The past several months have seen a growing chorus of calls for the United States to take stock of its policy toward China. Some prominent voices have called for greater efforts by the two countries to forge a “substantive sense of common purpose,” while others reject the notion that they can ever coexist without conflict and believe that the United States needs to contain China. Still others argue that the basic assumptions of current U.S. diplomacy toward China should not change despite escalating friction. This renewed attention to what has long been deemed the world’s most important bilateral relationship takes place against the backdrop of rising tension between the countries in the South China Sea, and newly hostile rhetoric from China about the dangers of “the West.” In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss the options U.S. officials now face.
Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at the Australian National University:
Until now the assumption underlying U.S. policy towards China has been that nothing fundamental need ever change. Since 1972 the basic pattern of the U.S.-China relationship, and the foundation of the wider Asian strategic order, has been China’s acceptance of American strategic and political primacy in the Western Pacific. Most U.S. policymakers and analysts have believed that this could and would continue indefinitely because China didn’t have the power, the will, or the motive to contest U.S. primacy.
For a long time China encouraged this assumption — that’s what the policy of “hid[ing] our capacities and bid[ing] our time” was all about. But China has abandoned that, and now overtly challenges the post-1972 order. It wants “a new model of great power relations,” and believes it now has the power to get it.
So how should the United States respond? It has only three basic options: to contest China’s challenge and try to preserve its primacy in Asia, to accommodate China to some degree, or to withdraw from any substantial strategic role in Asia. America’s instinct, of course, is to take the first course. This is what the Pivot to Asia aimed to do in a half-hearted way, hoping that a merely symbolic show of resolve would suffice to make China back off.
Alas, everything China has done since then has proved the opposite. If America wants to perpetuate the old order, it will have to accept a very serious contest with China, and this is what some people now advocate. But while America remains very strong, China is more formidable in many ways than any previous adversary, and its strength will most likely grow faster than America’s over coming decades. The costs and risks of escalating rivalry could be very high, and Americans cannot assume that China is any less determined to change the regional order than America is to preserve it.
It is time to ask whether preserving primacy in Asia is worth the price.
That means it is time for the United States to consider an accommodation with China, as several influential voices are now urging. This would not be easy. The United States would need to treat China as an equal for any deal to stand a chance, and Americans have never treated any country as an equal before. But the United States has never dealt with a country as powerful as China before, either. And the United States would still need to back any deal with its power. Ultimately, China could only be held to an agreement over a new regional order that America is willing to go to war with it to enforce.
Otherwise, the United States will find itself facing the third alternative — withdrawal from Asia. No one should imagine that this is not a real possibility in future, just because it has been wrongly predicted in the past. If America is going to stay engaged in Asia, it must treat China as an equal, or confront it as a rival.
Mary Kay Magistad, award-winning American journalist and former East Asia correspondent for Public Radio International/BBC’s The World:
China’s leaders have closely studied the rise of great powers. CCTV aired a series on the subject in 2006, focusing on the United States, Russia/the Soviet Union, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Each of these was a colonial power. (The United States colonized the Philippines, among other territories.) Each used its might to expand its sphere of influence without waiting for permission or international approval.
Some succeeded better, and longer, than others. Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which promised to free fellow East Asian nations from Western domination, certainly didn’t go as planned.
And China’s gamble in the South China Sea may not, either. It doesn’t bode well for China that neighbors who happily had been sharing the fruits of China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” a decade ago, such as the Philippines, now are comparing China and its aggression in the South China Sea to Hitler’s Germany.
Of course, laying claim to a largely unpopulated expanse of water is materially different from the human cost that came with Germany’s and Japan’s occupation of entire nations in the 1930s. But China’s increasingly aggressive defense of its claims in the South China Sea, including building artificial islands that could be used as military bases, has alarmed and angered neighbors with conflicting territorial claims, and made others in the region wonder what costs they’ll eventually be made to bear in service of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the “China Dream.”
Xi’s calculation over the past couple of years seems to have been that China is now powerful enough, its economy big enough, its neighbors dependent enough, and U.S. military resolve uncertain enough that this is the time to act. China’s leaders may also fear they have a finite window of time in which to act, given the slowing economy, aging population, and other significant challenges at home.
