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Foreign Policy

Why China Avoids Confronting the U.S. in Asia

Mar 19 , 2014

Forecasts talk of U.S. retreat from domineering China or an

Robert Sutter

Chinese economic growth and one-party rule require stability. And protecting Chinese security and sovereignty remains a top concern. Though China also has regional and global ambitions, domestic concerns get overall priority.

President Xi Jinping is preoccupied with uncertain leadership legitimacy, pervasive corruption, widespread mass protests, and unsustainable economic practices. Beijing’s reform agenda requires strong leadership for many years. Under these circumstances, Xi was unusually accommodating in meeting President Obama in California in 2013; he seeks a new kind of major power relationship. Xi also presides over China’s greater assertiveness on territorial issues that involve the United States, but thus far Chinese probes avoid direct confrontation with the superpower.

Mutual interdependence 

Growing economic and other U.S.-China interdependence reinforces constructive relations. Respective “Gulliver strategies” tie down aggressive, assertive, or other negative policy tendencies through webs of interdependence in bilateral and multilateral relationships. 

China’s insecurity in Asia 

Nearby Asia is China’s top foreign priority. It contains security and sovereignty issues (e.g. Taiwan) of highest importance. It is the main arena of interaction with the United States. Its economic importance far surpasses the rest of world (China is Africa’s biggest trader but it does more trade with South Korea). Asian stability is essential for China’s economic growth—the lynch pin of Communist rule. Facing formidable American presence and influence and lacking a secure periphery, China almost certainly calculates that seriously confronting the United States poses grave dangers. 

Chinese strengths in Asia include extensive trade and investment; webs of road, rail, river, electric power, pipeline and other linkages; leadership attention and active diplomacy; and expanding military capabilities.  Weaknesses are:

1. Chinese practices alienate near-by governments, which broadly favor key aspects of U.S. regional leadership. Leadership involves costly and risky efforts to support common goods involving regional security and development. China avoids such efforts unless there is a payoff for a narrow Chinese win-set. It “cheap rides,” hoarding resources to deal with serious domestic challenges.  

2. Chinese assertiveness toward neighbors puts nearby governments on guard and weakens Chinese regional influence. It revives the PRC’s justified Cold War reputation for disruption, domination and intimidation. 

3. China achievements in advancing influence in Asia since the Cold War are mediocre. China promotes an image of consistent and righteous behavior in foreign affairs; this is believed in China but is so far from reality that it grossly impedes effectively dealing with disputes. The PRC has the truly exceptional position among major powers as having never acknowledged making a mistake in foreign policy. When China encounters a dispute with neighbors, the fault never lies with China. If Beijing chooses not to blame the neighbor, it blames larger forces usually involving the United States. The noxious mix also emphasizes China’s historic victimization. In sum, Beijing is quick to take offense and impervious to recognizing China’s fault and needed change. 

State relationships vacillate and remain encumbered. Relations with Japan are at their lowest point. India is more wary of China today than ten years ago. Russian and Chinese alignment waxes and wanes; it’s waning over Ukraine and Crimea. Taiwan moves closer to China, but its political opposition remains opposed. 

South Korean opinion of China declined sharply from a high point a decade ago and struggles to recover. Disputed claims in the South China Sea seriously complicate often close economic relations with Southeast Asian countries. China’s remarkable military modernization seriously concerns major trading partners; Australia is much more wary of China than ten years ago. 

Trade in Asia remains heavily interdependent. Half of Chinese trade is conducted by foreign invested enterprises in China. 60 percent of the goods that are exported from China and ASEAN are ultimately manufactures that go to the United States, Europe and Japan. Only 22 percent of these goods stay in the China-ASEAN region. Actual Chinese aid (as opposed to financing that will be repaid in money or commodities) to Asia is very small, with the exception of Chinese aid to North Korea. 

China has shown no viable way of dealing North Korea, perhaps the largest foreign insecurity for the Xi Jinping government. 

Chinese insecurities are reinforced by U.S. strengths as America influences and leads in Asia

  • Security guarantor. Most Asian governments stress development that requires a stable and secure environment. Unfortunately, Asia is not particularly stable and Asian governments tend to distrust one another. They rely on the United States to maintain regional stability. The U.S. security role is very expensive and involves great risk, including many casualties if necessary. Neither China nor any other Asian power or coalition of powers is able or willing to undertake even a fraction of these risks and costs. 
  • Essential economic partner. Most Asian governments depend importantly on export oriented growth. Growing Asian trade relies on the United States. Most notably, Asian exports lead to a massive trade surplus with the open U.S. market. China consistently avoids such costs that nonetheless are very important for Asian governments. 
  • Government engagement. Apart from China, the Obama government’s rebalance has been broadly welcomed in Asia. U.S. military, other security and intelligence organizations have developed unprecedented wide ranging relationships with almost all regional governments, a posture strongly shaping Asian security. 
  • Non-government engagement. America is extraordinary in longstanding business, religious, educational, media and other non-government interchange which is widespread, uniquely influential and strongly reinforces overall U.S. sway. Generally color-blind U.S. immigration policy since 1965 means  that millions of Asian migrants call America home and interact with their countries of origin in ways that undergird U.S. interests. 
  • Asian hedging. As China’s rises, Asian governments seek to work pragmatically with China, but they also seek the reassurance of close security, intelligence, and other ties with the United States, especially as China becomes more assertive. 

Bottom line. The Obama government rebalance seeks stability while fostering economic growth and overlaps constructively with the priorities of the vast majority of regional governments. China seeks advantageous economic interchange, but its remains insecure as its ambitions, coercion, intimidation and gross manipulation come at neighbors’ expense. 

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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