former US diplomat Susan Thornton said the Chinese government now assumed the trade war may lead to a “partial decoupling” of their economies.
Steve Orlins, president of the National Committee on US China Relations, told the Sanya forum that a trade deal would not lead to an immediate improvement in relations.
“In the short term, I’m deeply pessimistic,” he said. “Even if we have a trade deal – the relationship trajectory is going down for a while.”
But he said he remained optimistic in the long term, as people-to-people exchanges between the two countries remained strong.
Li also argued there were ways to improve relations, saying that if China lived up to its previous promises of economic reform the “differences between the two sides can be solved”.
Meanwhile Zhang said both sides could learn from history to build trust.
He said that in the 1960s “China was worried about an American invasion and the US worried about the China-backed expansion of communism in Southeast Asia”.
But in the following decade: “Beijing realised that the US couldn’t even defeat Vietnam and Washington realised Beijing was bogged down by its own Cultural Revolution.
“Bilateral trust then was partially built on knowledge about the limits of the other side’s capacity.”
– South China Morning Post