U.S.-China Relations

Since Mao Zedong’s overthrow of China’s western-backed monarchic government in 1949, China’s relationship with the United States has gone through ups and downs on the surface of an undercurrent of evolution. Before Mao’s takeover in 1949, China had been subject to foreign intrusions which coincided with the expansion of European colonialism around the globe. Britain’s “Opium Wars” of the 1840’s against China was an attempt by Britain to bring China under its control. Before Britain’s intrusions into China, China was largely an isolated kingdom. China had little to no interest in engaging with the outside world. China considered itself “The Middle Kingdom” where it stood at the center of the world and surrounded by “barbarians.” Now, China is very much a global power with global ambitions after its leaders assessed that the only way China would be able to fend off Western intimidation and bullying was by becoming Western and employing Western methods of development.

America believed it had lost China in 1949, and the two countries engaged in proxy wars in both Korea and Vietnam. Soon after these two proxy wars, however, the relationship began to normalize and stabilize. In the past, much of the evolution that took place in the U.S.-Chinese relationship has been the result of American initiative. In 1971, Henry Kissinger paved the way for President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Nixon’s visit was the first of a series of diplomatic overtures that would open China to the West. And in 1979, the United States recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of China. As a result of U.S. recognition, Deng Xiaoping significantly opened the Chinese economy to the West. China then covertly assisted the United States in the final stages of the Cold War when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan.

After the Cold War, China focused heavily on strengthening its economy in a relative state of isolation, and its leaders insist to this day that China’s rise will be peaceful. There is the chance of both the United States and China falling into what is known as “The Thucydides Trap,” where the status quo power goes to war with a rising power. Based on expert studies, there is a 75 percent chance that the United States and China will fall into the Thucydides Trap. However, China’s grand strategy based on “Wei Qi” dictates that the Chinese will avoid war at all costs.

As a result, the prospects for peace between the United States and China are quite probable. There are other reasons that would lead one to suggest that war between the United States and China is avoidable. For one, the brief history of U.S.-Chinese relations during the Cold War and after suggests that China is open to cooperation with the United States. Due to China’s openness toward cooperation with the United States, all other factors for peace between the world’s two biggest powers remain relevant and thus are able to be cultivated through diplomatic efforts. Furthermore, China is a status quo power. China does not seek to overthrow the world’s prevailing order, nor does it seek to undermine U.S. power; rather, it seeks further involvement in world affairs within the prevailing order.

As the British political scientist E.H. Carr stated in a book titled Conditions of Peace, the world is divided between satisfied powers seeking to maintain the status quo and dissatisfied powers seeking to undermine or overthrow the status quo. China is different from Russia in the sense that China is quite satisfied with the contributions the United States has made to international affairs since World War II and has benefitted from those contributions significantly. Since the days of Alfred Thayer Mahan, China has largely upheld a gentleman’s agreement with the United States that places the responsibility of patrolling channels of commerce in international waters as long as China refrains from building a navy. Perhaps China’s recent naval expansion is for limited interests which ensures that channels of commerce remain opened in addition to preserving territorial sovereignty.

The U.S.-led liberal order was a repudiation of inevitable conflict that was common in Europe until World War II. Whether or not China and the United States engage in realpolitik and ultimately undermine global order and stability is an ongoing question. World order is predicated on stable relations between the United States and China. Given that balance of power in a realpolitik environment rests upon the distribution of power, the key to peace and global order is a reasonable concession of power to China.

Given that the recent history of the U.S.-Chinese relationship does not trigger any significant red flags, an orderly and gradual concession of power to China by the United States may have more benefits than costs in the sense that China may contribute to the maintenance of the U.S.-led liberal order that was essentially a renunciation of Europe’s realist past. China is an Asian power, not a European power, and as a result there is reason to suggest that realpolitik is something that the Chinese wish to forego for economic development and the expansion of global commerce as suggested by their recent “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI).

It does beg the question, however: how should the United States concede power to China and why should the United States accommodate China into the international order? The answer may differ based on perspective. But the first step does require a transformation in the perception of power. In a world where both of the world’s biggest powers are largely in favor of the status quo, power is now positive-sum as opposed to zero-sum. The issue is not compromise. Instead, the issue becomes one of building on compromise. If the United States does concede a reasonable amount of power to China over the course of the near future, what will China provide in return?

