With the trade war, high-tech competition and the re-emergence of the so-called “clash of civilizations”, along with the US 2017 National Security Strategy which defined China and Russia as “strategic competitors,” many experts tend to believe that the US has reached a consensus to comprehensively contain China, and that a new cold war is set to begin or even has started already. But I believe that with President Donald Trump in office for just two years, it’s still too early to jump to the conclusion that the US strategy has undergone fundamental changes—we lack the evidence to make this assertion with academic rigor. Only by viewing the situation from a historical perspective can we avoid reaching hasty and short-sighted conclusions—we must correctly, comprehensively and systematically get to know American intellectual elites’ understanding about China.
Phase I: Discussions of China’s rise and the China threat emerges in the early 1990s
Before the end of the Cold War, China was virtually off the radar of American strategists. With the end of the Cold War and the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, discussions about the China threat began to emerge, and the logic behind the discussions provided the basic guiding rules for American academics’ understanding of China for the following 30 years. Nicholas D. Kristof, former chief of the New York Times’ Beijing bureau, believed that China, with its weak military prowess, was not yet in a position to challenge the US or change the balance of international power—thus ran the logic of the realistic optimists. At the same time, he also believed that China, unlike Germany and Japan in earlier decades, did not have intend to pursue military expansion, showing the logic of the liberal optimists. Samuel Huntington, professor of political science at Harvard University, provided the logical backbone of the ensuing “China threat” theory. First, he believed that from the 19th century, all great powers followed the same road: he believed that “a country which grows strong is bound to pursue hegemony”, and China would be no exception. This was the logic of the realistic pessimists. They further believed that China’s political system and ideology were completely different from and even contradictory to that of the US.
Phase II: Discourse heats up through the turn of the century
From 1995 to 1996, China-US relations became tense due to the cross-Strait crisis: this, for the first time, gave some practical meaning to discussions about whether or not the rise of China posed a threat to the US. The realistic pessimists considered China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait to deter “Taiwan separatist forces” to constitute assertive actions by China to seek regional hegemony and challenging America’s hegemonic status. John J. Mearsheimer, professor of political science from the University of Chicago, argued in his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that as long as China continues to grow strong, it will attempt to dominate its neighboring regions. Liberal pessimists claimed that China’s military threat is rooted in its manipulation of nationalistic sentiment to guarantee its governing stability, which is the case for all non-democratic countries, and this could lead to conflicts. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the important figures among neo-conservate thinkers, was a supporter of this theory.
Some scholars believed that the so-called China threat was a non-issue—not because China was a benign giant but due to the fact that China was too weak to challenge the balance of power. Princeton professor Thomas Christensen also believed that China’s military power is a challenge to the US, but it could not catch up with or surpass the US. The liberal optimists believed that China is trying to integrate into the existing international order and trade system, and is not creating a new structure to replace the established order.
Phase III: From 9/11 to the 2008 crash, optimism prevailed
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, America’s attention shifted from the rise of China to the Global War on Terror. The wars in Afghanistan in Iraq grabbed the attention of the US government, academics, and think tanks—the Middle East and Central Asia were the key focus. From 2001 to 2005, optimistic views prevailed in US academic discussions about the rise of China, and the government thus paid less attention to Chinese affairs. During this period, discussions about China tended to be positive. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and its diplomatic efforts on the North Korean issue were all considered positive signals for China’s integration into the world. Under the Bush administration’s China’s policy, China was defined as a “responsible stakeholder.”
Phase IV: After the global financial crisis, 2008-2015
When the global financial crisis erupted in 2007 because of the US subprime mortgage crisis, the US economy became increasingly stagnant while China continued to maintain the momentum of fast growth. The discussions among the US intellectual circles about the rise of China and the so-called power transformation had a growing practical value. The liberal pessimism underwent further development, and the discussions about the so-called “Beijing Consensus” and the “China model” among the Western intellectual circles meant the rise of the emerging economies, the victory for authoritarian countries and the failure of the free system. On the contrary, there were liberal optimists, as represented by Princeton professor John Ikenberry and famous media professional Fareed Zakaria. The main points of their views were: the international order China was facing was fundamentally different from that of the past emerging big powers, and what China had to face was not simply the US, but the whole Western-centered system, and this system had its huge potential to tolerate any emerging big powers.
Phase V: Confrontation emerges in the Trump era; but some question US grand strategy
The year 2016 could be considered a watershed in the shift of opinions on China among American intellectual elites. With China vigorously promoting the Belt and Road Initiative and with growing China-US maritime tensions in the South China Sea, the views of the China pessimists began to prevail. The realistic pessimists claimed that the rapid rise of China and its “assertive” foreign policy posed risks to the post-war international order. The liberal pessimists, meanwhile, believed that China’s success in its economic development would help boost its confidence and capabilities to export the “China model,” particularly to developing nations, which could mean a blow to America’s long-term efforts to expand the free international order.
Despite the emergence of these pessimistic opinions, we should not jump to the conclusion that the US has reached a domestic consensus to contain China—some American intellectual elites have begun to reflect on America’s grand strategy. Some practices, adopted after Trump came into power, have forced them to ponder whether overall US approach after the Cold War has gone wrong. CNN foreign affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria said that the problems with America’s grand strategy did not mean that the free international order itself had gone wrong; the problems were the self-inflicted consequences of a certain stand of capitalist thinking developed after the Cold War. Harvard professor Joseph Nye pointed out that global governance demands cooperation among all major countries to jointly provide public goods, and therefore suggested dropping the word “free” from the free international order so as to more easily achieve international cooperation.
In the above phases, we can track the changing opinions and understanding of the international order and China among American intellectual elites, and discern a long-term coexistence of optimistic and pessimistic views, with two schools of thought prevailing periodically. In terms of policy, this was an intertwined process characterized by engagement and confrontation—but thus far, a China policy of comprehensive containment or new cold war has not materialized.