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Foreign Policy

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in US-China Relations

May 17 , 2012


Having articulated in 1946-1947 America’s strategy to contain Soviet expansion, George F. Kennan in the mid-1950s warned Washington not to engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy when dealing with Stalin’s successors. Make no mistake, he warned, if Washington treats the Kremlin’s new leaders as if they are inexorably committed aggressive policies, they will have no choice but to act according to our predictions. Preparing for the “worst” scenario, the United States could ensure that it happened.
Kennan’s warning is relevant to U.S.-Chinese relations. If Washington or Beijing acts as though both sides must collide, confrontation or even war will be more likely. There are sober personalities in each capital who look for ways to avoid the worst and promote mutual gain policies, but they can be swept aside by the proponents of fear and hostility.
Having achieved little and lost much in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House and Pentagon in 2012 turn their focus to the Asia Pacific region.  Some U.S. leaders seem to believe that the world’s oldest major democracy must confront the world’s oldest civilization and most populous country. They would orphan engagement and emphasize containment. A tough line toward China may buttress President Obama’s prospects in the November 2012 elections, but can also jeopardize long-term U.S. and world security.  Washington risks becoming trapped in a self-fulfilling policy. Expecting and preparing for a confrontation with China, U.S. actions may push China to the very behaviors Washington would like to prevent and toward a collision that no sane person could welcome.
And yet, here we have a classic security dilemma: The United States sees China modernizing its armed forces and decides it must beef up U.S. assets across the Pacific Ocean. In response, China believes it must do still more to counter the U.S. buildup. The pattern of action and counteraction could come to resemble the U.S.-Soviet arms race–dangerous, expensive, and–some would say-pointless.
In recent years many U.S. analysts have told Washington policymakers to prepare for the rise of a more aggressive China and the end of unipolarity. Alarmed by China’s rise, some believers in America’s decline call for retrenchment to a Fortress America in economics and world affairs. Instead of free trade, they urge a neomercantilist stance. Instead of leadership for peace and stability, they call for the United States to limit its military and political presence around the globe. Hawks go the other way. They demand a military buildup to contain China. However both perspectives are ill-advised.
Taking into account the many factors that shape the global balance of power, one expert reaches this conclusion: “Over the last two decades, globalization and U.S. hegemonic burdens have expanded significantly, yet the United States has not declined; in fact it is now wealthier, more innovative, and more militarily powerful compared to China than it was in 1991.” (Michael Beckley, “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure,” International Security. 36, No. 3 (Winter 2011/12), pp. 41–78 at p. 43.). He notes, for example, that more than 90% of China’s high tech exports are produced by foreign firms. There is ever more foreign direct investment in China and fewer joint ventures in which technology is transferred.
The United States is not declining relative to China or any other power. But assertions to this effect are dangerous, because–if believed–they could push Washington or Beijing onto a collision course. The good news is that wars between upstarts and declining hegemons have been rare. Yes, Imperial Germany challenged Great Britain before 1914, but World War I erupted for other reasons. In addition, the relatively peaceful implosion of the USSR in 1991 shows that war between weakening great powers and their rivals is not inevitable.
For now, the large pot is calling the kettle black. Washington alarms about Chinese military spending are risible given the Pentagon’s well-funded programs to advance technology.  As President Obama reminded the American people, planned reductions in U.S. defense spending would still give the Pentagon a budget larger than those of the next ten biggest military spenders combined.  Leaving aside the outlays for Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. defense outlays are at least eight times those of China.  Despite pressures to cut U.S. government expenditures, the U.S. Navy will not reduce its eleven aircraft carrier groups to ten. For its part, China boasts just one refitted Ukrainian aircraft carrier that can move but is still not yet equipped to land airplanes.
China is far more vulnerable to exogenous events than the United States. China depends on imported commodities far more than the USA.  China must increase its oil imports to cope with the demands of industry and a growing middle class addicted to private autos. The United States, by contrast, is producing more of its own gas and oil and has neighbors in the Americas who want to sell the huge volumes of carbons being found in shale and deep waters. Some analysts believe that a U.S. naval buildup could aim at a capacity to choke off China’s imports of oil and other supplies. But this would be an act of war–a catastrophic for all parties.
Yes, China stridently claims most of the South China Sea, but Vietnam and other littoral states also claim what they see as their rightful share. The Philippines seeks a stronger U.S. presence to support its interests in the South China Sea. But surely any kind of military confrontation there will be counterproductive. The riparian nations must negotiate to find ways to share the resources. Unless China pulls back its extensive claims, however, it will be difficult to envision a reasonable way to create value for each party.
Proponents of “containing” China recall America’s triumph in Cold War with the USSR. America’s military programs, they say, not only deterred but also bankrupted the Soviet regime. And yet evidence shows that arms racing diverts valuable resources and accomplishes little. The “father of the Soviet H-bomb,” Andrei D. Sakharov, estimated that one-fourth of the Soviet GDP went to military purposes. Granted that the USSR spent far too much of its resources on military activities, the Soviet system collapsed due to internal rot–not the pressure of “Star Wars.” The burden of defense on China’s growing economy is surely much less. China does not need aircraft carriers to neutralize the U.S. presence at sea. Anti-ship missiles launched from submarines and other platforms will suffice. Meanwhile, the burden of defense for the USA is greater than the officially reported 4%. To that number must be added outlays for intelligence, nuclear energy, outer space, veterans affairs, and–greater than any one of these–interest due on past military expenditures. All this brings the total to 7% or 8% of GDP–a reason why Washington should cut current defense outlays far more radically than now planned.
Truth is that nothing on the table between Washington and Beijing is worth fighting for. Neither trade disputes nor intellectual property rights can be resolved by war. Americans may abhor China’s policies toward those who challenge Communist rule and toward minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs. But neither diplomatic pressure nor war can alter those policies. Neither China’s posture toward Taiwan nor its treatment of human rights is likely to change because some U.S. Marines are ensconced in Australia. On the contrary, any signs that Washington wants to intimidate the Middle Kingdom will only sharpen nationalist and xenophobic tendencies.  A relaxation of tensions with the United States would do more for freedom within China than confrontation.
Permission for Chen Guangcheng and his immediate family to depart China became more likely because the U.S. Secretary of State was in Beijing in May 2012 negotiating on strategic and economic issues. On the other hand, tough pressures by Chinese officials on Chen or his extended family and colleagues left behind could only confirm the darkest U.S. views about the nature of the Chinese Communist regime. Chinese officials–not just in Beijing but in villages like Dongshigu, where Chen had been under house arrest–can strengthen or weaken U.S. expectations of inexorable conflict.
If U.S. and Chinese leaders are smart, they will work to develop complementary interests. Both countries need clean energy, reliable food and water supplies, and better health care systems. Both need to reduce security threats from Northeast Asia (North Korea) to Southeast Asia (Pakistan).  Neither Washington nor Beijing should act on the self-fulfilling expectation that conflict is inevitable. Each should do what it can to help all parties develop in harmony.
Walter C. Clemens, Jr. is Professor of Political Science, Boston University, and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Getting to Yes in Korea (2010)
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