Again and again—throughout history—we’ve seen the drama unfold. The rising power challenges the prevailing order, while the established state tries to keep it down; and the outcome is a war in the power system.
In our time, China is the ‘rising power’ and the United States the ‘established power’ in this recurrent tragedy of the great powers.
In the Chinese view, the US seeks to contain China’s peaceful rise by stoking conflict between Beijing and its neighbors.
In the US view, China is challenging America’s primacy of seven decades in the Asia-Pacific region.
Tilting global gravity
China’s challenge may have started out as a neighbors’ quarrel over islets, shoals and reefs in the China Sea. But ultimately China’s challenge is to the US as global ‘Number One.’
Already rising Chinese power has tilted the center of geopolitical gravity to the Pacific from the Atlantic—where it has been since the Napoleonic Wars. And already Beijing is beginning to contest Washington’s influence in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even Latin America.
China’s challenge we must take with the utmost seriousness, in the light of what its leaders have been able to do during this last generation: Already they have lifted 600 million of their people out of poverty, and restored their country to a power of the first rank.
Certainly President Obama himself takes seriously President Xi Jinping’s view that the relationship between the United States and China is at a “critical juncture”; and the time has come to explore “a new type of major-country relationship.”
Xi wants Obama to acknowledge China’s arrival as a great power—with a rightful role in “shaping new global rules and norms.”
Under new management
At home, Xi Jinping rules more decisively than his bland predecessor, Hu Jintao. He is purging the inner party councils and carrying out economic reform all at the same time.
Under Xi’s direction, the Communist Party plans to move 250 million rural people to big cities over the next 12-15 years. If this mass migration succeeds, it should keep China’s GDP growth close to its Deng-era levels, broaden Beijing’s tax base and indulge even more lavish military spending.
Stoking popular nationalism, Xi is also more assertive in his approach to foreign policy.
To prevent any confrontation, Xi and Obama have agreed on an unprecedented series of informal summits—in Xi’s formulation, “to build strategic reassurance; reach an understanding on each other’s core interests; and agree on spheres of influence.”
The first of these shirtsleeve conversations took place in California in June 2013. Xi’s forthcoming state visit to Washington is billed as continuing them. That the talks are taking so long suggests how complex and far-reaching they must be, and how consequential carrying them out is likely to become.
The New York Times acknowledges that it is the Chinese leader who set the tone for the Obama-Xi Summits. Certainly Xi’s “talking points” are plain, frank, to the point—uncharacteristic of traditional Chinese diplomacy.
But in essence Xi’s talking points strike me as referring back to the pre-industrial era, when China—as the “Kingdom in the Middle’—exercised a ritual suzerainty over internally autonomous tributary states.
Certainly President Xi’s talking points deserve the closest scrutiny of every East Asian government.
What does Xi Jinping’s key phrases mean? By “core interest,” he seems to mean a firmly held position that one side in a dispute regards as non-negotiable. By “sphere of influence,” he seems to mean a country or area in which another country has the power to affect events or trends, though it may have no formal authority.
The Chinese negotiators are reputed to have submitted a list of “core interests” to the Americans. And this early the Sinologist Orville Schelle has declared his agreement that the US should acknowledge China’s entitlement to some kind of sphere of influence in the South China Sea.
What will American recognition of China as a great power mean? The Chinese leader envisions Western recognition of China’s dramatic rise in economic and military terms; and the cession of greater strategic space to the Chinese military.
An agreement on this point would mean—principally
Washington’s acknowledging the legitimacy of Beijing’s security, territorial and economic interests in the China Sea.
Staying the course
The Americans themselves project China would be a power of the first rank by 2025. A RAND study finds the US unable to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack by 2020. Obama concedes China’s weight on the global balance will rise. He says, “It is inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in this region, just by sheer size.”
Can America stay the course in East Asia and the West Pacific? The United States is still Number One in both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. Already Anderson Air Force base on Guam—in the Western Pacific’s second island chain—is the most commanding platform in the world for projecting US military power.
Meanwhile a culture that at heart fosters personal freedom, immigration, innovation and entrepreneurship keeps America uniquely vigorous—even in the face of East Asian drive and self-discipline.
Now that the two great powers have accepted that they have differences they could not resolve overnight, they can start working together on collective problems—global warming for instance—that no single state can resolve by itself.
When elephants fight
Throughout history, Southeast Asia has sought to stay away from the quarrels of the great powers. Every culture in the region has a variation of the Malay saying, “When the elephants fight, the mouse deer gets trampled.”
But it is they that must live with the ‘great-power relationship’ Washington and Beijing are negotiating.
Asean—the regional association Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand founded in the post-Pacific War period—has been prescient. Having incorporated all the region’s 10 states, it has endowed them with the measure of solidarity they need to cope with this great-power confrontation on their very doorsteps.
Asean is a long way from being able to speak on security issues with one voice; but on the South China Sea it cannot afford not to.
We may also be sure China’s assertiveness will continue—because its root cause is strategic.
Both the Paracels-Spratlys and the Semkaku-Diaoyu islets are, in China’s view, crucial to the defense of its exposed industrial heartland.