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Foreign Policy

The Sunnylands Summit Won’t Stop Sino-American Rivalry

Jun 07 , 2013

According to the New York Times, President Obama is hoping to establish a genuine personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter’s visit to the United States this week. Hence the nature of the visit: an informal, in-depth, and deliberately casual event outside Washington, intended to give the two leaders the chance to get past the official talking points and really get to know each other.

It’s easy to understand why Obama thinks one-on-one diplomacy is the best way to handle the delicate Sino-American relationship. Most politicians have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, as well as a certain faith in their innate ability to get on good terms with others and get them to do what they want. Although he’s been criticized of late for lacking the “schmooze factor,” Obama’s whole career has been based on his ability to charm people, starting with the Democratic Party insiders who backed his campaign early and winning over the millions of voters who’ve now elected him twice. No doubt he’s hoping to work a little of the same magic with Xi.

More importantly, given all the potential frictions between a rising China and a reigning U.S., what else is he going to do? Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other’s red lines and resolve and some agreement on those issues where national interests overlap. In this way, each can hope to keep things from getting worse and at the margin make relations a bit warmer. In this sense, personal summitry of the sort being practiced this weekend is the only card either can play. 

But even if Obama is successful this weekend, this effort is unlikely to prevent Sino-American rivalry from intensifying in the future. The basic problem is that the two state’s core grand strategies are at odds, and good rapport between these two particular leaders won’t prevent those tensions from re-emerging down the road.

Today, the United States has a dominant position in the Western hemisphere and faces no serious rivals nearby. As I’ve observed before, this basic level of territorial security is what allows the United States to roam around the world trying to shape events in far-flung places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Korean Peninsula, and the Balkans, and to concern itself with issues that are of often of secondary importance (like Libya or even Syria). Moreover, the United States also has a major security presence in East Asia — China’s home region — and is planning on bolstering that presence in the years ahead. Despite the missteps of recent years, current geopolitical realities still favor the United States.

By contrast, China faces a decidedly unfavorable regional environment. Its relations with India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and several other neighbors are wary at best, and many nearby countries have close security ties or formal alliances with the United States (Imagine how we would feel if Canada were allied with China and Chinese warships had a base in Acapulco). Unlike the autarkic Soviet Union, China is also increasingly dependent on foreign trade to supply with raw materials, energy, and export markets, and this trade must travel through various ocean straits and choke points that leave it vulnerable to blockade. Moreover, its growing dependence on outside resources means that China’s interests are increasingly global in nature; in the future, it will not be just a land power worrying mostly about events close to home.

Here’s the rub: as long as the United States retains a significant military presence in Asia and a network of Asian allies, Beijing will have to worry a lot about security in its own region and it won’t be able to interfere as often or as effectively in other parts of the world. And as long as this is the case, the United States will have a freer hand in the other places that it cares about.

But if China continues to rise economically, develops more military power, and uses its growing clout to slowly push the United States out of Asia, then the conditions that currently favor the United States will be gone. If China manages to create a “sphere of deference” in Asia and eventually convinces most Asian states to distance themselves from Washington, then it won’t have to worry as much about its immediate neighborhood and it will be free to take a more active role elsewhere. China’s geopolitical position would be more like the United States: it would be a regional hegemon that was increasingly free to intervene overseas when it felt that its interests required it to do so. And that might even include a more active role in the Western hemisphere, thereby forcing the United States to pay more attention to matters closer to home.

In short, the struggle for hegemony in Asia will be a crucial pivot point for the 21st century: if it goes one way, the United States will preserve much of the freedom of action that it has enjoyed since 1945. But if it goes the other way, the United States will be sharing the world stage with a peer competitor with a larger population, a larger economy (in absolute terms), and the same capacity to shape events around the world that the United States has long been accustomed to.

At the most basic level, this is why the United States is “pivoting” to Asia: to try to prevent China from establishing a dominant position there. It is this fundamental incompatibility between strategic objectives that will fuel Sino-American rivalry in the future, no matter how well Obama and Xi (or their successors) get on this weekend.  And with so much potentially at stake for both countries, you can easily see why intense competition is likely.

Of course, this pessimistic scenario will not arise if Chinese economic growth stalls, or if internal problems force China’s leaders to concentrate on domestic matters. Nor am I predicting a future war between the United States and China, or even a competition as nasty and intense as the Soviet-American “Cold War.” After all, there are powerful economic incentives for both sides to keep the competition within bounds, and there isn’t the same level of ideological animosity that gave the Cold War its particular Manichean character. And there’s some comfort in the realist argument that bipolar worlds tend to be both tense but also stable. But the tension between U.S. and Chinese grand strategies is bound to generate recurring frictions, and is likely to generate an intense competition for allies and influence, especially in Asia.

Nothing in international politics is inevitable, of course, and sometimes enlightened statecraft can overcome structural pressures. If U.S. leaders are consistently wise, far-sighted, judicious, calm, and resolute — not just now but for the next forty years — and if their Chinese counterparts are equally sensible, restrained and smart, then it is entirely possible that the two governments will navigate the future diplomatic rapids with skill and aplomb. But seriously: how likely is that optimistic scenario? Based on what we know of each country’s history, can we be confident that both countries can go for thirty or forty years without eventually choosing a leader or two who aren’t especially wise, astute, sensible, or restrained? For this reason, relying on personal rapport to manage relations between the world’s two most powerful countries seems like a pretty weak reed to me. 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as master of the social science collegiate division and deputy dean of social sciences. He has been a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also been a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. 

© 2013. Foreign Policy.

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