Taking China Seriously
October 23, 2013
Oct 23, 2013
6 Min read time
It is difficult to think of a phenomenon that will shape the international system in coming decades more powerfully than the relationship between the United States and China. Beyond having the two largest economies and defense budgets, they are the top consumers of energy and emitters of greenhouse gases. There are few, if any, global challenges on which meaningful headway can be made without cooperation between them. Small wonder then that the leaderships and commentariats of both countries agree on the need for a “new model” of great-power relations.
The development of such a model would be an extraordinary achievement. Should the United States and China avoid a military confrontation and resist the temptation to contain one another, they would inaugurate a new era of international relations—one in which a rising power and an established power can cohabitate, in which two powers that claim to be exceptional in the annals of history can compete and cooperate simultaneously, and in which smaller powers can benefit from the capacities of both nations rather than having to choose one over the other. Pride will doubtless introduce complications: the Financial Times’s Jamil Anderlini observes that Chinese diplomats “seem obsessed with getting the Americans to acknowledge that the ‘new type of great power relationship’ is one between equals.” The United States is reluctant to offer such an acknowledgement, and, truth be told, China has a long way to go before it can be regarded as an equal of the United States in a holistic sense.
But what if the United States and China are so economically interdependent that what they think of each other is inconsequential? Some observers posit that the fruits of their interdependence are sufficiently large—and the likely consequences of a military confrontation or Cold War–style standoff sufficiently great—that the two countries will find a way to maintain their relationship no matter how deep their mutual suspicions. Zachary Karabell argues that while many Americans view China as “a dangerous emerging competitor” and “many Chinese will never trust America,” “ties continue to deepen because the mutual need is greater than the mutual suspicion.” Minghao Zhao offers a similar assessment: “However suspicious of the other’s long-term strategic intentions each side may be, a non-confrontational relationship is the only viable choice for both countries.”
The only viable choice because of what is at stake: U.S.-China trade last year totaled $536 billion. The United States absorbs about a fifth of China’s exports, and China is America’s third-largest export market. China also owns more than a fifth of all foreign-held U.S. debt—roughly a thirteenth of total U.S. debt. The United States, meanwhile, plays the largest role in safeguarding the maritime commons through which China receives a significant portion of the commodities that sustain its growth. Given how interwoven their economies are, how could the leadership of either country allow a confrontation to occur?
This sort of thinking is often criticized on the grounds that economic interdependence between European countries did not prevent the outbreak of World War I. Importantly, however, the leaders of Europe did not have to weigh the risk of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Nor could they have imagined that acting on what they may have seen as transient hostility would destroy the international system. Still, to dismiss the possibility of U.S.-China conflict outright would be misguided. Even the most coolheaded, discerning players can miscalculate.
One source of conflict may be traditional: the contest for supremacy at sea and in the air. Avery Goldstein argues that there is a growing “risk of a war-threatening crisis” over “sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea or the East China Sea” or “U.S. military forces operating in the international seas and airspace near China.” This risk is playing out as the military competition between the two countries grows. China is developing a range of anti-access and area-denial capabilities to push the U.S. Navy beyond the “second island chain,” which connects the Aleutian Islands, Guam, and Papua New Guinea. And, according to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “unofficial Chinese military literature even refers to a third chain: the Hawaiian Islands.” The U.S. military, meanwhile, is developing a suite of drones to counter these capabilities, including, most recently, an autonomous combat drone.
Military competition, however, is not the only source of stress. Other challenges are brewing:
- A decade ago, China depended on foreign sources for 40 percent of its oil. Today that number stands at 57 percent and is expected to grow. In fact China “will soon import more from the Persian Gulf than the U.S. did at its 2001 peak.” This comes amid the U.S. shale-gas boom and the much-vaunted “pivot” to Asia. As the United States tries to shift its focus from the Middle East, China has an opportunity to increase its strategic footprint in a region where the United States has long been the preeminent player. That said, China will also depend more heavily on the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet to secure the safe passage of its energy imports through the Gulf. Will China attempt to displace the United States from the Middle East over time? Will the United States condition its protection of Chinese imports on China’s willingness to comport itself as a responsible stakeholder (as U.S. policymakers understand that term)?
- The United States argues that China must accept a strong, enduring U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region. China replies that the United States must neither attempt to contain China explicitly nor seek to encircle it under the guise of strengthening its alliances. China already senses that the United States is using the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to exclude Beijing. Meanwhile, President Obama’s absence at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum and the East Asia Summit this month—both of which occurred during the U.S. government shutdown—left some Asian leaders wondering whether an economically scarred United States can fund its pivot.
- The government shutdown prompted China to denounce political infighting in the United States that could compromise the global economy. In a widely discussed editorial, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, suggested that now might be “a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world” wherein “all nations, big or small, poor or rich, can have their key interests respected and protected on an equal footing.” Chinese leaders are anxious because some 60 percent of the country’s prodigious foreign-exchange reserves are held in U.S. dollars, which seems especially risky in this moment of Congressional gridlock. So it is no surprise that China has been slowly diversifying away from the dollar while taking steps to internationalize its own currency. The government also wants to see more Chinese manufactured goods consumed at home rather than exported to the United States. The less China depends on the United States economically, the more assertive it is likely to become in challenging U.S. power and policy, and, in the longer term, the norms and arrangements that underpin the liberal international order.
The Economist recently lamented that the U.S.-China relationship “looks less like a 21st-century ‘new model’ relationship than a very old-fashioned 19th-century sort of strategic rivalry.” Such a rivalry would not end well. To avoid that fate, the United States and China must understand just how much is riding on their comity—and act on that understanding. Theirs is far and away the world’s most important relationship. Hence the appeal of a framework for responding to conflict should it arise. The leaderships of the U.S. and Chinese militaries should create a crisis hotline similar to that which the United States and the Soviet Union established following the Cuban Missile Crisis. They should also discuss the contingencies that would be most likely to give rise to a confrontation.
While military conflict can be avoided, strategic competition is built into U.S.-China relations. But I believe the world is large enough to accommodate such competition. In their February 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, the United States and China agreed. “Neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region” or undertake “to divide up the world into spheres of interest,” they said. Forty years on, those propositions are only more valid. Should the two countries discard them, they will exhaust themselves and paralyze an international system for which they bear inordinate responsibility.
Photograph: flickr/Michael Mandiberg
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October 23, 2013
6 Min read time