I recently had the opportunity to participate in a comprehensive dialogue session at the Chinese Embassy in Washington among Chinese diplomats and American experts on China-U.S. relations. Several interesting themes emerged from our Chinese colleagues in these discussions that deserve the attention of a wider audience.
The most interesting theme was an odd juxtaposition of Chinese concerns about the Asian Pivot—the strategic rebalancing of U.S. diplomatic and military resources towards the Asia-Pacific region—combined with their feeling that domestic priorities and concerns in the Middle East will derail this strategic rebalancing toward Asia.
The Chinese also insisted that their nonproliferation policies towards Iran and North Korea were close to those of the United States. Like Washington, Beijing supported a “dual-track” policy of sanctions and diplomacy, with the hope that a combination of such sticks and carrots would induce both Tehran and Pyongyang to curtail the proliferation-sensitive activities.
The Chinese diplomats further believed that the leadership transitions in both countries would make it easier for China and the United States to achieve a “new model” relationship. Through dialogue and cooperation, they believed that we could overcome distrust and deal with the “rising power problem”—that China’s growing economic and military potential would trigger an American response that would lead to a confrontation between the rising and currently dominant global powers.
Let us address these issues in turn.
First, President Barack Obama has clearly resolved to make Asia his priority region. He sees himself as Americans’ first Asian President and has, like his other senior national security team, spend more time in East Asia than in any other region. In Europe and the Middle East, he expects U.S. allies and partners to assume more of the burden of sustaining regional security, such as by strengthening their local defense capabilities and by assuming a more prominent diplomatic role in addressing regional developments such as domestic political transitions and regional economic recovery.
In fact, Obama seeks to encourage Asian countries, above all China but also Japan and South Korea, to apply their resources to promote peace and development in other regions—hence his efforts to make the U.S. alliances in Japan and South Korea have a more global focus. He especially believes he needs China’s support to deal with the world’s most serious problems—including the domestic challenges of making the U.S. economy more competitive internationally as well as the challenges from global climate change and WMD proliferation.
With respect to the latter, there are clear differences between how China and the United States deal with proliferation problems. It is true that, more than any time in their history, China and the United States are pursuing similar nonproliferation goals within a shared set of institutions, rules, and principles—ranging from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to less formal U.S.-led nonproliferation initiatives.
Although disputes and concerns remain in certain areas, the general record of China and Russia regarding the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery has improved in the last twenty years. Beijing has shown an increasing willingness to address U.S. concerns about its WMD-related policies. China has also joined a number of non-proliferation treaties and institutions as well as adopted an expanding range of export controls limiting the sale of technologies that could potentially contribute to WMD proliferation. Especially in its declaratory policies, Chinese policy makers emphasize their desire to achieve mutually beneficial “win-win” outcomes that advance both Chinese and U.S. interests.
Yet, China has joined with Russia in leading international opposition against imposing rigorous sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and other countries that have violated their nonproliferation commitments. In Iran and North Korea, Chinese companies have exploited the WMD-related penalties imposed by the UN and Western governments by backfilling for other departing foreign firms. Unlike Moscow, China refuses to support let alone join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to curtail the illicit spread of WMD, their technologies and materials, and their means of delivery.
Although Chinese leaders have warned Tehran and Pyongyang against acquiring nuclear weapons, Chinese policy makers have stressed the value of engagement rather than punishment of these proliferation-threatening regimes. Fundamentally, Chinese officials want to see changes in these countries’ policies rather than in their regimes, which is the root of their alienation from the international community and their pursuit of WMDs.
As for the rising power problem, several factors also make a deliberate war between China and the United States very unlikely at any time. First, unlike during the U.S. confrontations with NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union, the China-U.S. rivalry lacks an ideological dimension.
Second, globalization has created deeper and wider economic ties between China and the United States than have ever existed in modern history between a rising and the established power. A war would drive them and the rest of the world economy into a global depression. The causes of conflict between the United States and China are limited and, in the aggregate, both countries can gain more through cooperation than through competition.
Finally, both countries have nuclear weapons. They know that any military confrontation between them therefore risks escalating into a global nuclear war—bringing mutual assured destruction as well as mutually assured depression.
Yet, U.S. officials are rightful concerned about the implications of the growth of China’s power for the regional and overall balance of power and the effectiveness of U.S.-backed institutions. Historically, it is often difficult for established powers to accommodate a rising power. The lack of Chinese political and security transparency further complicates this global power transition by deepening uncertainties regarding Beijing’s goals and means.
Above all, it remains unclear how committed Chinese leaders will be to maintaining freedom of access to the global commons. Many Chinese leaders appear to have a 19th-century exclusionary view of national sovereignty in a 21st -century world, where leaders accept they must sacrifice some of their national freedom of action for the greater common goods of international peace and prosperity.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.