And so, China has pushed its claims in multiple territorial disputes, for reasons both practical and symbolic. In the South China Sea, it’s not just about control of strategically important sea lanes, and access to oil and natural gas reserves and fish. It’s also about challenging a global order that has proved too constraining for China’s aspirations.
China’s leaders aim to change the rules of the game — perhaps even the game itself.
Chinese leaders like to talk about “win-win” opportunities, but when it comes to challenging the United States in what they see as China’s backyard, it’s closer to a zero-sum game. Each time that China has pushed in the South China Sea, and the United States hasn’t pushed back, Beijing has scored it as a point in China’s favor, a loss of U.S. face and credibility.
Now that the U.S. is pushing back, Chinese pragmatism may yet prevail. The China-U.S. relationship is, after all, about much more than the South China Sea. The two countries are economically interdependent and share common interests best served by working together. Beyond that, it’s one thing to play brinkmanship, it’s another to go to battle against a superior military power.
Perhaps, as Susan Shirk discussed with her Chinese colleagues at the Shangri-La Dialogue, China could agree not to put missiles and other weapons on its new man-made islands, to ease off on challenging foreign vessels that pass nearby. Or perhaps, as Andrew Erickson predicts, China will continue to deploy its Coast Guard and maritime militia to enforce its claims in the South China Sea, banking on the reluctance of U.S. forces to attack non-military personnel.
However they maneuver at sea, China’s leaders have a challenge of their own making to navigate at home: controlling a constituency of vocal young nationalists they helped create through a couple of decades of “Patriotic Education” indoctrination. Some of these young nationalists see China’s push in the South China Sea as part of China reclaiming its rightful place, its historic place, as the region’s preeminent power, preferably on its way to global domination. They would be disappointed, even angered, if their government pulled its punches now. As the Chinese saying goes, when you ride a tiger, it’s hard to get off.
Zha Daojiong, Senior Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S. China Relations at the Asia Society:
Relations between China and the United States are not going well. Across the Pacific, there is little disagreement about that. To take it a step further: what exactly could be better? Which side should take the step that is sufficient to prevent a seemingly downward spiral? Agreement is hard to come by.
In my view, a good many Chinese observers, including some officials and diplomats, risk failing to fathom the depth of disquiet among American elites about the direction that China as a civilization is going. Many Americans are asking: if China’s pursuit of further economic growth and a higher international profile is premised upon rejecting Western values, does America conducting business as usual with China amount to aiding an enemy?
I have been asked by a good number of American colleagues — those who do not often publish opinion pieces in mainstream newspapers — about Document No. 9, an internal Communist Party document that takes aim at Western values, and China’s “no Western values in class” academic policies. Such questioning caught me by surprise. The fact of the matter is that, as a full-time professor employed by a public university, I have never been shown a copy of that allegedly comprehensive rejection of Western values, nor have I been given specific instructions about my teaching and my interaction with students. More and more Mandarin-speaking international students (Americans among them) take Political Science or International Studies courses together with Chinese students. As a group, they are the proper source of information about the much-feared ideological/cultural campaign.
A sorrowful situation has emerged. Across America, the belief about an ideologically anti-Western China is spreading. Yet from China, general answers to the question “what does China want?” are either evasive or given in a way that often is incomprehensible to American audiences.
For their part, Americans seem obsessed with “naming and shaming” China. I observe that more and more Chinese elites are beginning to ask, why is it that Americans endlessly accuse Chinese of wrongdoing? On issues ranging from intellectual property protection to anti-monopoly law enforcement, if the Chinese society is as full of theft and purposeful discrimination against American investors, what explains the vast number of multinational corporations still operating in China, especially when a sustained rise in factory workers’ wages has eroded the Chinese market’s attractiveness relative to many of its competitors?
The time has come for Chinese and Americans to debate seriously the potential consequences of failing to address unspoken yet powerful questions about each other. At the end of the day, critical, even brutal, self-examination will carry each society forward. The current state of affairs needs must be treated as a wake-up call for self-reflection in both.
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