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China vs America: A Warning by Oliver Letwin review – an uneasy truce… or Armageddon

That China is an economic superpower rivalling, if not surpassing, the US is not a secret. Political scientists have been debating the implications of that fact for most of this century, and there’s little consensus.

What’s clear is that under President Xi Jinping China has been more forthright about its global economic ambitions, not least with the vast and much touted belt and road project. But it has also begun to flex its political and military muscles more openly in its extended neighbourhood.

Internment in Xinjiang, the suppression of Hong Kong democrats, and the growing campaign against Taiwan have all caused various degrees of alarm, if little concrete response. And then of course China’s concealment of the truth about Covid in its critical early days has done little to improve the emergent superpower’s image.

But once the ritual handwringing has been performed, what next? The former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin sets out to answer that question with his cautionary new study China vs America: A Warning.

The warning is really about that “vs”. If there is a continuation of the power struggle currently under way, Letwin believes it can only lead somewhere worse and quite possibly to nuclear catastrophe. Yet a power struggle is what both entities are primed to pursue.

For America, it’s about maintaining global supremacy. In recent years, particularly under Donald Trump, the US has begun to question its international role. Trump was by disposition an isolationist who resented America’s expensive foreign commitments, mostly because as someone whose worldview didn’t extend far beyond quick deals and short-term returns, he couldn’t see what the economic upside was.

Any weakness could look like appeasement, just as displays of strength might lead to unpredictable military escalation

And President Biden’s decision to go through with his predecessor’s decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan will be seen by many as a partial endorsement of Trump’s stand. Nevertheless, Biden has pledged to return the US to the forefront of international politics and that will inevitably involve developing a policy on how to handle China, which is equally set on overturning a couple of centuries of humiliation, and returning to what it sees as its rightful position as the world’s most powerful nation.

Letwin is under no illusions about how difficult the job ahead is for Biden and his successors. Any weakness could look like appeasement, just as displays of strength might lead to unpredictable military escalation. What he’s convinced of is that the old cold war tactics still favoured by some Washington hawks are no longer viable.

China can’t be bankrupted by an arms race in the way that the Soviet Union effectively was, because it spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on arms than the US does, and it has near bottomless economic resources. Nor can the US rely on technological supremacy, as China aggressively seeks parity.

The alternative third way, Letwin suggests, is “peaceful competition through enterprise internationalism”. It sounds almost comically fluffy, as though a policy wonk had taken up transcendental meditation. But what it means in essence is that, rather than try to fight a battle for global hegemony it can’t win, the US should accept that peaceful rivalry is the only rational option.

Letwin is probably right in this conclusion but it doesn’t explain what the US, or the west, which in reality means the US, should do if, for example, China were to invade Taiwan. He puts a lot of store on China being constrained by relationships around the Pacific Rim, and its economic rationality.

These are certainly factors to take into account but they fall some way short of any kind of guarantee. Similarly, he seems willing to believe that as China has never in its long history sought territorial influence beyond its region, it is unlikely to in the future. Again, it’s a reasonable assumption but will it hold good in, say, 50 years, when the world may look very different indeed?

After all, if a regime is prepared to mete out brutal treatment to the Uyghurs, who are nominally Chinese, can we be confident it will play fair when the balance of power shifts?

We are unavoidably in the realm of speculation and best guesses. As Letwin acknowledges, China may well affect a belief in international law just so long as it suits its interests and then abandon it when it’s no longer useful. It wouldn’t be the first superpower to perform that particular manoeuvre.

But all such anxieties, while legitimate, are, he says, beside the main point. As he elegantly puts it: “We have ultimately to judge whether we prefer to minimise the chance of losing a war with China or whether we prefer to minimise the chance of experiencing such a war, with all of its incalculable consequences.”

The fact is that China is almost certain to grow even stronger in the near future, and that’s a reality we will all have to come to terms with, one way or another. Those celebrating the end of American hegemony may be even less enamoured with what replaces it.

China vs America: A Warning by Oliver Letwin is published by Biteback (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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