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Foreign Policy

Managing Strategic Competition Between China and the U.S.

Aug 10 , 2016
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The China-U.S. standoff in the South China Sea has attracted more attention than the China-Philippines and China-Vietnam territorial disputes. China-U.S. military interaction in the South China Sea has become a focus of public opinion as it draws the media limelight. But for those engaged in strategic studies and decision-making in both countries, a truly important subject for deliberation is the future orientation of China-U.S. relations.

The South China Sea and a New Pattern of China-U.S. Relations

It was a significant strategic decision for the U.S. to openly intervene militarily in the South China Sea. Even if we continue to consider American and Chinese military actions in the South China Sea as regional developments, their strategic intentions are beyond doubt: a consolidating momentum of competition between both countries as strategic rivals in the Asia-Pacific.

The peculiar complexity of China-U.S. relations derives from such a fact: They are two enormous countries that are dramatically different, yet they have become more interconnected.

The so-called historical changes China-U.S. relations are undergoing include changes in both the pattern of this particular relationship as well as those in the broader international order. Those changes have two layers of significance: One refers to changes in comparative strengths; another refers to changes in the way other nations relate. China’s rise resulted in changes in the comparative strengths of China and the U.S.; meanwhile, China’s rise has taken place as it integrated with the rest of the world and actively participated in the process of globalization. One of the most important consequences of the integration is that the two countries have become each other’s most important stakeholders. China-U.S. relations have been proceeding simultaneously in the dimensions of both competition and cooperation: On one hand they are each other’s main strategic rival, on the other hand they are important partners that need each other. Such a pattern of relationship between two major countries is unprecedented in history.

For decision-makers in Beijing and Washington, how to evaluate the complicated dimensions of this new pattern is of vital importance.

It goes without saying that the competitive aspect of China-U.S. relations has grown prominent under the new pattern. The perception of containment in U.S.-China strategy continues to expand, which is most obviously reflected in U.S. military moves in the South China Sea. This seems to indicate that implementation of the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific has entered a new phase, with an intention to regionally contain China. At the same time, we have seen another dangerous tendency: The Pentagon has constantly escalated its moves in the South China Sea, and some senior military officials are increasingly provocative verbally. It takes further observation to judge whether this will mean fresh changes in U.S.-China strategy.

However, some Washington insiders have stated in explicit terms that the U.S. has decided to take more targeted and comprehensive measures to “counter” so-called Chinese moves to “change the status quo.” Evidently, the so-called concern about “freedom of navigation” is only a pretext for the truer intention of preserving U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific.

The main reason for worsening China-U.S. strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific is that the U.S. sees itself as guardian of international order in the region and the rise of China increasingly as an inevitable challenge that has to be preemptively stopped, and contained. If the act of the U.S. pivoting to the Asia-Pacific follows such a course, it will solidify the two countries’ structural contradictions, and bilateral relations may thus eventually slide into the “Thucydides’ trap”.

Structural contradictions

Structural contradictions between China and the U.S. include problems on two levels. On one level, there is a divergence in political systems and ideologies.

On another level, a contradictory relationship between major strategic rivals has gradually taken shape in recent years. The theoretical expression of China-U.S. structural contradictions from the realistic perspective is: The power structure between a main rising power and a main incumbent power will inevitably lead to a relationship between two main rivals.

However, that analysis fails to appreciate the significant development of economic interdependence between countries, neglects the obviously increasing functions of domestic factors in the new pattern of relations, and therefore fails to interpret the new changes in China-U.S. relations in a dynamic manner. Over-emphasis of structural contradictions, especially by letting structural contradictions dictate policy deliberations, may amplify disagreements, worsen negative feelings, inspire inclinations for confrontation, and create bigger difficulties for improving China-U.S. ties.

Danger of Mearsheimer theory

The core argument of John J. Mearsheimer’s classic The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is that a “security dilemma” is an unavoidable structural problem between great powers. He concludes that, for great powers, vying for hegemony is the best choice in the pursuit of security. He further induces that this is an inevitable goal of China’s rise; therefore confrontation is inescapable between China and the U.S. On such a basis, he advocates that the U.S. needs to carry out total containment of China in a Cold-War manner. In his interpretation of the Obama administration’s rebalancing of Asia, he claims Obama’s strategic measures center on containing China, yet they have concealed realistic moves with liberalist rhetoric. Given his authoritative scholarly impacts in international studies, his theories have exerted considerable negative influence on academic and diplomatic circles in both countries. His own intentions aside, Mearsheimer’s theories and proposals are actually providing a foundation for the U.S. to implement power politics and preserve its hegemony, which is why they have been favored by hardliners in the U.S.

The new pattern of relations between China and the U.S. is a complex body of contradictions and dynamics. Simplistically, diagramming China-U.S. relations has been an elusive puzzle in the past few years. Too many experts in both countries have resorted to the approaches adopted by Hollywood blockbusters and interpreted the disagreements and tensions between China and the U.S. as rising structural contradictions that resulted from changes in their comparative strengths. This has led to cross-validation of corresponding “threat” theories in both countries.

In the U.S., the mention of “China’s rise” is usually associated with “challenging U.S. leadership,” “threatening US security interests,” or “stealing American jobs,” which has almost become synonymous with a vague “China threat.” On the other hand, experts, scholars, and think tanks constantly release theses and research reports, arguing that the U.S. is not in decline, that it remains strong, that the U.S. should always maintain its position as the No.1 world power with continued dominance in Asia.

