Avoiding Enemies: U.S.-China Relations in Coming Decades

China’s Vice President Xi Jinping visited Washington in advance of his promotion to Communist Party General Secretary and Chinese President later this year.  It has been four decades since America and Beijing ended their cold war.  With bilateral tensions rising today, much is at stake in the U.S.-China relationship.  America’s paramount objective should be to avoid turning the People’s Republic of China into an enemy.

The challenges of dealing with the PRC are many: Virulent revolutionary communism has evolved into corrupt nationalistic fascism.  Beijing is pursuing policies contrary to those of America in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere.  The Chinese regime ruthlessly suppresses political dissent and irregularly persecutes religious believers.  Early market reforms have lost ground to corporatist industrial policy.  The belief that trade will inexorably turn China into a democratic capitalist state is fading.

Nevertheless, Beijing is no enemy of America.  Maoism is long dead and buried.  Xi understands the horrors of totalitarianism: his father, a high-ranking party official, was purged by Mao Zedong and Xi spent time working in the countryside during the brutal Cultural Revolution.  Chinese officials are interested in enhancing the PRC's power, not conquering America.

Nor is China capable of threatening the U.S.  Beijing has been aggressively asserting itself in East Asia, but has not challenged America.  The PRC is increasing military outlays, but remains far behind Washington.  Moreover, China is ringed by nations with which it has been at war: Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.  Southeast Asian states are increasing their arms purchases in response to Beijing’s aggressiveness.

Indeed, despite endless hype about the PRC’s “rise,” geopolitical greatness is not guaranteed.  Chinese politics is unsettled: Xi will be the predominant figure in Beijing, but the extent of his control remains undetermined.  Popular unrest over official corruption and other social ills continues to grow, with tens of thousands of protests occurring across the nation annually.  The PRC’s phenomenal economic growth is based on a shaky banking system and dangerous property bubble.  The “one-child” policy has delivered a rapidly aging population; China could grow old before it grows rich.  Yet only rising incomes provide the authoritarian governing elite with any popular legitimacy.  An economic crash could take down the political system as well.

The most fundamental interest of America, and Americans, in China is maintaining the peace.  Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz likened the rise of China to that of Germany, noting that it took two world wars to determine the place of the new united German state.  Those conflicts consumed tens of millions of lives and loosed the horrors of communism, fascism, and Nazism.

A conflict between nuclear-armed America and China would be even worse.  Washington has grown used to beating up decrepit minor powers—Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya.  The PRC would be no pushover.  And any victory would be dearly bought, as Beijing would not be inclined to forgive and forget.  Germany easily triumphed in the Franco-Prussian War, but earned the enduring enmity of Paris, setting the stage for World War I.

Thankfully, there is no cause for conflict.  Much divides the two nations, but no issue in dispute should plant the seeds of war.

Although the PRC has embraced the marketplace, its authoritarian rulers have chosen, much like America’s increasingly statist political leadership, to manipulate the economy for political ends.  That means U.S. companies are never likely to enjoy the “level playing field” which Washington ritualistically demands of other nations.  But rising salaries will reduce China’s competitive advantages and enhancing corporate profits is no justification for Washington to confront the PRC.  The economic relationship will remain mutually beneficial even if at times contentious.

Human rights will continue to divide the two states.  Economic liberalization has not resulted in democracy.  The Chinese people enjoy greater personal autonomy and rising incomes may create a middle class which steadily presses for more political freedom.  Nevertheless, the residents of Zhongnanhai, as Beijing’s leadership compound is known, are united in nothing if not their commitment to rule.  If they yield power, it will be in response to inexorable domestic pressure, not high-minded American rhetoric.

Economic and political competition between the U.S. and China is rising around the world.  Yet there is less there than meets the eye.  The economic pie can expand, so increased Chinese trade with, say, South Korea, does not mean decreased commerce with America.

Beijing also has been providing aid and investment to poorer states, seeking to purchase resource access, especially in Africa.  However, Washington should look on with indifference.  It’s hard to imagine what important American interest China could damage.  The U.S. battled with the Soviet Union for influence throughout the Third World during the Cold War, but achieved little for the many lives and abundant wealth wasted.  Already Beijing has faced a backlash in response to its hardball play for influence; popular antagonism is on the rise in countries like Zambia while Burma’s reformist regime has reached out to Washington and the West.

Despite U.S. pressure, China continues to oppose American policy toward Iran, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere.  Beijing’s obstructionism is an irritant, to be sure, but Washington’s promiscuous international bungling, highlighted by the disastrous and unnecessary invasion of Iraq, gives no foreign government confidence in American policies.  Anyway, the mere fact that the U.S. might have the better argument does not change the fact that other governments see their interests differently.  If Washington ever enjoyed a unipolar moment, that time is past.  To influence the PRC in the future America will have to rely on diplomacy, not diktats.

Much has been made of Beijing’s ongoing military build-up, yet the PRC remains far behind America.  The U.S. possesses the world’s most effective military.  America has the best nuclear arsenal, most versatile air force, largest navy, and finest ground forces.  Even excluding costs of the Afghan war America is spending three to four times as much as the PRC. 

