Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report, “Decoding China’s Emerging ‘Great Power’ Strategy in Asia,” which poses the question: What kind of great power does China want to be? The question contains an implied recognition that China may have more control over the terms of its rise than the U.S. would like to admit. Despite a shift towards a more muscular Chinese foreign policy, the report underscores why the U.S.-China relationship is unlikely to develop into a second Cold War.
The report’s principal author, Christopher K. Johnson, discussed how the Chinese Communist Party’s current General Secretary, Xi Jinping, has placed a premium on consolidating singular authority over areas of the government – specifically the military and intelligence services – over which past general secretaries did not exercise sole control. He has also been moving towards, in Johnson’s words, “a robust and adroit” and “active” Chinese foreign policy.
The discussion centered on the importance of Xi’s departure from China’s traditionally passive role on the world stage. Less discussed was the fact these developments are not surprising in themselves; in fact they have parallels in U.S. history.
While the power of the U.S. presidency has always encompassed command of the armed forces, the creation of the National Security Council and the growth of the U.S. intelligence apparatus after World War II were changes aimed at securing primary control of military and foreign policy within the executive. The U.S. also linked its role on the world stage to its economic growth. Until the early years of the 20th century, America was recovering from the Civil War and consolidating it domestic economic power. President Theodore Roosevelt’s role in negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth to end the Sino-Japanese War in 1905 is viewed by many as America’s first “great power” move. The country’s entry into World War I and World War II followed, amid debates over what constituted the proper U.S. role in world affairs. China’s Communist Party leadership has traditionally favored what the U.S. might label “isolationism.” Xi’s shift in policy reflects a debate among China’s elites that is recognizable in U.S. history: whether China should conduct a more robust foreign policy commensurate with its growing economic power.
What that more robust foreign policy means for Asia and the U.S. is the key question. Some in the U.S. advocate preparing for a great power showdown along the lines of the Cold War. There are, however, more differences than similarities between the current state of Sino-U.S. relations and the Cold War model.
First, relations between the two countries are not built on struggles for territory stemming from a prior conflict, as the U.S. and Soviet Union struggled over post-World War II Europe. Where China is catching up with the U.S. and no longer keen to “accede to U.S. hyper power” (in the words of he report’s authors), the U.S. and Soviet Union were strategic rivals and peers from the latter days of World War II.
Second, while China is fast developing conventional military capabilities of a great power – for example, a blue water navy – there is no razor’s-edge “arms race” or mutually-assured destruction dynamic comparable to U.S.-Soviet competition over nuclear missile capability. Instead, China is looking, over time, to marginalize U.S. influence in Asia.
China’s Asian neighbors, by and large, want the U.S. to stay engaged in Asian affairs to check its rise. They fear, in Johnson’s words, that China may not feel compelled over time “to adhere to international norms it had no role in creating.” In turn China, according to the report’s authors, sees a period of “strategic opportunity” defined by few external threats to its own security or role in the region, in which it may develop domestically and develop a more “active” foreign policy. Contained within this assumption of a “strategic opportunity” is a judgment on China’s part that the U.S. is more likely to dial back its own foreign policy footprint than expand it. At the same time, as Johnson and the report’s other authors discussed, China is setting strategic benchmarks around upcoming anniversaries (2021 – the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party) and ones further off (2049 – the 100th anniversary of the Chinese nation) that are aimed at assuring the world that it is on a course towards development and not dissolution.
These strategic benchmarks point to a fundamental difference between the U.S. and Chinese systems. China assumes a long-view made possible by a one-party regime unburdened by electoral cycles. American democracy is more focused on near-term goals. The Obama administration’s “pivot” towards Asia, maligned by some as, by definition, a “pivot away” from other parts of the world, was nonetheless an effort to establish a long-view in U.S. foreign policy that China comes by more naturally. It will be important for the U.S. to maintain it.
Michael Crowley is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association. He has previously worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump and The Pew Charitable Trusts.