The new National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States – which was published in February 2015 – not only provides the most authoritative account of the country’s strategic thinking, but also on the views and policies on global governance of the U.S. This article intends to compare the views and policies of the U.S. with those of China in terms of the governance of the international system with the aim of shedding light on the future scenario of their interaction.
Differences in doctrines
That differences exist between China and the U.S. relating to developments in the broader East Asian region is well established and should be kept in mind in assessing the overall relationship between the two countries. However, in the context of this article, the differences relating to the broader international and global system is the subject of attention. Given that both China and the U.S. are Permanent Members of the UN Security Council their views and policies are of particular relevance.
China’s foreign policy is still governed by the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” which were formulated for the first time in the agreement between China and India on 29 April 1954. These principles are fundamental not only to China’s overall foreign policy but also to China’s bilateral relations with several countries. The essence of the five principles are – respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Respect for sovereignty and non-interference display strong commitment to the provisions of Article 2(7) of the UN Charter and the principle of non-interference. Non-aggression is in line with the provisions of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that prohibits the threat or use of force, since the principle of non-aggression rules out the practice of attacking another country by force. Peaceful coexistence implies that a country does not threaten or use force against another country. It also implies that disputes should be handled with peaceful means, which is in line with the provisions of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, entitled “Pacific Settlement of Disputes”. In short the fundamental principles guiding China’s foreign policy are fully in line with key provisions of the UN Charter.
The U.S. first and foremost sees itself as the leader of the world and believes that its national interests are safeguarded through strong and sustainable leadership. According to the recently released NSS the U.S. sees its leadership as “a global force for good.” The U.S. also argues that the situation in the world has made “clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”
In relation to the use of force the NSS outlines that the role of the military is to be ready to defend the “enduring national interests” of the U.S. In addition it is to provide “essential leverage” for U.S. diplomacy. The NSS also states that the use of force should not be the “first choice,” but that it “will sometimes be the necessary choice.” Furthermore, the U.S. “will use military force, unilaterally if necessary” when the “enduring interests demand it.” These interests are listed as: “when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; and when the security of our allies is in danger.” In the context of the use of force the NSS does not refer to the UN Charter and its regulation of the threat and use of force. However, in the section relating to “International Order” the NSS states that the U.S. will “continue to embrace the post-World War II legal architecture” including the UN Charter.
Implication of the differences
Although both China and the U.S. officially state their support for the post-World War II system, the differences between the two are obvious in relation to their views on the use of force in inter-state relations. Such differences extend into their practices with the U.S. actually using military force in and against other countries on a regular basis and on a global scale whereas China having only used forces a few occasions and having not done so since the end of the Cold War. Although the U.S. has always claimed that its practice of the use of force does not violate the provisions of the UN Charter often through a very extensive interpretation of what is permissible under the right to use of self-defence, i.e. Article 51 of the UN Charter. The U.S. position is not shared by a number of legal experts and the U.S. interventions have been criticised by other countries, e.g. the U.S. practice in the case of Iraq in 2003.
China’s attempt to profile itself as a defender of the UN Charter should be understood as both a principled position in line with China’s foreign policy doctrine as well as a way to contrast itself to countries whose foreign policy are more interventionist in particular the U.S.
Scenario options for the future
If we explore the unlikely scenario that China would change its policies and adopt a similar doctrine as the U.S. in relation to the threat and the use of force and to regime change, it would be denounced in the strongest terms by not only the U.S. and its allies, but also by all of China’s neighbors. The mainstream international media would create a narrative that China is a major threat to international peace and security. Such narrative would also expose China as a violator of international law and the UN Charter. Although some observers believe that major powers are bound to become prone to interventionism China’s official stand is that it will not follow that path.
Another scenario would be that China does not change its own doctrine but that it becomes more supportive of the U.S. doctrine and policies. In this scenario China would refrain from criticising U.S. actions, not oppose U.S. backed draft resolutions in the UN Security Council, and even possibly join in the U.S. actions. The U.S. and its allies would welcome such changes in Chinese foreign policy behaviour and they would most likely label China as a responsible stakeholder, a narrative that the mainstream international media would echo. However, it would damage China’s relations with many developing countries who look to China to help safeguard the integrity of the UN Charter and uphold its fundamental principles for the governance of relations between states in the international system. Although China and the US do already cooperate in many fields including security related ones, a scenario in which China radically moves to fully support US should not be envisaged.
A third scenario would be a change in U.S. doctrine and policies, which would bring the U.S. more in line with China’s current position. This would facilitate cooperation and it would also bring about a consensus on norms to govern global and international affairs. This scenario is extremely unlikely to materialise given that U.S. see itself as the leader of the world with a duty to both interfere and intervene wherever its interests are challenged or affected a change in doctrine and policy.
Consequently, the most likely scenario is one in which the two countries will continue to purse doctrines and policies that fundamentally differs in particular in the relating to the use of force in inter-state relation. They would also have fundamental differences relating to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.