The relationship between China and the United States today is not the same as that between the United States and the former Soviet Union years ago. Neither is it anything like the kind of relationship between a rising power and an established power ever seen in history.
The competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union was a strategic contest for global hegemony, no doubt. Theirs was not a relationship, however, between a rising power and an established one. It was actually a kind of adversarial wrestle between two major camps – the capitalist camp and the socialist camp – that rivaled for totally different ideologies and values, raced for supremacy in military strength and nuclear strike ability, and followed the basic form of cold war. Also, it was a time of peace or war, with almost no economic link between the two countries. For this reason, it is hardly of any sense to compare the present-day relationship between China and the United States with that between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
It has been a frequent scene in history for rising powers and established ones to fall into bitter strategic confrontation, with bloody wars fought to decide the outcome and the winner becoming the hegemonist. This may not be, however, a direction for the future development of Sino-US relationship.
Neither China nor the United States would like to deny that there exist between them some difficult structural contradictions and the challenge of strategic competition. The relationship between the two, however, differs from that between a rising power and an established one as seen in history in many aspects.
First of all, the Sino-US relationship has been likened to one between a rising power and an established one a bit too early. In history, a rising power came to challenge an established one only when the former grew almost equally powerful or even stronger than the latter. Today, however, China and the United States are far from a par in terms of their national strength. The United States is a country that possesses the biggest economic aggregate and the top-rate military force and arsenal, spends on defense an amount of money almost equaling the total by all other countries in the world, tops in scientific and technologic strength and innovative capacity, and keeps a most influential soft power in the world. China, on the other part, is still a developing country far behind the United States in all these fields. No essential change has taken place yet in the Sino-US balance of power, as has been concluded by Joseph S. Nye, a professor at Harvard University, and many others. In other words, China has not yet acquired the strength needed for challenging an established hegemony as shown in historical cases. It has been keenly felt by this author and many of my colleagues, when dealing with our US colleagues, that the United States does not really see, deep in heart, China as a rising big power.
Secondly, what differs China from a rising power in history is the fact that China has moderately increased its military strength during the course of economic development, rather than spurring the latter through priority development of the former. Neither has it relied on military strength for expansive development. China has told the world repeatedly that it has never developed any ambition or strategy to become a world hegemony as some rising powers did in history, and that its military strength has always been counted as an escort for its course of overall development. China pursues a policy of non-alignment, and stands for the new security concept of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and cooperation. China will never join in any arms race or nuclear arms race.
In the third place, China advocates the development philosophy of win-win cooperation, and has been putting it into practice all the time. This is in line with the era of economic globalization. Like all other countries, China is one link in the global economic chain. Its development will spur the development of the world, while also benefiting from the world development as well. China will never seek development by sacrificing the interests of other countries. On the contrary, it would rather sacrifice its own interests for regional and global economic recovery in cases of worldwide economic recession, as has been evidenced by China’s acts during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and the world financial crisis in recent years. China’s policy of reform and opening-up only aims at blending itself into the international system in a more efficient way and take part in the further improvement of the international order, rather than overturning it.
Moreover, the Chinese economy and the US economy are mutually dependent and strongly complimentary to each other. The two countries are major trade partners to each other and chief financial and investment destinations to each other as well. These facts distinguish their relationship from that between a rising power and an established giant in history and even from that between the United States and many of its allies as well. Viewed as a whole, although there are factors of containment and anti-containment in the Sino-US relationship, cooperation remains as the mainstream. As for the competition between the two countries in economic fields, it is only a natural phenomenon and the rule governing social development. This is not detrimental to the two countries, but rather can be a driving force for their coordination, cooperation and common development.
Finally, the world has entered an era so different from the past, with peace, development and cooperation becoming the dominating theme of today. Both China and the United States stand as one of the leading world powers, and shoulder a historic responsibility for the development of the human society and the progress of world civilization. As a matter of fact, China and the United States have already started to explore the type of relationship to be developed between them. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her views at a recent press conference that there has now developed a situation never seen in history, namely, an established power and a rising one have come up with ways for both co-existence and cooperation. We plan to make history through our relationship with China.
Confrontation between China and the United States is by no means inevitable. Neither is it predestined by history. There is every condition for the two to find a new approach to cooperation between big powers.
Chen Yonglong is Director of American Centre, China Foundation for International Studies.