24 November 2023

Accidental Conflict

America, China and the Clash of False Narratives

Stephen Roach
2023, Yale University Press, 352 pages,
ISBN 9780300259643

Reviewer: Andrew Peaple

As China watchers’ bookshelves start to groan under the weight of studies of the state of U.S.-China relations, along comes Accidental Conflict, the latest book by Stephen Roach. So what makes this one worth reading? An economist who rose to become chairman of Morgan Stanley’s Asia business, Roach is the sort of expert now often derided by critics proposing a more hostile approach, particularly Stateside. Yet his diagnosis of the current situation and how we got here is convincing, while he at least tries to offer ideas for how the two countries can avoid their rivalry descending into a catastrophic military confrontation.

Roach argues that the issues between China and the U.S. begin with their respective economic imbalances. Put simply, while the U.S. — its government, businesses and consumers — saves too little and consumes too much, China has the opposite problem. For years, this bred a co-dependency between the two. The U.S. was able to make up for its savings shortfall and fund its trade and fiscal deficits by importing foreign capital, a lot of it from China’s Treasury buying; while China relied on external demand — and its financially repressed households — for its export-and-investment driven growth. That co-dependency in turn fed wishful thinking on both sides: for example, in the U.S. a belief grew up that as China’s economy liberalized, so it would come to accept the American-led rules-based international order and become more democratic. One could add that a sense of comfort also grew that issues like the future of Taiwan could be permanently kicked into the long grass, the theory being that Beijing would surely see it had too much to lose economically by acting aggressively there.

However, once things turned sour, particularly following the global financial crisis, leaders in both the U.S. and China adopted more harmful, false narratives about each other, rather than being honest with their citizens and each other. On the American side, blame for the country’s sluggish growth was placed on China’s unfair trade practices, while Beijing peddled lines about how the U.S.-led West was trying to keep it down. Each side’s unwillingness to accept that their own economic systems needed painful reforms curdled into departures from policies and beliefs that had served them well, be it the U.S. belief in free trade or Beijing’s previously cautious approach to global affairs. Other responses, such as President Trump’s trade measures, have proved singularly ineffective in narrowing the U.S.’s overall trade deficit, Roach shows. He overlays his arguments with elements of behavioural economics, likening the deterioration in relations between the world’s two largest economies to what happens when co-dependents fall apart.

Roach’s overall analysis is coherent and chimes with that of others, such as Peking University’s Michael Pettis, who have long pointed out the dangers of persistent trade imbalances. He is prepared to put at least as much of the blame for what has gone wrong on mistakes in U.S. policy. Where his argument is likely to prove most controversial is in his scepticism over American claims about often-alleged underhand Chinese practices from intellectual property theft to cyber attacks on businesses, which Roach claims have often been exaggerated.

Like others, Roach sees the first step on the path away from deepening conflict as rebuilding trust in areas of mutual interest, including cyber security as well as climate change. He also floats the idea of a bilateral investment treaty, as well as a secretariat permanently staffed by experts from both sides which could help defuse misunderstandings as they arise.

Roach’s book came out before the recent series of stories which suggests Beijing and Washington are, in fact, trying to take the heat out of their relationship and find areas of common ground: witness the agreement that will see China take more action to halt the export of ingredients used to manufacture the extremely harmful drug fentanyl. As I write, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping are set to meet for a rare summit in San Francisco, following a string of friendly-seeming visits to Beijing from high-profile U.S. administration officials.

Those positive signs aside, a concern with Roach’s argument would be that he underplays the depth of moral outrage against China that pervades both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S., and many other countries, over its repressive policies in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and elsewhere, as well as its awful human rights record. Such depth of feeling will be hard to dislodge — and then, of course, there is the looming possibility of Trump’s return to the White House derailing the more patient approach of the Biden team. As for China, the feelings run as deep over Taiwan, meaning it would be foolish to rule out an attack, however dire the consequences. At that point, no secretariat is likely to hold back the world’s most powerful countries.