To figure this out, it becomes absolutely necessary for the United States to remain engaged with China and to demand of China that it plays a part in addressing transnational issues and acting as a responsible stakeholder in the maintenance of global order. After all, as Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in his book The Grand Chessboard, the objective of the U.S. military presence in East Asia is to peacefully integrate China into the U.S.-led international system, not to repel China, regardless of how oxymoronic that approach may seem. When a military presence is balanced with stable diplomacy, preferred outcomes are much more probable.

Another factor that will determine the nature of the U.S.-Chinese relationship is the continuation of long-standing U.S. foreign policy doctrine. As Henry Kissinger stated in his book titled World Order, U.S. foreign policy doctrine since World War II demands as its core tenet that the U.S. have relations with Russia and China that are better than the relations Russia and China have with each other. Continuation of long-standing U.S. foreign policy doctrine in this day and age may in fact make peace more attainable than a change in doctrine. The reason why the core tenet of U.S. foreign policy doctrine has not been achieved is because of Russia, not China. Russia’s core ideology, as Kissinger argues in World Order, is that conflict with the West is inevitable. In addition, America’s policy of global hegemony in the 21st century has also hindered the evolution of U.S.-China relations.

China is largely a non-ideological power, as demonstrated by recent history summarized above. Therefore, a U.S. strategy that envelops China first and acquires China’s assistance may enable the prospects of enveloping Russia into the U.S.-led international system down the road, though there is no guarantee of doing so given Kissinger’s assertion that Russia’s core ideology is conflict with the West. Brzezinski has suggested that when the United States pushes China, Russia follows; thus, Russia’s actions are in large part determined by its relationship with China.

As a result, the prospects for peace between the United States and China will be determined to a large extent by three major factors:

1) a reasonable concession of power by the United States to China in an orderly and gradual manner contingent upon China’s cooperation with the United States on global issues

2) Unwavering diplomatic engagements between the United States and China until both countries build on their basic compromise

3) The continuation of long-standing U.S. foreign policy doctrine as formulated soon after World War II and during the Cold War.

One possible way the United States can concede a reasonable amount of power to China in the near future without diminishing U.S. power is to encourage and manage China’s westward expansion. By encouraging China to expand westward, China will fit within what Brzezinski calls in The Grand Chessboard a “Trans-Eurasian Security System” (TESS). This system is essentially a military-security framework set by the United States, the parameters of which lie in Europe, the Persian Gulf Region, and East Asia. By getting China to play the role of spearheading Asian economic development within TESS, China will steer clear of colliding with the United States at TESS’s parameters.

Relations with China under Donald Trump, however, have been schizophrenic. While negotiating trade deals with China, the United States’ relations with China under Donald Trump’s administration has been based on obstructing China’s relations with other countries. Before the United States proceeds with obstructing China’s relations with other countries, an evolution of the U.S.-China relationship must take place through determining the final status of Taiwan as well as determining China’s role as an economic force that spearheads Asian development in order to mitigate the adverse effects of war and poverty that are prevalent in Asia. Arming Taiwan is the equivalent of China arming separatist groups inside of the United States who seek to undermine the authority of the federal government.

The major roadblock to an evolution of U.S.-China relations is the most basic predicament of international relations known as the “security dilemma” as well as the security context in East Asia that has changed dramatically with the rise of China over the last couple of decades. The recent U.S. pivot to Asia that took place under Barack Obama is aimed primarily at addressing China’s increasing military activities in East Asia as well as the South China Sea. China’s economic rise in the last couple of decades has coincided with China’s buildup of military installations and operations, particularly in the South China Sea. China’s military incursions in the South China Sea aims at achieving two objectives in particular:

1) Ensuring second-strike capability against potential enemies in East Asia by seizing various islands in the South China Sea

2) Securing resources and ensuring the free flow of commerce by strategically deploying its military in the South China Sea and near the Strait of Malacca.

Thus, China’s military activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere are largely for defensive and economic reasons. An offensive demeanor would be destructive for China, given the technological edge the United States holds through its projection of power in East Asia. Any adaptation by the United States to the security context in East Asia characterized mainly by the rise of China should take into consideration China’s defensive posturing as well as its economic pursuits.

