Looking to the future, it is not hard to see what we could learn from an After Action Review of US policy during the Cold War 1945-1991 that is relevant to any future conflict potential with China:
- We should create a very fully developed, explicit theory of mind of China including a knowledge of its recent and long term history as it likely impacts policy making.
- We need to understand how the Chinese political system works and what forces of change are at work internally in China. This is made a lot easier than was the case for the Soviet Union in that it is already a much more open society with a lot more Western Access and interaction at all levels. But we may still delude ourselves that we know it better than we do.
- We should especially develop a well populated understanding of how China sees the world
- Any opportunity to dialogue with them should be taken to check out our theories and make predictions about how they will act in order to test our understanding.
- From an understanding of how they see the world, come to understand their real long term interests, perhaps even help shape how they see them, and avoid generating any inappropriate paranoia.
- Trying to play some role in shaping how they see their interests requires some trust building on both sides: which is hard if they are fairly positional in their thinking, as we are.
- We should be very clear about where our interests conflict, where they are in common and where they merely differ. There are some important trigger points like Taiwan, which will really test our understanding of their world view and interests. But so far as I know we occupy the same planet and without it we are all doomed.
- We should be very clear about their fears without being naïve about any intentions they may have that are negative to us. And of course, we should acknowledge and interrogate our own fears for their realism, perhaps with the military mantra: ‘hope for the best, plan for the worst.’
- Finding ourselves facing a growing super power that may eventually overtake the USA is not going to be comfortable and may produce considerable fear and overreaction on both sides.
- The fact that the Chinese are studying world history for lessons to handle this is hopeful, but not to be depended on. The USA has its own learning to do, some of it from the Cold War history
- We can expect hawks and dove camps to evolve, not necessarily on historical right/left axis. China’s rise is more complicated and implicated in important US business interests than currently blind us to many of the issues and distort our actions.
- We might recall that China lost its dominance in the world after 1800 because of internal disunity, and our current cultural and economic civil wars risk something similar
The process of China’s rise needs careful handling and it is not clear that the necessary foresight is being developed, given the more immediate preoccupations for US foreign and domestic policy.
Oh and a useful map to aid visualization: though of course geo-politically the US has the advantage of facing two oceans; China only one.