On Political Books

January/ February 2014 A Middle Course for the Middle Kingdom?

Competition with China really isn’t a zero-sum game. So why does it feel that way?

By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

From an American perspective, the challenge is that, for all of these dilemmas, every plausible option unleashes complicated dynamics in the U.S.-China relationship. Burdened by sputtering growth or faltering control, anxious Chinese leaders could have a hard time resisting the lures of nationalism, and, as Dyer points out, “a party that loudly claims the mantle of national salvation cannot afford to look weak in the face of perceived slights.” Blessed with economic preeminence and increasing relative power, they could have a hard time preventing expansive new ambitions and interests from arousing new tensions or setting off new conflicts—finding, “like new great powers before,” Dyer writes, “that success creates its own expectations.”

Avoiding such conflicts, or anything else that might threaten stability and growth at home, has been the central tenet of Chinese foreign policy ever since Deng Xiaoping delivered his much-repeated dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” But Dyer argues that “Beijing is starting to channel its inner great power,” attempting “to shape the world according to its own national interests” and “inevitably finding itself pulled into geopolitical competition with the U.S.” China’s most recent white paper on defense states, “We will never seek hegemony.” Dyer doesn’t entirely trust it.

Both sides, he recognizes, have overwhelming incentives to avoid outright hostility—a point that has become a staple of the win-win rhetoric. “Interdependence,” as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, “means that one of us cannot succeed unless the other does as well.” That is true when it comes to export markets, to the buying and holding of U.S. debt, to the security of sea lanes, to the health of the world trading system, the fight against climate change, and on and on and on. China has managed its spectacular success within the global system the United States built, giving it, along with today’s other rising powers, compelling reason to help ensure that this system does not collapse.

Dyer does not identify any particular tendency toward belligerence or malevolence on Beijing’s part. His skepticism stems from his analysis of China’s expanding interests (an economy “fed by iron-ore mines in Peru, copper mines in Congo’s Katanga province, and oil fields in south Sudan”) and capabilities (several years of “the biggest military expansion in the world,” which have brought it a long way from the days when American planners would dismiss a Chinese attack on Taiwan as a “million-man swim”). In its own neighborhood, it remains to be seen just how forcefully Beijing will resist an ongoing U.S. security role. Yet already, in Dyer’s view, “China is starting to push back against the United States in part because it can.” In the rest of the world, he writes, “[i]t is facile to suggest, as some do, that China is trying to recreate an old-fashioned empire, but it is fair to say that China’s overseas investments are repeating elements of the same imperial dynamic, the old story of the flag following the trade.” Eventually, global economic interests will create global strategic interests; new capabilities will create new intentions.

Still, even accepting Dyer’s sense of an “inner great power” and the projections of economic preeminence, China remains a long way from matching the United States’ global presence. As Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell summarize persuasively in their book China’s Search for Security,

It would have to acquire access to military bases in South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, where it has important interests to protect. Within a few decades, the Chinese navy would roam the oceans the way the American navy does now, even patrolling along the American coasts. The renminbi would replace the dollar as the largest international reserve currency. Chinese culture and values would achieve global influence along with Chinese products.

The Obama administration’s strategy—once called “the pivot,” more recently “the rebalance”—has tried to reassure China’s neighbors and, to use Dyer’s phrase, “restrain Beijing’s worst instincts,” without sending the U.S.-China relationship off the rails or letting places with names like Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal become the twenty-first-century equivalents of Alsace-Lorraine. To the extent that approach has worked, it is in large part, Dyer observes, because of “the open door that was waiting for Washington in a region where anxiety about China was soaring,” helping demonstrate to Chinese leaders what regional swagger and strong-arming would get them. As the White House’s first adviser on Asia policy, Jeff Bader, later recounted, “In the wake of Obama’s [November 2010] tour of China’s neighbors and his warm reception in each capital, China began reflecting on the unhappy state of its own relations with its key neighbors,” prompting “a concerted pushback against the advocates of unnuanced assertiveness.” Or as one Chinese analyst tells Dyer, “If Bismarck were in Beijing today, he would say this is our worst nightmare.” Before long, a top leader had publicly recommitted to Deng’s policy of “prudence, modesty, and caution.”

“The United States,” Dyer instructs, “will need to avoid turning China into an implacable enemy. But it also needs to demonstrate to both China and its allies that it has staying power, and that, despite Chinese predictions, it is not about to retreat back across the Pacific for evening cocktails in Hawaii.” He rejects strategies at either extreme—on the one hand, neo-containment, and on the other, plaintive acceptance of Chinese preeminence, at least in Asia—in favor of the pragmatic middle course that has largely characterized U.S. policy for the last several years. But if that is the path of wisdom, going forward it will be gut-wrenchingly difficult to follow in practice.

When it comes to Dyer’s emphasis on U.S. staying power, it is hard to take issue but also hard at the moment to take heart. “The single most important thing the U.S. can do to enhance its influence overseas,” he writes, “is to get its domestic house in order.” There could be no better example of both what he means and how far we are from achieving it than Obama’s canceled trip across the Pacific during the government shutdown. As Chinese state media ran essays on “a de-Americanized world” and Xi Jinping went on a charm offensive at the East Asia Summit—which the United States had committed to attending as one of the signature diplomatic elements in the pivot—Obama moped amid the dysfunction of Washington, quipping to reporters, “I’m sure the Chinese don’t mind that I’m not there right now.” A few weeks later, the prospects of the signature economic element in the pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, started to look uncertain as well, after Congress resisted granting Obama fast-track trade negotiating authority.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2012, is currently a fellow of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He is writing a book about George Marshall.

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