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Foreign Policy

Overcoming the Self-fulfilling Prophecy of China Threat

Dec 15 , 2016
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Recent experience of engaging with U.S. scholars again elicited some of my humble thinking about China-U.S. relations. While China and the U.S. have positive relations in dealing with transnational threats, the two will also have to avoid geopolitical confrontations. The U.S. side should in particular overcome the self-fulfilling prophecy of China threat.

There is huge potential of cooperation between China and the U.S. in a large variety of transnational security issues from fighting terrorism and piracy to jointly dealing with environment pollution, cyber hacking and natural disasters. All these challenges need joint efforts of the countries in the region, and the cooperation between China and the U.S. in particular. Cooperation between the two will benefit not only themselves but also the region.

There are also warming stories in China-U.S. relations in this regard. In the middle of October 2016, Guo Chuan, a Chinese trans-Pacific mariner, was lost in somewhere close to Hawaii on the north.

According to Chinese sources, it was the Hawaii Coast Guard that had gone to search for Guo at the request of the Chinese counterpart agency though unfortunately, the search found no evidence that Guo was still alive. This is only one such example of China-U.S. cooperation in this regard. It should neither be the first nor the last case of China-U.S. cooperation in maritime search and rescue. Similar stories show this is no isolated incident.

On the other hand, China had also been frequently portrayed as a potential geopolitical rival and threat of the U.S. It might be reasonable since many scenarios of major power geopolitical rivalries did exist in history, and that is why Thucydides’ trap had been too much mentioned to describe future China-U.S. relations. But the Thucydides’ trap has never been a necessary or natural outcome of relations among major powers. Instead, it is more as a result of perception or construction.

“Self-fulfilling prophecy” is originally a concept in the science of education, but also is often applied in explaining international relations. If country A regards country B to be a threat, as perceptions lead to actions, A will take every possible measure, for instance, military buildup, to oppose and to contain B. This will trigger B to adopt military buildups as counter measures. B’s actions to strengthen military buildup will further be interpreted as proof of threat. As a result of these cycles, confrontation between the two will finally become reality.

The strategy of rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific has been in focus for some time. Think tank people in the U.S. had explained rebalance as comprehensive. To put it another way, it is not only military but also economic and in other areas as well. But Chinese think tank people had never really accepted such explanations. They believe it is mainly meant in military terms, based on the assumption that China will pose a strategic threat and challenge to the U.S.

It is certainly reasonable that Chinese scholars interpret it as mainly military. Both Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter, the former and incumbent U.S. secretaries of defense, openly claimed that the U.S. would put 60 percent of its strategic resources in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese scholars also reasonably questioned why rebalance instead of re-engagement or re-integration is employed to describe the scenario. Rebalance has been too much characterized by power which is mainly defined by military strength while re-engagement or re-integration can equally if not better describe American resolution to resume its presence in the region in arenas beyond military.

Unlike any other period of history, the 21st century is characterized by economic globalization despite some of the recent negative trends of isolationism and protectionism, and the world can never go back.

Countries, including China and the U.S., are already well-connected with each other economically. Easy communication because of technological advancement even enhanced the connections. Any disruption as a result of conflicts will generate disastrous costs that no one nation can pay for.

Fortunately, compared with DOD, the Department of State does not hold such negative perceptions about China-U.S. relations. For instance, Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary taking care of Asia-Pacific affairs, categorized China-U.S. relations as a wide-ranging and complex relationship in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2014.

This allows space for shaping perceptions in a positive direction. It has never been so eagerly expected that decision-makers, politicians and scholars should talk more about cooperative features of China-U.S. relations. Exaggeration of a “China threat” could really push China in that direction, while looking at the positive side of China-U.S. relations will enhance expectations for peace and stability.

Cooperation should be the right approach in maintaining the right course of China-U.S. relations. When we talk about and enhance cooperation, confidence will grow, and conflicts will be finally overcome, or at least be prevailed, but if we talk about conflicts too much, cooperation will not be offered and conflicts will be getting worse.

Dialogue should always be a way to bridge the understanding gap. For instance, while American interlocutors worried that China would become more assertive when China gets less dependent on the U.S. market as China is cultivating its own domestic market, Chinese scholars expressed that China felt too pressured by the U.S. because of the dependence.

Chinese scholars also worried that weakening economic relations between China and the U.S. as a result of rising isolationism demonstrated in the latest presidential election will undermine the foundations of stable relations between the two.

This kind of dialogue will certainly lead one to think about issues from the perspectives of the other side, and will contribute to enhancing understanding and building confidence.

All in all, China and the U.S. share tremendous common interests and responsibility in maintaining economic prosperity and transnational security across the region. These should prevail over differences between the two. Talking about cooperation will deliver friendship and partnership while talking about conflicts will really create enemies.

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