Endorse Mutually Assured Restraint Position Paper

Mutually Assured Restraint:
A New Approach to U.S.-China Relations

A Position Paper

We, the undersigned, are of different backgrounds and viewpoints. However, we have come together to reject the thesis that history dictates that when one nation rises in power, it will inevitably confront the nation in power and a war will ensue. We strongly believe that China and the United States have many shared and complementary interests, including countering terrorism, curbing the proliferation of nuclear arms, promoting economic and financial stability, addressing climate change, and protecting the environment. Further, we contend that whatever differences exist between these two great nations (and their allies), they can and must be resolved in a peaceful manner.

At the same time, we recognize the existence of a level of mistrust and tension between the United States and China. To reduce this mistrust and tension, to move toward resolving outstanding differences, and to promote world order and peace, we suggest that consideration should be given to a foreign policy based on mutual respect, according to which each side would limit its projection of power—especially in the Western Pacific—so long as the other side does the same, with the important qualification that these measures of self-restraint must be verifiable.

We next provide a few select examples as to what such a foreign policy might entail. All the suggested steps would greatly benefit from further deliberation and development. However, they—or measures similar to those outlined here—may ensure that differences will be reconciled such that China and the United States will not fall into the Thucydides Trap.

No Use of Lethal Means to Change the Status Quo

History shows major wars can grow out of small incidents, miscalculations, and actions by minor allies. To avoid these potential escalations, we hold that the United States and China should recommit themselves to refraining from relying upon the use or threat of force to resolve their differences or advance their causes. Instead, alternate methods of conflict resolution should be used to resolve disagreements. This commitment especially entails condemning the use of force to engender regime change (as occurred in Libya in 2011), to redraw borders (as was the case in the confrontation between China and India in 1962), or to change the status of contested territory (e.g., that of various islands).

Changes to the status quo should be accomplished through negotiations between the parties involved; through arbitration, mediation, or international bodies and courts; or by finding new, creative solutions such as sharing sovereignty.

Making explicit the tacit understanding that China will continue to restrain those who call for the forceful integration of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China and the United States will continue to restrain those who call for recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation, would significantly contribute to reducing potential tensions in the future.

Buffer Zone

Nations that share land borders with China should be treated by the United States and China as a buffer zone, rather than as potential assets that could be pulled into military alliances, as, for example, Austria was treated during the Cold War. This buffer zone would help to mitigate the risk that these smaller powers will involve China or the United States in their conflicts and to avoid points of direct contact between the forces of both nations.

During the Cold War, there was an understanding that, even if East and West Germany were to be united, NATO would not move its forces into the areas that used to be part of East Germany. The same idea can now be applied by advancing an informal understanding that if North Korea’s regime collapses, the United States will not move its military forces to the border of China, and China will not move its military forces to the DMZ. This would hold whether or not the two Koreas unify. Especial attention to how to dispose of North Korea’s WMD must be paid in such an understanding.

The Cyber Realm

Cyberspace is a new realm for all nations—one that is not well-covered by international norms and laws and hence particularly prone to giving rise to misunderstandings. Cyber arms are considered particularly destabilizing because they are believed to favor first strikes. Because of the novelty of cyber weapons, whatever self-limitations are agreed upon will require developing new verification mechanisms. Such verification may be easier to implement with respect to the kinetic use of cyber tools than the collection of intelligence.

China has suggested a new code of conduct in the cyber realm: a government-created International Code of Conduct for Information Security. The United States opposes such a code if it were to result in a state-centered cyber security regime.  We hold that it is imperative for both nations to overcome their differences and develop a common approach in this effort, beginning with consideration of the Chinese proposal.

Limitations on Weapons

By far the best evidence that strategies of mutually assured self-restraint can work is found in START I and II, two treaties that have led the United States and Russia (formerly the USSR) to significantly scale back their strategic weapons and develop major and effective ways to verify that these limitations are, indeed, enforced. Many doubt—for good reason—that this kind of treaty or a similar shared understanding can be forged between the United States and China in the foreseeable future. However, more modest initiatives might be implemented involving limited weapons systems, thus improving a particularly destabilizing condition. (Such limitations would have to take into account that there are major differences in the baselines of each nation’s military forces and current growth rates.)

Whether or not such moves are possible, clearly a full-fledged strategy of mutually assured self-restraint will have to include—either now or in the future—some verified limitations on weapons systems.

Curbing Nuclear Arms Proliferation

Neither side should sell or transfer nuclear technology or weapons-related materials, and both nations should cooperate on policies to sanction those that do.  In addition, both the United States and China should continue to encourage their allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and North Korea, to restrain their nuclear military ambitions.

Competition in Ideas and By Economic Means

Each nation should be free to promote its respective beliefs as to what constitutes the preferred way of life, mode of economic development, and political system. All nations should be free to promote such views by peaceful means such as education and cultural outreach, and such promotion should not be considered antithetical to the strategy of vetted self-restraint here advanced. The same holds for the promotion of trade, aid, credit, and investment. Competition should be welcome as long as third parties are free to determine which of these approaches they find more compelling.  In other words, self restraint does not entail avoiding competition but merely forswearing competition by lethal means.

Free trade zones

Free trade zones should include all nations willing and able to restrain protectionist forces within their country and allow free trade as defined by WTO. They should not serve to pit some nations against others.

In Conclusion

We, the undersigned, reiterate that any and all of the specific proposals here outlined serve merely as starting points for future dialogue. Each and all of them require much more development and deliberation. However, we do hold that some such measures are needed to reduce the risk that the United States and China will slide toward a confrontation, particularly at a time when both nations badly need increased investment in nation-building at home. Finally, we maintain that the world would be a better and, above all, safer place if a strategy of mutually assured self-restraint were to be implemented.

The following signatures indicate agreement with the basic thrust of the document and its main point, but not necessarily agreement with every word or turn of phrase.  The signatures reflect our personal endorsements; institutional affiliations are provided strictly for identification purposes.

To endorse,  send us an email at icps@email.gwu.edu or send a fax to 202-994-1606.