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Foreign Policy

The Pivot in US-China Relations

May 21 , 2012
  • Mohan Malik

    Professor, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

The US-China relationship is undoubtedly the world’s most important bilateral relationship of the early 21st century. It not only influences the state of other bilateral relationships but also shapes the broad contours of the regional order and sets the agenda of international institutions.  Unlike other major powers, the US-China relations are multidimensional, comprehensive, and complex, and cannot be held hostage to a single issue. These are the two largest economies, the largest consumers of natural resources and the largest emitters of CO2 emissions. Both need each other to succeed in a globalized world economy.

Both share responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region which has emerged as the pivot of world economy and politics in the 21st century. As major trading partners, China and the United States have common interests in dealing with both traditional geopolitical and non-traditional transnational security challenges. On most global economic and security issues, including terrorism, proliferation, and climate change, and in most multilateral organizations such as the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, China – more often than not – works with the United States rather than against it. The US economic stakes with China are certainly much higher and vice-versa. For decades, the Chinese leadership has been preoccupied with the country’s domestic challenges and problems. Now the United States too is focused on getting its house in order as Washington faces a prolonged economic slowdown, a decaying infrastructure, and huge fiscal deficit.

There is no denying the fact that there are tensions (over Taiwan, human rights, trade, currency, cyberspace, environment, and military buildup) in Sino-American relations. There is a need to address the gap between what Washington calls the management of “Global Commons”, and the Chinese refer to as “strategic frontiers”. Nonetheless, there are also many stabilizing factors that have kept the bilateral relationship on an even keel since the early 1970s. In inter-state relations, competition and cooperation are two sides of the same coin. This is especially true of relations amongst major powers. The United States and China are competitors in some areas and partner in others. At the last Davos Summit, Yan Xuetong was reported as saying that “America and China are business partners, not friends.” However, those familiar with the Chinese cultural context where wining and dining is a must for business partners know quite well that China and the United States cannot be business partners without being friends.

Since the 2008 global financial crisis, questions have been raised about the US staying power in the Asia-Pacific over the long term. Mutual perceptions of American decline and containment of China perpetuate distrust. Some influential Chinese analysts describe the United States as an old, tired giant crumbling under its own weight while China is seen as a teenager, an adolescent throwing its weight around. Song Xiaojun, a military expert and commentator on China’s CCTV, rules out substantial cooperation in the near future, because “the US is experiencing menopause while China is going through puberty.” Others tend to see the long-time presence of US military forces in the Asia-Pacific as aimed at containing China’s rise. However, from Washington’s perspective, it is this forward presence that has served China and the region well and facilitated uninterrupted economic growth for several decades. For their part, many Americans believe that China’s rising economic and military power would exacerbate US-Chinese frictions in the years ahead. For example, Aaron Friedberg contends that “deep-seated patterns of power politics are driving the United States and China toward mistrust and competition, if not necessarily toward open conflict” (The National Interest, July-August 2011).

Some have argued that from China’s perspective, the best-case scenario is one wherein the United States would over time willingly give up its dominant position in Asian affairs and reach an understanding with China just as Great Britain did with the United States after World War II. This would mean than the US friends and allies will be relegated to a subordinate status and the United States and China would jointly share preeminence and manage global affairs. However, this view is based on an inaccurate understanding of Asian geopolitics and a misinterpretation of world history. It is said that “a little knowledge is dangerous knowledge”; this is especially true of the medical and military professions because wrong diagnosis and wrong policy prescription based on a little knowledge can cost precious human lives. Therefore, the risk of miscalculation lies in the rest of the world underestimating China’s power and purpose and China overestimating its strength.

Given its vital economic and security interests in the pivotal Asia-Pacific region, the possibility of the US pulling back strategically from Asia as China rises to global leadership or a shared hegemony seems remote. Despite all the rhetoric about “the pivot to Asia,” everyone knows that the United States actually never left the region. Being a resident Pacific economic and military power, the United States is unlikely to reduce its footprint in the Asia-Pacific. Since much of the economic growth post-Cold War has taken place outside the traditional US hub-and-spokes alliance network in continental Asia as opposed to maritime Pacific Asia (i.e., in China, Vietnam, and India), a whole range of regional partnerships are being formed to maintain peace and stability which is so essential to sustained economic growth. 

No country in the world today threatens China’s security as it is presently constituted. Among regional countries, China arouses unease because of its size, history, proximity, potential power, and more importantly, because the memories of tributary state system have not completely dimmed. The existence of unresolved territorial/maritime disputes also adds to regional unease. The growing economic ties between China and its Asian neighbors have created a sense of dependency and despondency. While China’s neighbors do not oppose China’s power and prosperity, they do not welcome their own loss of relative standing and strategic autonomy in foreign policy making. Neither belligerence nor deference is seen as a prudent policy option with respect to China.

Given China’s centrality in Asian geopolitics, “hedging” or old-fashioned “balancing” is becoming the most preferred option, without giving up on the many benefits of engaging Beijing. Consequently, Asian countries now spend more on their militaries than European countries. In fact, China’s own military expenditure has grown at the rate of 12-15 per cent for nearly two decades – a rate that is higher than China’s economic growth rate of 10 to 12 per cent. Much like China, its Asian neighbors will take all measures to protect what they believe to be their “core interests.” In this context, the United States still remains the balancer of choice for many countries. Therein lies the paradox—despite its relative decline, the United States has become the most sought-after power in the region. As long as China’s territorial and maritime disputes remain unresolved, there cannot be a power shift in Beijing’s favor. Apparently, economic integration has not succeeded in overcoming geopolitical concerns. Since the future of China’s relations with United States will be determined more by the actions and behavior of countries on China’s periphery in this pivotal region, the key questions for the future are as follows:

 What does the Asia-Pacific region want from China and the United States?
 What sort of regional order Asians want to live in the years and decades ahead?
 What is China’s vision of the regional order in the years and decades ahead?
 More importantly, are the US and Chinese visions in sync with regional aspirations? What are the similarities and differences in those visions?

I believe that peace and stability will prevail if the United States, China and other powers support and work for a multipolar Asia with inclusive and robust multilateral institutions. However, competition and rivalry will result should unipolarity or bipolarity were to reemerge. The Asia-Pacific region is, in fact, too big for any one country to dominate it without that domination having repercussions at the regional and global levels. Constructing bilateral relationships based on common security that jettisons the push and shove of balance-of-power politics could be a way out of the security dilemma. Given the focus on sustaining economic growth, all share an interest in avoiding overt rivalry, confrontation, and conflict. Respect for each country’s “core interests” is the first step. Lasting peace and stability can be attained if China, the United States, Japan, India, and Russia join forces in an economic and security concert of powers arrangement in the Asia-Pacific region. The emerging multipolarity and multilateralism in Asia provide incentives for major powers to pursue a moderate, cooperative foreign policy that promotes stability and growth. Hopefully, economic interdependence and regional integration underpinned by multilateral institutions would alter the discourse and course of inter-state relations from competition and zero-sum games to cooperation and win-win games.


Mohan Malik is Professor in Asian Security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. His most recent book is China and India: Great Power Rivals (London & Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). These are author’s personal views and in no way reflect the views of the Asia-Pacific Center

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