The future of US-Chinese relations

Conflict is a choice, not a necessity.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands w
In January 2011, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao committed to a 'positive' and 'comprehensive' relationship [AFP]


Kent, CT- On January 19, 2011, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement at the end of Hu’s visit to Washington. It proclaimed their shared commitment to a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive US-China relationship”. Each party reassured the other regarding his principal concern, announcing, “The United States reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs. China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”

Since then, the two governments have set about implementing the stated objectives. Top American and Chinese officials have exchanged visits and institutionalised their exchanges on major strategic and economic issues. Military-to-military contacts have been restarted, opening an important channel of communication. And at the unofficial level, so-called track-two groups have explored possible evolutions of the US-Chinese relationship.

Yet as cooperation has increased, so has controversy. Significant groups in both countries claim that a contest for supremacy between China and the United States is inevitable and perhaps already under way. In this perspective, appeals for US-Chinese cooperation appear outmoded and even naive.

The mutual recriminations emerge from distinct yet parallel analyses in each country. Some American strategic thinkers argue that Chinese policy pursues two long-term objectives: displacing the United States as the preeminent power in the western Pacific; and consolidating Asia into an exclusionary bloc deferring to Chinese economic and foreign policy interests. In this conception, even though China’s absolute military capacities are not formally equal to those of the United States, Beijing possesses the ability to pose unacceptable risks in a conflict with Washington and is developing increasingly sophisticated means to negate traditional US advantages. Its invulnerable second-strike nuclear capability will eventually be paired with an expanding range of antiship ballistic missiles and asymmetric capabilities in new domains such as cyberspace and space. China could secure a dominant naval position through a series of island chains on its periphery, some fear, and once such a screen exists, China’s neighbours, dependent as they are on Chinese trade and uncertain of the United States’ ability to react, might adjust their policies according to Chinese preferences. Eventually, this could lead to the creation of a Sinocentric Asian bloc dominating the western Pacific. The most recent US defence strategy report reflects, at least implicitly, some of these apprehensions.

No Chinese government officials have proclaimed such a strategy as China’s actual policy. Indeed, they stress the opposite. However, enough material exists in China’s quasi-official press and research institutes to lend some support to the theory that relations are heading for confrontation rather than cooperation.

US strategic concerns are magnified by ideological predispositions to battle with the entire nondemocratic world. Authoritarian regimes, some argue, are inherently brittle, impelled to rally domestic support by nationalist and expansionist rhetoric and practice. In these theories – versions of which are embraced in segments of both the American left and the American right – tension and conflict with China grow out of China’s domestic structure. Universal peace will come, it is asserted, from the global triumph of democracy rather than from appeals for cooperation. The political scientist Aaron Friedberg writes, for example, that “a liberal democratic China will have little cause to fear its democratic counterparts, still less to use force against them”. Therefore, “stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy [should be] to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place”.

On the Chinese side, the confrontational interpretations follow an inverse logic. They see the United States as a wounded superpower determined to thwart the rise of any challenger, of which China is the most credible. No matter how intensely China pursues cooperation, some Chinese argue, Washington’s fixed objective will be to hem in a growing China by military deployment and treaty commitments, thus preventing it from playing its historic role as the Middle Kingdom. In this perspective, any sustained cooperation with the United States is self-defeating, since it will only serve the overriding US objective of neutralising China. Systematic hostility is occasionally considered to inhere even in American cultural and technological influences, which are sometimes cast as a form of deliberate pressure designed to corrode China’s domestic consensus and traditional values. The most assertive voices argue that China has been unduly passive in the face of hostile trends and that (for example, in the case of territorial issues in the South China Sea) China should confront those of its neighbours with which it has disputed claims and then, in the words of the strategic analyst Long Tao, “reason, think ahead and strike first before things gradually run out of hand… launch[ing] some tiny-scale battles that could deter provocateurs from going further”.

This is an excerpt from the essay “The Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations” from the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Henry A Kissinger is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State for both the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations.