by John West, Asian Century Institute
China claims that it would like a new type of great power relationship with the US, one that does not lead to conflict. At the same time, it enjoys provoking Japan, the US’s leading ally in Asia. China claims that it would like a new type of great power relationship with the US, one that does not lead to conflict. At the same time, it takes great pleasure in provoking Japan, the US’s leading ally in Asia.
Chinese leaders and analysts have observed that in history rising new powers have sometimes ended up in conflict with the status quo power. The most obvious cases are Germany and England, and Athens and Sparta. This phenomenon is called the “Thucydides Trap”.
China says that it is very keen to avoid conflict with the US. The great power transition from the United Kingdom to the United States gives cause for hope. It did indeed take place without conflict as these two countries had a shared system of values.
This desire for a new type of great power relationship was the key message from Chinese President Xi Jinping to US President Barack Obama at their recent Sunnylands summit. Obama was very receptive to Xi’s constructive overtures. The two sides “agreed to build a new type of relations between China and the US which could avoid the traditional path of confrontations and conflicts between major countries”. And the two seemed to have laid the foundations for a good personal relationship, something which is essential for a peaceful great power relationship.
But is China really becoming a great power which could rival the US? Or could China be a fragile superpower whose occasional boisterous behavior is more a sign of weakness rather than strength?
These issues were at the heart of discussions at the recent Beijing Forum. Leading international relations experts marveled at China’s rising economic strength. It is now the world’s leading exporter. Its economy is the world’s second largest. It is just a matter of years before China’s total GDP overtakes that of the US. And its military expenditure and capacity are both accelerating.
At the same time, these experts did recognize that China’s GDP per capita is a very long way behind. Based on market prices, it is only about 10% of the US’s. China’s technological capacities are also a long way behind.
But many argued that China is on an inevitable path of catchup to the US, and that the 21st century will be the “Asian Century”, led by China. These same people rushed to argue that the US is a declining power, burdened with debt and fractious politics.
In reality, the experience of Japan, whose GDP per capita is stuck at 30% below that of the US, shows how difficult full economic catchup can be. And China faces even more daunting challenges because of the heavy presence of state-owned enterprises and banks (an inescapable corollary of communist government), and the dramatic aging of its population. China will grow old before it becomes rich. And more fundamentally, it is unclear how China’s authoritarian state will manage the inevitable internal social and political frictions arising from its economic transformation.
The relative power advantage of China is arguably greater in the Asia-Pacific region, because the US has military assets spread over the whole world, with only about half in the Asia-Pacific. Against that, as China’s investments and economic interests progressively span the globe, its military assets will need to be spread out too. For example, China had to repatriate over 30,000 citizens from Libya. And China will have to become more interested in the Middle East, as its dependence on the region’s oil and gas grows, in tandem with a decline in US dependence thanks to its present energy boom.
We should not, as many do, consider the US in isolation. The US has alliances, partnerships and close relationships with a large number of countries, including all the world’s advanced countries, as well as several Asian countries.
For its part, China does not have an alliance with any significant other country, and it enjoys very little trust with its neighbours. China’s best friends in Asia are Cambodia, Laos and North Korea!
The ironic reality is that China’s most reliable partner in the four decades since 1972 has been the US. It has been open to Chinese trade, investment and migration. And China has benefited greatly from the open international system that the US created after World War 2, as well as benefiting from regional stability in Asia, which has also been guaranteed by the US.
Today, the US and Chinese economies are so intertwined that both countries should have a strong incentive to be partners, rather than rivals. And yet many Chinese are convinced that the US would like to block the rise of China. But no-one has an interest in the instability that could arise from a failure in China’s development momentum. China is simply too big to fail.
When examining the China/US great power relationship, it is also important to look at “soft power”. By any measure, the US’s soft power is immense, and the attraction of the US is very seductive for China. The migration of many skilled Chinese (and other Asians) testifies to this, as does the mass of Asian students in the US. Fully two-thirds of Chinese students in America have not returned home.
Conversely, China’s outward migration is evidence of a clear lack of trust of the country’s elite in its future, as is the growing Chinese foreign direct investment in the West, and the more than $3 trillion of illicit capital flows out of China this past decade.
Following the global financial crisis, the US spying scandal and the recent political chaos in Washington, many Chinese political and academic leaders have been wont to belittle the US. This is a grave error. As damaging as it is, the US political system, society and economy can survive this crisis and chaos.
History would suggest the opposite for China. And the rise of social and political repression of recent times, together with statements of the Communist Party itself, show how worried it is.
All of that said, there are very good reasons for China and the US to forge a great power partnership. China and the US will be the world’s two largest economies for a long time to come. Working together, they can make an essential contribution to solving most global problems like climate change, international trade, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism. And avoiding potentially costly conflict is very wise.
In sum, the notion of a G2 being at the center of the world does have some validity. But the emerging global economic and political landscape is much more complex. It is one of “multipolarity” or “decentred globalism”, where there are many powers, not just China and the US. The other BRICs (Brazil, Russia and India) are important powers, even if their economic success may now seem more like a mirage than a miracle. And we should never forget ASEAN, Europe and Japan.
We will live in a world where the US, and eventually China, may be first among equals. This is a world which requires very sophisticated diplomacy, building coalitions, working with others, cooperating and compromising.
The US, under President Obama’s leadership, is already showing how adept it can be in this regard. The recent agreement with Iran is a brilliant piece of multi-country diplomacy which holds the promise of a new peaceful relationship between Iran and the rest of the world. Obama’s willingness to work with Russia on Syria is another example of pragmatic diplomacy to solve the chemical weapons problem, while avoiding entanglement in more conflicts.
China’s approach to international relations is quite the opposite, despite its claim to want a new type of great power relationship with the US. A couple of weeks ago it announced that it had created an air defense identification zone over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, coupled with a demand that any non-commercial air traffic would have to submit flight plans prior to entering the area.
With this being the latest in a long line provocative and aggressive actions, the US has just flown two B-52 bombers over the Senkaku islands in defiance of new Chinese air defence rules. The clear message to China is “enough is enough”!
By attempting to assert its authority over these islands, China is undermining the very good work that Xi Jinping had undertaken with Obama. And above all, it undermines the trust that he was trying to foster when he agreed with Obama on the importance of putting in place patterns of interaction that allow them to “deal with the greatest sources of instability and competition that could take this relationship down the pathway toward rivalry”.
The real problem in the China/US relationship is that China is not a great power. China’s recent actions regarding the Senkaku Islands, as well as its initial paltry offer of financial aid to the typhoon-damaged Philippines, are evidence of a fragile, fractious, insecure and unpredictable country. Indeed, China seems like a country which is more inclined to random tactics than strategy.
The world would benefit greatly from a China which was a real great power, with the capacity to be confident, reasonable, and generous with other countries. With its current mindset, China is not there yet!