In China, there is the popular assumption that the decline of the U.S. is already a fact, and that the U.S. is increasingly bogged down in domestic and international difficulty; therefore, in order to prevent China from taking its place, the U.S. is beginning to contain China’s development in an all-round manner, disseminating “China Threat” theories, instigating neighboring countries to make trouble for China, creating an Asian version of the NATO to hedge and contain China, and plotting to create a financial crisis in China. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that a “new cold war” against China has begun.

Those advocating containment of China are mainly counting on unrivalled U.S. military superiority. This is also why the ghost of the Cold War keeps haunting us. Evidently, preaching all-round containment of China on the pretext of preserving national security isn’t without political support in the U.S.

U.S. military hegemony

Obviously there are significant divergences between Chinese and American understanding of the new pattern of their relations. This won’t change in the short term. What matters now is how the two countries can work together to make sure China-U.S. relations don’t deviate from their due course and avoid missing the goal of cooperation that conforms to both sides’ interests in the face of the complicated conditions brought about by changes.

Nowadays in America, it has been a trend and predominant way of strategic thinking to approach China-U.S. relations from the perspective of those between a rising power and an incumbent power. Coping with the so-called challenges from China has become a popular political slogan on the campaign trail in present-day America. The U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific is taking on an increasingly thick military coating.

A New Type of Major-Country Relations

Seeking common ground while shelving differences is an effective, important principle that previous Chinese and U.S. governments have followed over a long period. The principle remains a precious legacy that must not be abandoned. The changed pattern of China-U.S. relations has actually included some favorable conditions, which makes it possible for us to take one step forward from the previous principle of seeking common ground while shelving differences.

The Chinese side has put forward three principled ideas while the U.S. side has reservations regarding the practical issues they may involve. In the practical issues troubling China-U.S. relations, the core interests China has identified may inevitably come into conflict with the vested interests the U.S. wants to preserve; the principle of mutual respect China advocates may contradict U.S. hegemony in certain circumstances. Instead of evading it, we should take a pragmatic attitude to such differences.

The mega trend of the development of international relations demonstrates that, actively or passively, the U.S. will eventually change its policy of hegemony. Whether the U.S. can retain its hegemony in the long term will rest on developments of factors in two aspects. One is the cost of retaining hegemony; the other is the benefit of forsaking it. As the world enters an era of multi-polarization, U.S. hegemony faces challenges from multiple aspects, of which the China-U.S. relationship is only one important component. However, as long as the benefits of maintaining hegemony outweigh the corresponding cost, the U.S. won’t spontaneously give it up.

To China, adhering to the path of peaceful rise means it will co-exist peacefully with U.S. hegemony under certain conditions. That is why relation — “no confrontation” has become a basic consensus between the two parties. Likewise, “win-win cooperation”, as another principled idea, calls on both sides to gradually explore the path and form of its implementation — an ideal goal for the China-U.S. relationship.

At the latest Bo’ao Forum for Asia, Dr. Henry Kissinger reiterated that China-U.S. relations are a special kind, which are only to a certain extent consistent with the characteristics of the relationship between the rising power and incumbent power the “Thucydides’ Trap” refers to. The international-relations background that the specific concept of the “Thucydides’ Trap” requires doesn’t exist in current China-U.S. relations. China has no intention to take the U.S.’ place to become the world’s superpower.

China-U.S. cooperation is of vital significance for international political order. Kissinger further proposed that the spirit of the Shanghai Communiqué might also apply to the South China Sea issue. He believes that what needs to be done is to find some fields for cooperation between short-term specific tactics and long-term strategic goals. This is in conformity with the basic idea of new-type major-country relationship.

As a response to the claim that China-U.S. relations face the “Thucydides’ Trap” thanks to the challenge from China’s rise, China’s proposal was meant to indicate that China is unswervingly committed to its path of peaceful development, and believes it can cultivate a China-U.S. state-to-state relationship featuring long-term peaceful co-existence against a new historical background. The concept of “new-type major-country relationship” is a typical Chinese characteristic, and it was coined to manifest a sincere political will along with tremendous determination.

The logic behind the proposal is: China unswervingly adheres to the path of building a rich and strong country through peaceful development, which has already been evidenced by its development over the past few decades. Chinese history and cultural traditions uphold the philosophical ideal of harmony without uniformity, and its contemporary diplomacy has always centered on the principle of peaceful co-existence. Chinese and U.S. interests have increasingly been bound together deeply and broadly over time; confrontation doesn’t conform to their fundamental interests. China-U.S. cooperation is indispensable for peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific along with coping with global challenges of the 21st century. This is utterly different from all the big-power confrontations that had occurred in history. As two major countries, China and the U.S. should and could transcend the divergences resulted from structural contradictions and work together to build a new type of relationship aimed at peaceful co-existence under new historical conditions.

The two countries need to apply a certain kind of “macro management” to their strategic competition in the new era. Besides enhancing risk management and control in the military field, there is now a more imperative need of a stable framework oriented at future development of bilateral ties. At the same time, China-U.S. strategic competition has become a significant problem concerning regional order in the Asia-Pacific.

The future framework of China-U.S. relations must be linked to jointly building regional order in the area. Politically, that means making the pursuit of peaceful co-existence in the region an important piece of the construction of new-type relations.

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