In 2011, I argued in a book entitled America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century, that, while Washington and Beijing are by no means fated to enter into a hot or even a cold war, the competing assumptions they hold regarding the necessary conditions for long-term stability and prosperity in Asia, if not moderated through a process of mutual accommodation, would likely result in steady movement toward a zero-sum, adversarial mind-set. I wrote that this dynamic could eventually polarize the region and undermine the goals of continued peace and prosperity toward which all sides strive. Unfortunately, in the past three years, this type of mind-set has deepened, in and out of both governments and across much of Asia. Indeed, the international media, along with a coterie of regional and international relations specialists, increasingly seem to interpret every action taken by one government, no matter how small, as being by necessity designed to diminish the position of the other.
Even more worrisome, this deepening mind-set is driving policy statements and recommendations in Beijing and Washington that serve to reinforce and strengthen, rather than moderate, the differences between the two sides. While China’s leader, Xi Jinping, speaks of the need to develop an “Asia for Asians” and to create a new regional security architecture as an alternative to the “Cold War era” U.S.-led bilateral alliance structure, American policymakers and analysts criticize Beijing for establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea of the sort long possessed by Washington and Tokyo and encourage other Asian states to resist joining Chinese-initiated economic institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
CLASHING ASSUMPTIONS ON THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE ASIAN ORDER
The core assumptions underlying this negative dynamic juxtapose, on the one side, the post–World War II American notion that long-term order and prosperity depend on the unique leadership role and dominant military power of the United States as a security guarantor, dispute arbiter, deterrent force, supporter of international law, and provider of public goods for states located in critical regions of the world, including the maritime Asia-Pacific. Indeed, for virtually all U.S. officials and many Asian leaders, American military predominance, meaning the clear ability to defeat any potential military challenge to U.S. and allied interests anywhere along the Asian littoral and across the Western Pacific, from the continental United States to the Indian Ocean, has provided the foundation for a seventy-year-long period of relative peace and economic growth throughout most of the region. In this view, U.S. maritime primacy has forestalled arms races and armed disputes over long-standing rivalries and permitted a sustained focus on peaceful economic development.
On the other side, the Chinese espouse the belief that order and prosperity, especially in an increasingly multipolar and interdependent world, should rely on a largely benign and roughly equal balance of power between the major nations, rooted in the need to cooperate to manage an arguably increasing number of common challenges and mediated, whenever possible, through international institutions such as the United Nations. In this more broadly dispersed yet hierarchical power structure, stronger powers have a duty both to guide and shape smaller powers in mutually beneficial directions, not to dominate and manipulate them. In this world, no single power should have the ability or the intention to keep other powers in a condition of military or political subservience, and no power should seriously infringe on the sovereignty of another power without the endorsement of the
To some extent, these U.S. and Chinese views are self-serving. While taking on many burdens across the globe in defending public goods such as sea lines of communication and enduring persistent trade deficits in order to stimulate global development, Washington nonetheless benefits enormously from a U.S.-led international order in which its views and preferences are given special consideration. Its military power and economic clout ensure a privileged position in major finance, trade, and security-oriented regimes, meaning that the makeup, purpose, and rules of those regimes largely reflect its power and interests, operate in ways that affirm U.S. views on the most critical issues, and cannot be changed in major ways without Washington’s approval. Conversely, the Chinese seem to believe that a genuine balance-of-power system and a strengthened process of rules-based, international decision-making — meaning that no single power has the clear unilateral ability to compel others to accept its rules and procedures — will benefit China by giving it a greater voice among nations and serving to restrain a supposedly arrogant, unilateralist, and at times threatening the United States.
Copyright: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace