No alternative to an understanding between Beijing and Washington
Time and again, the rise of a great power—by disturbing the balance of forces—has set off a conflict with the dominant state.
If China’s peaceful rise is to continue, there must be some accommodation between Beijing and Washington.
The two are looking for a new “great power relationship” because—in our time—there is no alternative to live-and-let-live between them.
As the University of Chicago geo-politician John Mearsheimer notes, “Nuclear weapons are a powerful force for peace.”
American leaders concede that China’s weight on the global balance will rise. “It is inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in this region, just by sheer size,” President Obama said repeatedly during his East Asian tour of the closest US allies—Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines—in May.
What will American recognition of China as a great power mean?
Principally, it will mean Washington’s acknowledging the legitimacy of Beijing’s security, territorial and economic interests in the China Sea and in the first group of islands enclosing our great inland sea.
But, as always, the devil is in the details; and agreeing on these particulars will take a lot of slogging by the Asia-Pacific powers.
China’s place in the sun
We can assume China will become stronger, proportionate to the United States, during this next decade or so. (The Americans themselves expect China to be a superpower by 2025.) Chinese individual incomes are at best still only one-eighth those of Americans.
What is certain is that, as China’s wealth and power grow, Beijing will demand more and more forcefully some dismantling in the containing wall the United States and its allies have built along its borders.
There has in fact been some give on that issue, as the power balance has shifted with time.
China has recovered Hong Kong and Macao—Britain and Portugal having become too weak to defend them. And already China’s growing capabilities—coupled with rising anti-Americanism in host-countries—are forcing the US to withdraw the bulk of its ground troops from South Korea and Okinawa to its Guam strongpoint.
Already the West Pacific island is the most commanding platform in the world for projecting US sea-and-air power.
Dispelling strategic mistrust
Can China win without fighting, as the classical strategist Sun Tzu counsels?
“Supreme excellence [lies]in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping are working to prevent any confrontation. They have agreed on an unprecedented series of “no-neckties” summits—in Xi’s formulation, “to build strategic reassurance; reach an understanding on each other’s core interests; and agree on spheres of influence.”
Extended and regular conversations between the two heads of state are backstopped by a “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” participated in by Cabinet-level officials that meets twice a year.
That there is no ideological cleavage between the two powers—as there was between the US and the Soviet Union—should help.
The long-term task American and Chinese statesmen have set themselves is to dispel their mutual “strategic mistrust”—their long-term suspicions about each other’s ultimate goals.
In January 2011, Hu Jintao and Obama had affirmed their objectives jointly: “The United States welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs; and China welcomes the United States as an Asian-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”
Future of Taiwan
The future of Taiwan will be a prime Obama-Xi topic. Unification is part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that Beijing seeks.
For the US, the costs of allying with the island—once its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” only 100 miles from China’s heartland—will soon outweigh the benefits of propping it up.
Significantly, Beijing and Taipei are now talking officially—most recently in Nanjing, the republican capital. A variety of the “one country, two systems” formula being tried out in Hong Kong seems the best arrangement.
A multilateral world
The on-going transition of the regional system from hegemony to a multilateral balance is a delicate and dangerous period.
But the new balance gives East Asia’s “middle powers” the diplomatic weight and flexibility to join the great powers in creating—and maintaining—regional stability.
For second-tier states like the Philippines and its Asean partners, the highest imperative would be to preserve the strategic balance, and not to be drawn irrevocably into any single great power’s “sphere of influence.”|
President Xi would bluntly assign the weaker Asian states to either China’s or America’s political and security orbit.
But “Finlandization” in East Asia could be violent and difficult. Historically, the Vietnamese and Koreans have forged the steel in their spirit on the anvil of Chinese overlordship. Meanwhile the China Sea has been a moat protecting the integrity of the archipelagic states.
Japan will want a key role in the new power balance. It is no secret that Tokyo can
turn nuclear at will. Its ruling conservatives are stimulating a nationalist resurgence, rebuilding its military and offering military aid to its neighbors liberally.
The Cabinet has just “reinterpreted” the 1947 “no war” constitution to allow Japan’s military to help defend its allies—even if Japan is not the object of the attack.
Still number one
Can America stay the course in East Asia and the West Pacific?
As the Chinese themselves say, today’s world has “many powers—but only one superpower.” The United States is still Number One in both “hard” and “soft” power.
A culture that fosters immigration, innovation and entrepreneurship keeps America uniquely vigorous—even in the face of Asian drive.
The task before China and the US is to enhance their cooperation and coordination in regional affairs—to reach a grand bargain that enables them both to live peacefully—and in mutual respect with one another.
Part 1 of this two-part analysis by J. T. Gatbonton appeared on Friday July 4, 2014.