The article presents a detailed analysis of Sino-US relations focusing especially on the future prospects for two super powers. The critique has been written in the wake of the second term of US President Barack Obama and the regime change in China.
Asia’s central task, in future, is to avoid major confrontations between the US and China; a difficult but doable task. It requires both parties to understand each other thoroughly, to act calmly despite provocations and to manage the domestic and regional forces that threaten to pull them apart. This requires a deeper and more institutionalized relationship — one anchored in a strategic framework that accepts the reality of competition, the importance of cooperation and the fact that these are not mutually exclusive propositions.
Hidden Dragon No Longer
The speed, scale and reach of China’s rise are unprecedented. Within 30 years, China’s economy has grown to larger than all countries, except USA. China will soon be the largest economy and it will be the first time since George III that a non-English-speaking, non-Western country will lead the global economy. But, where economic power goes, political and strategic power usually follow. China’s rise will generate intersecting and conflicting interests and worldviews. Preserving the peace will be critical, not only for the three billion Asians but also for the future of the global order. Much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia, and this in turn, will be shaped by China’s rise and its peaceful management without any fundamental disruption to the order.
The post-war order in Asia has rested on the US power that is anchored in military alliances. In recent years, China’s rise and the USA’s fiscal and economic difficulties had called the framework’s durability into question. A sense of strategic uncertainty had emerged in various capitals. The Obama’s “rebalance” has served as necessary corrective, re-establishing strategic fundamentals. But, it will not be enough to preserve the peace — a challenge that will be increasingly complex and urgent as great-power politics interact with a growing array of sub-regional conflicts and intersecting territorial claims in the East China and South China seas.
China views these developments through the prism of its domestic and international priorities. The Chinese Politburo sees its core responsibilities as keeping the Communist Party in power, maintaining the territorial integrity, sustaining robust economic growth by transforming the country’s growth model, ensuring energy security, preserving global and regional stability, modernizing military and more robustly asserting China’s foreign policy interests.
China’s priorities are shaped by its domestic economic and political imperatives. Now, when Marxism has lost its ideological relevance, the continuing legitimacy of the party depends on a combination of economic performance, political nationalism and corruption control. China also sees its rise in the context of its national history, as the final repudiation of a century of foreign tyranny (beginning with the Opium Wars and ending with the Japanese occupation) and as the country’s return to its proper status as a great civilization. China has little history of invading other countries and none of maritime colonialism, and has itself been the target of invasions. This implies that the West and others shouldn’t fear China’s rise. In fact, they could benefit from the growth of its economy.
China, however, overlooks the difference between “threat” and “uncertainty” — the reality of what is called “the security dilemma” — that is, the way that Beijing’s pursuit of legitimate interests can raise concerns. This raises the question that whether China has developed a grand strategy for the longer term? The core, and yet open, question is whether China will continue to work cooperatively within the current rules-based global order once it has acquired great-power status?
Xi Who Must Be Obeyed
The new president, Xi Jinping, will have a significant, perhaps decisive, impact on China’s national policy. He is confident of both his military and reformist backgrounds, and having nothing to prove on these fronts gives him some space to manoeuvre. He has a historian’s understanding of his responsibilities. He is the most likely Chinese official since Deng to become more than primus inter pares.
Xi has set an unprecedented pace and has bluntly stated that unless corruption is dealt with, China will suffer chaos. He set out Politburo guidelines to cut down on pointless meetings and political speechifying, supported taking action against many politically outspoken publications and websites. Most particularly, Xi has stated that China now needs more economic reforms. On foreign and security policy, however, he has been relatively quiet.
But as a high-ranking member of the Central Military Commission, Xi has played an important role in the commission’s “leading groups” on policy for the East China and South China seas. Beijing’s recent actions in those waterways imply that he is a hard-liner on national security policy. Some analysts point to the foreign policy formulations he used during his visit to the US in February 2012, when he referred to the need for “a new type of great-power relationship” with Washington and was apparently puzzled over the little substantive response.
At present, it is incorrect to see Xi as a potential Gorbachev and his reforms as the beginning of a Chinese glasnost. China is not the Soviet Union, nor is it about to become the Russian Federation. However, Xi is likely to take China in a new direction. The country’s new leaders are economic reformers by instinct or intellectual training. Executing the massive transformation will take most of their political capital and will require continued political control. On the foreign policy front, the Chinese leadership has an even stronger interest in maintaining strategic stability for at least the next decade. This may conflict occasionally with Chinese offshore territorial claims, but when it does, China will prefer to resolve the conflicts rather than have them derail that stability. On balance, Xi is a leader the United States should seek to do business with.
Obama’s Turn to Take Initiative
The Obama’s rebalancing is part of a broader regional diplomatic and economic strategy that also includes the decision to become a member of the East Asia Summit and plans to develop the Trans-Pacific Partnership, deepen the United States’ strategic partnership with India, and open the door to Myanmar. Some term Washington’s renewed vigour the cause of recent increased tensions across East Asia. But this does not stand up to scrutiny, given that the proliferation of significant regional security incidents began more than half a decade ago.
China, a nation of foreign and security policy realists where Clausewitz, Carr and Morgenthau are mandatory reading in military academies, respects strategic strength. Beijing couldn’t have been expected to welcome the pivot. But its opposition doesn’t mean that the new US policy is misguided. The rebalancing has been welcomed across the other capitals of Asia but because governments there are uncertain what a China-dominated region would mean. So now that the rebalance is being implemented, the question for US policymakers is where to take the China relationship next.
One possibility for United States, to accelerate the level of strategic competition with China, would be demonstrating that Beijing has no chance of outmanoeuvring Washington and its allies. But this is financially unsustainable and thus not credible. A second possibility would be to maintain the status quo as the rebalancing takes effect, accepting that no fundamental improvement in bilateral relations is possible and perpetually concentrating on issue and crisis management. But this would be too passive and would run the risk of being overwhelmed by the number and complexity of the crises to be managed.
Both governments also need people working on behalf of the national leaders, managing the agenda between summits and handling issues as the need arises. The USA needs someone to play the role that Henry Kissinger did in the early 1970s, and so does China.
Washington and Beijing should also upgrade their regular military-to-military dialogues to the level of principals such as the US secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This should be insulated from the ebbs and flows of the relationship, with meetings focusing on regional security challenges. Washington should also consider extending the Trans-Pacific Partnership to include both China and Japan, and eventually India as well.
Toward A New Shanghai Communique
The US and Chinese officials should think hard about grounding their less conflictual, more cooperative relationship in a new Shanghai Communique. Such a suggestion usually generates a toxic response in Washington, because communiques are seen as diplomatic dinosaurs and because such a process might threaten to reopen the contentious issue of Taiwan.
The start of Obama’s second term, and Xi’s first, presents a unique opportunity to put the Sino-US relationship on a better course. It, however, will require sustained leadership from the highest levels of both governments and a common conceptual framework and institutional structure to guide the work of their respective bureaucracies, both civilian and military. History teaches that the rise of new great powers often triggers major global conflicts. It lies within the power of Obama and Xi to prove that twenty-first-century Asia can be an exception to what has otherwise been a deeply depressing historical norm.