The Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations

Apr 17, 2014News

2014-04-16 08.51.29 pm

(Photo Credit: Ed-meister / flickr)

(BGF) – In the March/April 2012 edition of Foreign Affairs Henry Kissinger discussed the future of the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Throughout the article, Kissinger emphasizes that conflict is a choice, rather than an inevitability. Thus, the goal of cooperation between these two great powers is realizable. As Kissinger notes, both the U.S. and China must be careful to recognize the other’s fears and the ways in which rhetoric, as well as policies, can feed into those fears. For example, some in the U.S. perceive China’s actions as a way to push the U.S. out of East Asia and to cement China’s power and influence in the region. This, however, is a possibility that the U.S. fears and would take great strides to prevent. As for China, many fear that the U.S. is a “wounded” superpower that will due anything in its power to curtail China’s rise internationally. Each country must take these concerns into account in their relations with one another. Moreover, the U.S.-China relationship must not be viewed as a zero-sum game. While there are no historical precedents to guide these two powerful, yet very different, countries through their complex, and at times, tense relationship an appropriate understanding of each country’s circumstances can breed cooperation rather than conflict. Click here to read the full article or visit Foreign Affair‘s website.

The Future of U.S.-Chinese Relations

By Henry A. Kissinger

On January 19, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement at the end of Hu’s visit to Washington. It proclaimed their shared commitment to a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship.” Each party reassured the other regarding his principal concern, announcing, “The United States reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs. China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”

Since then, the two governments have set about implementing the stated objectives. Top American and Chinese officials have exchanged visits and institutionalized their exchanges on major strategic and economic issues. Military-to-military contacts have been restarted, opening an important channel of communication. And at the unofficial level, so-called track-two groups have explored possible evolutions of the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Yet as cooperation has increased, so has controversy. Significant groups in both countries claim that a contest for supremacy between China and the United States is inevitable and perhaps already under way. In this perspective, appeals for U.S.-Chinese cooperation appear outmoded and even naive.

The mutual recriminations emerge from distinct yet parallel analyses in each country. Some American strategic thinkers argue that Chinese policy pursues two long-term objectives: displacing the United States as the preeminent power in the western Pacific and consolidating Asia into an exclusionary bloc deferring to Chinese economic and foreign policy interests. In this conception, even though China’s absolute military capacities are not formally equal to those of the United States, Beijing possesses the ability to pose unacceptable risks in a conflict with Washington and is developing increasingly sophisticated means to negate traditional U.S. advantages. Its invulnerable second-strike nuclear capability will eventually be paired with an expanding range of antiship ballistic missiles and asymmetric capabilities in new domains such as cyberspace and space. China could secure a dominant naval position through a series of island chains on its periphery, some fear, and once such a screen exists, China’s neighbors, dependent as they are on Chinese trade and uncertain of the United States’ ability to react, might adjust their policies according to Chinese preferences. Eventually, this could lead to the creation of a Sinocentric Asian bloc dominating the western Pacific. The most recent U.S. defense strategy report reflects, at least implicitly, some of these apprehensions.

No Chinese government officials have proclaimed such a strategy as China’s actual policy. Indeed, they stress the opposite. However, enough material exists in China’s quasi-official press and research institutes to lend some support to the theory that relations are heading for confrontation rather than cooperation.

U.S. strategic concerns are magnified by ideological predispositions to battle with the entire nondemocratic world. Authoritarian regimes, some argue, are inherently brittle, impelled to rally domestic support by nationalist and expansionist rhetoric and practice. In these theories — versions of which are embraced in segments of both the American left and the American right — tension and conflict with China grow out of China’s domestic structure. Universal peace will come, it is asserted, from the global triumph of democracy rather than from appeals for cooperation. The political scientist Aaron Friedberg writes, for example, that “a liberal democratic China will have little cause to fear its democratic counterparts, still less to use force against them.” Therefore, “stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy [should be] to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.”

On the Chinese side, the confrontational interpretations follow an inverse logic. They see the United States as a wounded superpower determined to thwart the rise of any challenger, of which China is the most credible. No matter how intensely China pursues cooperation, some Chinese argue, Washington’s fixed objective will be to hem in a growing China by military deployment and treaty commitments, thus preventing it from playing its historic role as the Middle Kingdom. In this perspective, any sustained cooperation with the United States is self-defeating, since it will only serve the overriding U.S. objective of neutralizing China. Systematic hostility is occasionally considered to inhere even in American cultural and technological influences, which are sometimes cast as a form of deliberate pressuredesigned to corrode China’s domestic consensus and traditional values. The most assertive voices argue that China has been unduly passive in the face of hostile trends and that (for example, in the case of territorial issues in the South China Sea) China should confront those of its neighbors with which it has disputed claims and then, in the words of the strategic analyst Long Tao, “reason, think ahead and strike first before things gradually run out of hand . . . launch[ing] some tiny-scale battles that could deter provocateurs from going further.”


Is there, then, a point in the quest for a cooperative U.S.-Chinese relationship and in policies designed to achieve it? To be sure, the rise of powers has historically often led to conflict with established countries. But conditions have changed. It is doubtful that the leaders who went so blithely into a world war in 1914 would have done so had they known what the world would be like at its end. Contemporary leaders can have no such illusions. A major war between developed nuclear countries must bring casualties and upheavals impossible to relate to calculable objectives. Preemption is all but excluded, especially for a pluralistic democracy such as the United States.

If challenged, the United States will do what it must to preserve its security. But it should not adopt confrontation as a strategy of choice. In China, the United States would encounter an adversary skilled over the centuries in using prolonged conflict as a strategy and whose doctrine emphasizes the psychological exhaustion of the opponent. In an actual conflict, both sides possess the capabilities and the ingenuity to inflict catastrophic damage on each other. By the time any such hypothetical conflagration drew to a close, all participants would be left exhausted and debilitated. They would then be obliged to face anew the very task that confronts them today: the construction of an international order in which both countries are significant components.

The blueprints for containment drawn from Cold War strategies used by both sides against an expansionist Soviet Union do not apply to current conditions. The economy of the Soviet Union was weak (except for military production) and did not affect the global economy. Once China broke off ties and ejected Soviet advisers, few countries except those forcibly absorbed into the Soviet orbit had a major stake in their economic relationship with Moscow. Contemporary China, by contrast, is a dynamic factor in the world economy. It is a principal trading partner of all its neighbors and most of the Western industrial powers, including the United States. A prolonged confrontation between China and the United States would alter the world economy with unsettling consequences for all.

Nor would China find that the strategy it pursued in its own conflict with the Soviet Union fits a confrontation with the United States. Only a few countries — and no Asian ones — would treat an American presence in Asia as “fingers” to be “chopped off” (in Deng Xiaoping’s graphic phrase about Soviet forward positions). Even those Asian states that are not members of alliances with the United States seek the reassurance of an American political presence in the region and of American forces in nearby seas as the guarantor of the world to which they have become accustomed.Their approach was expressed by a senior Indonesian official to an American counterpart: “Don’t leave us, but don’t make us choose.”

China’s recent military buildup is not in itself an exceptional phenomenon: the more unusual outcome would be if the world’s second-largest economy and largest importer of natural resources did not translate its economic power into some increased military capacity. The issue is whether that buildup is open ended and to what purposes it is put. If the United States treats every advance in Chinese military capabilities as a hostile act, it will quickly find itself enmeshed in an endless series of disputes on behalf of esoteric aims. But China must be aware, from its own history, of the tenuous dividing line between defensive and offensive capabilities and of the consequences of an unrestrained arms race.

China’s leaders will have their own powerful reasons for rejecting domestic appeals for an adversarial approach — as indeed they have publicly proclaimed. China’s imperial expansion has historically been achieved by osmosis rather than conquest, or by the conversion to Chinese culture of conquerors who then added their own territories to the Chinese domain. Dominating Asia militarily would be a formidableundertaking. The Soviet Union, during the Cold War, bordered on a string of weak countries drained by war and occupation and dependent on American troop commitments for their defense. China today faces Russia in the north; Japan and South Korea, with American military alliances, to the east; Vietnam and India to thesouth; and Indonesia and Malaysia not far away. This is not a constellationconducive to conquest. It is more likely to raise fears of encirclement. Each of these countries has a long military tradition and would pose a formidable obstacle if its territory or its ability to conduct an independent policy were threatened. A militant Chinese foreign policy would enhance cooperation among all or at least some of these nations, evoking China’s historic nightmare, as happened in the period 2009–10.


Another reason for Chinese restraint in at least the medium term is the domestic adaptation the country faces. The gap in Chinese society between the largely developed coastal regions and the undeveloped western regions has made Hu’s objective of a “harmonious society” both compelling and elusive. Cultural changes compound the challenge. The next decades will witness, for the first time, the full impact of one-child families on adult Chinese society. This is bound to modify cultural patterns in a society in which large families have traditionally taken care of the aged and the handicapped. When four grandparents compete for the attention of one child and invest him with the aspirations heretofore spread across many offspring, a new pattern of insistent achievement and vast, perhaps unfulfillable, expectations may arise.

All these developments will further complicate the challenges of China’sgovernmental transition starting in 2012, in which the presidency; the vice-presidency; the considerable majority of the positions in China’s Politburo, State Council, and Central Military Commission; and thousands of other key national and provincial posts will be staffed with new appointees. The new leadership group will consist, for the most part, of members of the first Chinese generation in a century and a half to have lived all their lives in a country at peace. Its primary challenge will be finding a way to deal with a society revolutionized by changing economic conditions, unprecedented and rapidly expanding technologies of communication, a tenuous global economy, and the migration of hundreds of millions of people from China’s countryside to its cities. The model of government that emerges will likely be a synthesis of modern ideas and traditional Chinese political and cultural concepts, and the quest for that synthesis will provide the ongoing drama of China’s evolution.

These social and political transformations are bound to be followed with interest and hope in the United States. Direct American intervention would be neither wise nor productive. The United States will, as it should, continue to make its views known on human rights issues and individual cases. And its day-to-day conduct will expressits national preference for democratic principles. But a systematic project to transform China’s institutions by diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions is likely to backfire and isolate the very liberals it is intended to assist. In China, it would be interpreted by a considerable majority through the lens of nationalism, recalling earlier eras of foreign intervention.

What this situation calls for is not an abandonment of American values but a distinction between the realizable and the absolute. The U.S.-Chinese relationship should not be considered as a zero-sum game, nor can the emergence of a prosperous and powerful China be assumed in itself to be an American strategic defeat.

A cooperative approach challenges preconceptions on both sides. The United States has few precedents in its national experience of relating to a country of comparable size, self-confidence, economic achievement, and international scope and yet with such a different culture and political system. Nor does history supply China withprecedents for how to relate to a fellow great power with a permanent presence in Asia, a vision of universal ideals not geared toward Chinese conceptions, and alliances with several of China’s neighbors. Prior to the United States, all countries establishing such a position did so as a prelude to an attempt to dominate China.

The simplest approach to strategy is to insist on overwhelming potential adversaries with superior resources and materiel. But in the contemporary world, this is only rarely feasible. China and the United States will inevitably continue as enduring realities for each other. Neither can entrust its security to the other — no great power does, for long — and each will continue to pursue its own interests, sometimes at the relative expense of the other. But both have the responsibility to take into account the other’s nightmares, and both would do well to recognize that their rhetoric, as much as their actual policies, can feed into the other’s suspicions.

Click here to read the full article.