THE end of the Cold War has seen tectonic changes in the architecture of international foreign relations. With the Obama pivot to Asia the deployment of United States diplomatic and security initiatives has shifted from NATO nations to SEATO allied countries, specifically the rising superpower, China, which in the eyes of cold warriors is now in the crosshairs of US gunboat diplomacy but in the eyes of realist doves provides a huge window of opportunity for American business. In Cold War days, the Soviet threat threw the US and China together. With the balkanization of the Soviet Union, however, Russia is perceived to be less of a threat than an emerging economic and military dragon in Asia. Accordingly, the US-China mutual defense entente cordial aimed at Russia is no longer a strategic option, even as the geo-economics interplay between the two superpowers continue gaining from strength to strength.
Zero sum or win-win?
Verily, with the dawning of the Asia-Pacific century, the relationship between these two countries will determine the security and development prospects of one-third of the global population. This in turn will depend on the choice between zero-sum or win-win gamesmanship by the two superpowers. Indeed, the Trump administration policy toward China, and the latter’s adherence to the rule of law and international norms of conduct co-optation in international institutions and norms, will determine whether the region will experience political stability or turbulence.
Hawks favor confrontation
The great divide in the US with regard to China is between those who want “peaceful evolution” and “cooperative engagement” by trade, investment, and interdependence, and those who favor a “pre-emptive confrontation” through diplomatic means, alliance formation and military conflicts. For our purposes, let us call them hawks and doves.
The hawks seriously believe that China’s growing economic power and military modernization efforts will seriously diminish United States power and influence in Asia and especially North Asia and upset the power equilibrium and destabilize the continent. Accordingly, this group favors a containment policy. They argue that China is gaining more than the United States in bilateral trade because of its huge trade surplus. Instead of declining, China’s trade surplus is increasing every year for a long time. They argue further that over the long run, such an imbalanced trade relationship and unequal gains from trade might create a real threat to America’s economic welfare and military security. According to them, China is not a democratic country and ally of the United States and that both nations will inexorably engage in major competition and conflict from the first decades of the21st century. They therefore propose the containment of China at any cost and by any means as soon as possible.
The security concerns of the hawks are fueled by the following perceptions:
The United States and China have different views about the desired character of the emerging international order. While the United States prefers a unipolar world under its thumb, China wants a multi-polar world which gives her room to maneuver and the ability to manipulate one superpower against another.
US security analysts, particularly those who have not overcome the ingrained Cold War mentality are fearful that China’s rapid economic growth can rapidly translate into military might–-the classical Thucydides mindset that allegedly brought Athens and Sparta to war. They further posit that China’s authoritarian political system and lack of transparency about its military affairs, dismal human rights record and the Taiwan issue do not warrant a modus vivendi between the countries.
Hawkish scholars also submit that since the US and China are desperate to control the key strategic areas of energy resources, China’s growing presence in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, Russia, Latin America and other places could ultimately lead to confrontation with the US, the largest oil consumer in the world.
They suggest that China is an ambitious power, not a status quo power. China will therefore, in their mind, try to redress historical grievances and seek new positions in, and especially, East Asia, not by occupying or invading neighboring countries, but by political and military influence. They even go so far as to argue that there are some similarities between the rise of China and the rise of Nazi Germany, post-Meiji Japan and the former Soviet Union which had authoritarian political systems, and rapid industrial growth and military modernization processes.
Citing that China has fought more border wars with its neighbors than any other country in the world since it independence in 1949, they strongly suggest that it is better to contain authoritarian China as early as possible, warning that China might be far more powerful and dangerous than any of the potential hegemons that the United States confronted in the 20th century.
Finally, they conclude that if China emerges as a single dominant country in Asia, the US interest will definitely collide with Chinese interest because of Asian economic and strategic importance. Most of the scholars of this school of thought believe that engagement is a modern form of appeasement that will give China more leverage to become a potential aggressor, arguing that interdependence and institutional means are inefficient and insufficient methods to change the behavior of China. They therefore suggest power and pressure to contain and constrain China. In short rather than engagement, they want to contain China by traditional means: arms build-up, unilateral diplomacy, balance of power, and alliance formation.
Doves favor modus vivendi
The doves on the other hand consider a rising China will not be a security threat. They look at a growing China as a huge market for the rest of the world’s and be a fillip to global economic growth. They argue that China will not be hegemonic, firstly, because it is historically non-expansionist. Moreover, growing trade interaction and economic interdependence will enhance China’s wealth which will keep her at home. Finally, they claim that China’sparticipation in international organizations which has increased tremendously in the past two decades has made it adhere to established international codes of conduct making her a law-abiding member of the community of free nations. They argue further that despite China’s impressive growth in the past three decades, China is still comparatively economically and militarily weak even as it faces some difficult internal and external problems which will provide roadblocks to its rise as a global power, forcing her to adopt peaceful rather than hegemonic policies.
They focus on “absolute gain” theory in trade and economic relations. According to them, pursuit of relative gain is misleading and destructive to the global economy and a hindrance to cooperation among states. They argue that if the US and China both gain in absolute terms in economic relations, the economic welfare of both countries will improve and each country will be satisfied. Many scholars and even many government officials argue that there are far more reasons to cooperate than collide.
