Of the foreign-policy challenges that will confront the president of the United States on January 20, 2013 few are as complex and consequential as managing the ongoing rise of China—a continental country that will soon have the world’s largest economy and, within three decades, could be the world’s largest defense spender. Henry Kissinger recently argued that “deal[ing] with China” is “the fundamental problem of American foreign policy.”
It is difficult to imagine a more different pair of countries that must accommodate one another. With roughly 315 million people, America’s population is less than a quarter of the size of China’s. At 236 years, its history is less than a sixteenth of the length of China’s. The U.S. prides itself on attracting talent from around the world, and is undergoing demographic shifts that could render non-Hispanic whites a minority by 2050.
China, meanwhile, is warier of external influences, and remains about 90% Han Chinese. Despite being roughly the same size—the U.S. is 9.83 million square kilometers in area, while China is 9.6 million—the former has two friendly neighbors and enjoys comfortable access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The latter has 14 neighbors—only Russia has as many—several of which are unstable and/or concerned about the prospect of Chinese dominance in the Asian-Pacific; furthermore, it confronts numerous challenges when it turns its gaze eastward: completing a long-term effort to integrate Taiwan’s economy into its own, minimizing the impact of territorial conflicts in the South China Sea on its reputation in the region, and responding to a rebalancing that is projected to station 60% of America’s naval fleet in the Asia-Pacific by 2020.
Although this list of surface comparisons could be extended considerably, it is more important to scrutinize the basic framework that governs most discussions of U.S.-China relations. While China’s rise may simply appear to be the latest instance of the phenomenon that has long shaped international relations—a rising power meets the leading one—the nuances that this interpretation omits are as important as, if not more important than, the insights that it provides.
For starters, the interactions between the U.S. and China are far more numerous and substantive than they have been in previous meetings between rising powers and leading powers. It is often observed that China has a strong interest in a revitalized U.S. economy. By virtue of their thick economic interdependence, however, the U.S. also has a strong interest in continued Chinese growth. Paradoxically, then, each country’s ability to compete with the other depends in part on the other’s health. While the U.S. may not be pleased that its gross domestic product (GDP) will soon be overtaken, schadenfreude over the current slowdown in China would be misguided.
After all, the Financial Times notes, “the trudging U.S. economy” has been one of the deceleration’s “most obvious victims”: “China is so integrated into the global economy that even relatively minor shifts in its domestic production or spending can have a big impact on the other side of the world.” China’s economy is notable for another reason: even when it overtakes America’s in absolute terms, it will still be poor in relative, per-capita terms. Thus does Gideon Rachman observe that China’s rise challenges “the idea that the world’s largest economy [is] also the world’s most obviously affluent nation….China is both richer and poorer than the [W]estern world.”
Befitting their independence, while there are many points of friction between the U.S. and China, they are not—and, as they both understand, cannot afford to become—outright antagonists. Consider how John F. Kennedy characterized Soviet aims in September 1960: America’s “enemy,” he declared, “is the Communist system itself—implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination….this is not a struggle for supremacy of arms alone—it is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: [f]reedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.” It is difficult to imagine a U.S. president or senior policymaker’s describing Chinese ambitions in this manner. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the comparatively tame observation last March that, leaving aside “the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in…[w]e are in a competition with China,” she was widely characterized as being blunt, even provocative. (Of course, she and her colleagues always hasten to add, and prefer to emphasize, that the U.S. and China are also partners.)
Furthermore, the competitive dimension of their relationship is not particularly ideological. There is, to be sure, a pronounced gap between their core values, but it is not as stark as the slogans “capitalist vs. communist” and “democratic vs. authoritarian” suggest. Instead, China fuses state capitalism with adaptive authoritarianism. Despite the power of its state-owned enterprises, it is taking incremental, but important, steps to liberalize the renminbi and give foreign companies greater access to its vast consumer market. It is also growing more skilled at using the country’s social media platforms to understand citizens’ grievances, often addressing them before anger spreads widely. These steps suggest that China is unlikely to repeat the Soviet Union’s mistake: doubling down on an ossified system of governance and engaging in an arms race with the U.S. Even so, Chinese officials hesitate to discuss, and sometimes even question the existence of, a “Beijing Consensus,” in part because the difficulties of sustaining such a paradigm are increasingly apparent. Indeed, in a September 29th Facebook post, political-risk expert Ian Bremmer said that the“[w]orld’s biggest risk” is “China’s continued efforts to run a 21st[-][c]entury economy with a 20th[-][c]entury political system.”