It will take years, if not decades, for Beijing to catch up.  For instance, Washington deploys 11 carrier groups.  China recently launched its first carrier—originally a Soviet cast-off sold as scrap by the Ukrainians.  The PRC has neither airpower nor support vessels for that ship.  Instead of attempting to build a military capable of threatening America, Beijing is seeking to construct a force capable of defending against America: missiles and submarines to sink U.S. carriers; a Blue Water navy to protect Chinese commerce; anti-satellite technology to blind the Pentagon; nuclear weapons to deter American threats.

Chinese ambitions always have been bounded historically.  In recent years the PRC has focused on reclaiming what it saw as “lost” territories:  Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan.  Now it is pressing territorial claims in the South China Sea.  There is nothing to suggest that Beijing is interested in conquering Japan or Australia, let alone America.

Moreover, after garrisoning East Asia for 67 years, Washington should relinquish responsibility for protecting its prosperous allies.  Japan should create a military commensurate with its geopolitical interests.  South Korea should overcome memories of colonialism to build a cooperative relationship with Tokyo.  Other East Asian countries should build on current efforts to further expand their militaries.  India should join in creating effective regional security structures.

The status of Taipei understandably concerns the U.S.  Taiwan has created a thriving liberal society, a capitalist democracy which challenges China’s essentially fascist system.  The Taiwanese people are entitled to decide their own future, free of intimidation from Beijing.  However, American support for Taiwan’s self-determination does not warrant going to war with a nuclear-armed power.  Washington should sell Taipei whatever weapons it desires rather than to send Americans to use such weapons in a war with China.

Taiwan is of interest to the PRC for more than reasons of nationalism.  Beijing wants to break any attempt by the U.S. at containment.  That is, the most significant area of potential conflict is Washington’s apparent determination to dominate East Asia by maintaining military forces and alliance relationships along China’s border.  American officials, both military and civilian, talk as if deterring Washington is the equivalent to attacking the U.S.  But they might consider how the world would look to America in reverse.

Imagine if another nation routinely sent its navy into the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast.  Imagine if another nation insisted on aiding Cuba in the latter’s conflict with America.  Imagine if another nation insisted that it was entitled to help settle the status of several disputed Caribbean Islands.  Imagine if the military of another nation talked about overcoming America’s attempts at “anti-access/area denial” and civilian policymakers of that nation talked about maintaining the ability to win a war with America.

How would Americans feel and respond?  Probably pretty much as China has to America.  Beijing is irritated by Washington treating “its core concerns with what it views as a bullying, dismissive attitude,” as the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kenneth G. Lieberthal put it.  The Chinese leadership is determined to defend the PRC’s interests and build up the PRC’s military, despite U.S. complaints.

The point is not that there is moral equivalence between the two governments.  Thankfully, today’s China is far improved over Mao’s China.  But Beijing still falls far short when it comes to protecting individual liberty and respecting human dignity.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that everything the PRC does is illegitimate, let alone warrants a potential American military response.

Anthony Blinken, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, called Xi Jinping’s visit “an investment in the future of the U.S.-China relationship.”  Serious investment is called for, since it probably is the most important relationship in the world and for this century.  How the current superpower and likely next superpower get along will determine whether the years ahead are ones of peace or war.

The best way for the U.S. to invest in the relationship is through a policy of official nonintervention, with an emphasis on peace and free enterprise.  Washington should resort to war if necessary to defend America—its people, territory, and liberties.  Washington should not threaten war to impose its will on China on issues of less than vital importance to America.

Nor is the U.S. going to browbeat China into changing.  Hopefully the PRC will become a liberal democracy, which protects freedom in all its forms.  But even a democratic China would likely be a nationalist China prepared to challenge America.  In any case, that nation’s destiny is in the hands of the Chinese people, not Washington policymakers.  When it comes to Beijing, humility surely is the best policy.

Rather than attempt to change the PRC directly, America should promote political and economic cooperation.  Washington needs to place peace as its highest official priority.  The U.S. has much at stake in its relationship with China, with many potential areas of fruitful cooperation, but the most important objective is avoiding a conflict, which would be catastrophic.  Do that, and other controversies are more likely to fall into place.  That doesn’t mean rolling over when important issues are at stake.  But it means avoiding unnecessary confrontations, especially for only limited interests.  Anyway, Beijing might never overcome the many significant barriers to becoming the globe’s next leader.

Economic ties should be led by the American people rather than pushed by the American government.  Staging a trade war benefits no one, other than domestic interests seeking protection.  No doubt, Beijing has tried to “manipulate” trade rules for its benefit, but the U.S. government does not have clean hands.  And no one in Washington is capable of managing the market—for example, deciding the “real” value China’s currency.

America still dominates the globe, and will be the most important nation for years to come.  But increasingly Washington is likely to have to share the International center stage with the PRC.  How gracefully America accommodates the interests of the rising power—and how gracefully Beijing reciprocates—likely will determine the character of the 21st Century.

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