U.S. security interests in East Asia contain three basic elements:

1) Moderating tensions and conflicts between East Asian powers through a U.S. security presence

2) Securing global commons, in particular the waterways that facilitate maritime commerce in East Asia such as the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea

3) Integrating China into the international order primarily through economic cooperation and then progressively toward liberal norms

There is the possibility of all three of America’s basic interests in South Asia being compromised by the surge in military activities on the part of China in the South China Sea. One should ask: how can the United States overcome China’s military assertion in the South China Sea and advance these interests?

At this point, the best strategy in achieving all three objectives and interests would be a renewed bilateral diplomacy with China and seeking China’s cooperation on all three objectives while clearly reiterating the rationale for the American presence in East Asia. Right now, the United States is still going through a period of austerity as a result of the sunk costs incurred through its activities in the Middle East as well as the financial crisis that hit the United States in 2008 and the recent coronavirus outbreak. The United States has not fully recovered from these setbacks. The unipolar moment that the United States enjoyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union began slipping away as a result of being bogged down in the Middle East and Afghanistan. What accompanied the demise of the American unipolar moment was the rise of China.

Through its actions and efforts, China is seeking peer power status with the United States. Containing China’s rise would spell conflict. Furthermore, containment is effective only if the target seeks conflict. China, as it appears, does not seek conflict with the United States, as reiterated by China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom in a recent interview with the BBC. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was driven by an ideology of inevitable conflict with the West, and thus containment was necessary and fruitful. In the case of China, however, containment is neither necessary nor fruitful. Instead of containment and conflict, cooperation would distribute a reasonable and optimal amount of power to China in Asia and will lead to a potential equilibrium in East Asia between the United States and China.

What results from equilibrium theoretically is peace and stability, given that equilibrium is accompanied by sustained diplomacy aimed at cooperation in the maintenance of global order. For one, the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement between the United States and China was no small feat, and it signaled China’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on transnational issues. Accommodating China’s rise through cooperation would enable the United States to focus on internal balancing by recuperating on the domestic front in order to sustain an equilibrium in East Asia and renew the United States’ ability to deal with a range of international issues in the coming future.

Integrating China into the economic aspect of the international order, however, is beginning to reach its limits. China is now converting economic power into the attainment of political prestige, beginning with military development. China is seeking to solidify its defense through military development and activity in areas such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Through military development, diplomacy, and trade, China also seeks to secure resources around the globe in order to sustain economic development. Cooperating with China and accommodating its rise would not only help the United States at a time of austerity and internal balancing, but it would also mitigate the threats that could possibly stem from a rising China. Cooperation, equilibrium, and thus peace and stability in East Asia would set the basis for U.S.-Chinese cooperation in other regions of the world.

In addition to the problems of overcoming austerity and the need to focus on internal balancing, the United States constitutes only 5 percent of the world’s population and thus it can no longer be the world’s hegemonic power. There is no doubt that the United States is the most powerful country in the world and that it has the technological edge over all other countries. But in order to accomplish the objectives it seeks to accomplish in places like East Asia and to advance its interests throughout the world, the United States needs partners. Partnering with China, which is coincidentally the second biggest power in the world, would render U.S. efforts in accomplishing objectives and advancing interests much more efficient and effective.

The United States faces two major policy choices in regards to China:

1) Partnering with China and thus channeling China’s rise towards the fulfillment of shared political objectives predicated on the maintenance of global order

2) Attempting to contain China’s rise and as a result spur hostility that lead to the placement of the United States and China into two opposing alliance systems primed for conflict

Distributing a fair amount of power to China and allowing it to reach its power capacity that currently falls short of U.S. power would be a small price to pay in a broader effort to avoid conflict in East Asia. In the long run, once the United States has overcome austerity and undergone the internal balancing necessary for continued power projection, the opportunity to tilt the balance of power against China in East Asia may arise depending on China’s course of development in the future.

But until the opportunity to tilt the balance of power against China arises in the long run, the short-term to medium-term focus of the United States should be to accommodate China’s rise in Asia and to maintain a balance of power and equilibrium for the intent and purpose of achieving peace and stability in that region of the world, if not the entire world, given that global order and stability will ultimately depend on the U.S.-China relationship.

The international system developed by the United States after World War II based on political and economic cooperation led to economic interdependence between the United States and China. Seeking to “contain” China’s development would push China into seeking alliances in opposition to the United States which in turn will bolster its pursuit of military prowess and leave the United States hamstrung in both internal balancing and future power projection. In a basic sense, the only choices before us are cooperation or conflict, and the latter would be foolhardy in an age of mutual assured destruction.

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