Unlike past rising powers, China is not expansionist, a reality that is sometimes obscured in discussions of its assertiveness in settling territorial claims. While a military conflict between the U.S. and China is a real possibility, it is not the principal concern. However frail the relationship between their military establishments may be, each country appreciates the damage that it would suffer were one to occur—not only from the other’s military, but also from the aftershocks that such a conflict would send through global markets. Rather, the chief concerns are economic—consider the impact of a “trade war” between the world’s two largest economies—and diplomatic—strategic trust between them is not developing fast enough (assuming that it is not stagnating or even diminishing) to address the global challenges for whose mitigation it is of singular importance.
There is at least one another respect in which China is not a typical rising power: it considers itself a returning power. It is accustomed to having the world’s largest economy and to being the center of an Asian-Pacific order in which its neighbors paid it tribute. Thus, when Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi conclude that there is a “real and widespread” judgment amongst the Chinese leadership that China will displace the U.S. “as the world’s largest economy and a potential global hegemon,” it is important to realize that that judgment does not simply reflect the excitement inherent to the possibility of displacing the world’s leading power. It derives power from at least two other sentiments. First, it reflects the conviction that an historic aberration is being redressed. While Americans might regard their country’s preeminence as a fact of international relations—the U.S. has, after all, been the world’s leading power for nearly 30% of its existence—the Chinese view it as the culmination of an aberrant, post-Industrial Revolution period of Western preeminence. Second, it reflects the belief that China is finally poised to transcend the indignities that it suffered over the past 150 years—including the Taiping Civil War of 1851-64, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the Great Famine of 1958-61, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76—during which time the U.S. ascended to superpower status amidst far less hardship, and in considerable measure because of the wartime devastation of Europe and Asia.
Given current trends, the likeliest end state of U.S.-China relations is neither an internecine military conflict nor a straightforward leadership transition from the former to the latter, but rather, a tense and occasionally volatile balance. Neither country is accustomed to, let alone comfortable with, an international system whose functionality rides in large measure on cooperation between two countries. In America’s one experience with bipolarity, the Soviet Union was to be defeated, not engaged, and China, as noted earlier, is used to a Sinocentric system. The question, then, arises: how to reconcile the impossibility of either country’s dominating the other with the desire of each to be “number one,” however one defines that phrase? As Zbigniew Brzezinski explained to me recently, a durable U.S.-China relationship will emerge only if both countries explicitly “eschew the quest for hegemony” and “accept the reality of the other’s central role in world affairs.”
The preceding two paragraphs assume, however, that China seeks to be the world’s leading power. In truth, it is not self-evident that China harbors such an aspiration—at least not for now. If China could, it would likely be content to increase its shares of global GDP and military spending indefinitely without assuming proportional responsibility for global governance. It has arguably been the greatest beneficiary of the postwar order that the U.S. continues to underpin, however weakly, and it would like to prosper as much as possible within that arrangement while it lasts. Despite its desire to be seen as an equal of the U.S., it has been wary of proposals for either an implicit or formal “G-2.” Suisheng Zhao observes that “while many Chinese were initially flattered by the G-2 idea, the Chinese leadership quickly criticized the notion as a potential trap for China, making it more exposed on the world stage.”
It is not only such exposure that concerns China’s leadership. Hu Jintao’s likely replacement, Xi Jinping, will face an array of daunting internal challenges upon taking the reins next year: a declining share of working-age individuals, a growing share of elderly ones, an ongoing influx of migrants into urban areas, worsening environmental degradation, and increasing dependence on energy imports are but a few on the list. These challenges suggest an overarching question: how can China continue to deliver robust, sustainable material gains to its citizens—the very gains that are enabling more and more of them to move into the middle class and challenge the leadership’s decisions—without compromising the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party?
Securing the prodigious raw materials, natural resources, and energy reserves that it needs to do so leaves it with little choice but to scour the world and negotiate agreements wherever it can. This reality means, in turn, that despite its inexperience in, and perhaps even aversion to, conducting a truly “global” foreign policy, it must improvise one as it proceeds, attempting to reconcile its professed principles—chiefly, non-interventionism—to the actions that it takes to achieve its aforementioned domestic imperatives—for example, cultivating alliances with repressive regimes that can help satisfy its import requirements. China’s comprehensive national power has soared over the past decade because of its internal needs, not its external ambitions—the reverse of what one would expect for a rising power that is consciously striving to supplant a leading power.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the U.S.-China relationship is quantitatively and qualitatively unprecedented in history. Given the stakes, trying to identify more precisely where China falls along the continuum between adversary and ally is not some petty analytical exercise, but rather, one with profound implications for international order. The recognition that China is unlikely to be an ally of the U.S. should not be used to justify a policy that brands it an adversary. As its weight in the global strategic balance draws closer to America’s, the temptation to discard that proposition will increase; so, too, will the imperative of affirming it.