They argue further that China is not in a position to pose any real security challenge to the United States.
According to them, despite rapid economic growth and modernization of the armed forces in the last two decades, China’s military strength is too weak to compete with that of the United States. A country can balance its potential enemy or enemies in two ways: internal balancing and external balancing. For internal balancing, a country may increase its defense expenditure, and modernize its armed forces to counterbalance its enemy states. China has been trying to modernize its armed forces and increasing its defense, especially its navy and air forces, in the past two decades. But China’s military power is still weak compared to the United States.
The doves aver that trying to outflank the US is not possible for China, and neither is it a driving principle of China’s security policy. One scholar mentions that Chinese strategies have consensus on: “first, the stronger China becomes, the more accommodating the United States will be toward China. Second, it is unwise for China to challenge the United States directly during its ‘unipolar moment’of unparalleled power except where absolutely necessary”. China’s first broad-based national defense white paper, published in 1998, mentions that “it will seek a peaceful, stable, prosperous world into the new century”. China’s military strategists periodically have cautioned China’s leadership not to indulge in any types of lopsided arms race with the United States that will hamper its economic development and modernization process. China’s policies towards its neighbors clearly indicate that China is willing to avoid conflicts and has focused more on economic development and peace and stability of the region.
Finally, the doves argue that strong economic relations with the US is vital for China’s economic growth and development. China desperately needs to preserve and expand its export market in the US for its continuing economic growth and modernization. Given the recession in Japan, slow economic growth in Europe, and slow recovery in East and Southeast Asia after the 1999 financial and economic crisis, the US is still China’s most important export market. Bad economic relations with the US will therefore definitely hamper China’s export growth and also overall economic growth, which aggravate unemployment in urban areas and mass discontent in rural areas. Moreover, poor economic performance will seriously erode the legitimacy of the communist regime.
Despite the Soviet Union’s strong postwar economic growth and Japan’s dramatic economic growth in the 1980s, neither Japan nor the Soviet Union were able to pose any real threat to the United States’ economic and military supremacy to the present time. Expectedly, neither will China’s impressive economic growth in recent decades challenge the US hegemonic position in the world today. Indeed, the United States is now the only superpower in the world even if some scholars dare to submit that US power is declining relative to other great powers. Indeed, there is still no compelling evidence that China will be able to pose any serious economic or military threat to the United States in the near future
Military experts are at one that the gap between American and Chinese military power is still insurmountable in terms of organizational and technical competence that the concept of a Chinese military threat to the United States is farfetched despite the expected dramatic increase in China’s military budget in the near future. Indeed, there is still no indication that it will extend itself beyond a robust defense one.
On the development side, doves argue that whatever hegemonic ambitions are being entertained by some of its leaders, the fact remains that China is not only dependent on the United States for its market, but also for foreign direct investment, technology transfer and financial resources which discourages her from engaging in any kind of serious confrontation with the Western superpower.
A huge Chinese military build-up, according to dovish scholars, will be exceedingly costly, if not untenable, given a weak technological base and the fact that a huge military expenditure will seriously derail its drive towards full development. This is also expected to hamper its relations not only with the US but also with its neighbors, specifically Japan and India, which will view with great apprehension such moves. China can learn from the Soviet Union’s costly and bitter experience of her arms race with the United States. Indeed, four decades of this arms race with the US seriously derailed its economic development and the welfare of the people.
For sure, it did not escape the attention of the Chinese leadership that the fall of the Soviet Union and demise of the communist party in Russia and Eastern Europe can be attributed to their failure to dramatically improve living conditions which cannot be achieved by engaging in an arms race with the United States. Indeed, only China’s economic development, modernization process, and well- being of its people will legitimize communist rule. It is understandable therefore that economic development has been given higher priority than security considerations in China during the last two decades. If only for this reason, China must improve and normalize its relationship with the US.
Finally, the doves argue that in the last two decades, China has behaved like a law-abiding member of the international community, gradually liberalizing its economy, improving relations with its neighbors, and enhancing its participation in international organizations. Indeed, it can be said that China has already integrated its economy into the global economic system and become a part of the global political and security regimes.
There is no gainsaying that China, with its huge population and rapidly growing economy, is very important for the rest of the global economy. Moreover, future Sino-American relations will profoundly shape the life of billions of people, stability and prosperity in the world, especially in Asia.
At the end of the day, whether the US-China relations will be a zero-sum or win-win game depends on the US policy toward China, and China’s involvement in international institutions, norms, and regimes in the near future.
Geo-economics to trump geopolitics
Even as we write, China is making waves extending soft power effectively in gaining friends and influencing people in her continent. The One Belt, One Road initiative has been touted as the Marshall Plan for Asia and many have jumped on its bandwagon. The Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, another Chinese initiative, will supplement the Asian Development Bank and prove to be a boon to the unserved sectors of developing economies in the region.
Yes, indeed, China does not need to go to war because it is winning the peace through soft power and geo-economic initiatives.