Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Are China and the U.S. on a collision course?

The following paper was presented to the 25th Asia-Pacific Roundtable, held in Kuala Lumpur on May 30 - June 1, 2011.
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The question posed by the organizers of this year’s Asia-Pacific Roundtable is a familiar one, increasingly debated by analysts of international relations around the world and especially here in the Asia-Pacific Region. “Are China and the US on a Collision Course?” ask the designers of this panel. “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” asks Charles Glaser, writing in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. “Is Conflict Inevitable” in the US-China relationship? asks Aaron Friedberg in a past issue of International Security.

While some observers answer in the affirmative, most do not. Rather, the prevailing view is that the future relationship between the US and China will be characterized by a combination of cooperation, competition, and even conflict, with the balance among these three outcomes dependent on how the two countries define their national interests, the priorities they place on those interests, and their ability to build on their commonalities and manage their differences. Most analyses of the relationship therefore focus on providing an assessment of the key independent variables, particularly national interest, mutual perception, and mutual trust, that will determine that balance.

I will take a somewhat different approach and focus on the dependent variable: the likely nature of the relationship. I agree that the future of US-China relations is likely to be a blend of three outcomes – cooperation, competition, and confrontation – but I will suggest that each of these there terms needs to be deconstructed, since each of them contains a further range of possibilities. In short, rather than simply predicting that there will be competition between the two countries, I will ask what kind of competition there will likely to be. And I will ask the same question about the other two elements in the relationship, cooperation and conflict.


We do not need to forecast the future to realize that China and the US are already competitors in many realms. Chinese and American firms are competing for markets in China, in the US, and in third countries. Chinese and American scientists and engineers are competing in various scientific and technological fields, including supercomputing and stem cell research. The Chinese and American militaries are trying to develop the weapons systems and strategies and defeat the other in the event of armed conflict. The two countries have different models of development. While the Chinese are hesitant to say that there is a Beijing Consensus that can be a model for others, they are not at all reluctant to argue that the American model – the Washington Consensus – is not universally applicable, and should not be adopted uncritically by others. Most generally, there is a widespread perception – held by many people in both China and the US, as well as in third countries, that the two nations are competing for international power and influence, especially in Asia.

This competition between the two countries is not always officially acknowledged, lest it be exacerbated. As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush declared China and the US to be “strategic competitors,” but he dropped that language shortly after taking office, in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident of 2001, when the risky consequences of such a competition became apparent. For a time, Colin Powell replaced that initial slogan with a slightly different formulation, declaring the two countries to be “strategic competitors, but economic partners.” But relatively soon thereafter, these portraits of a competitive relationship were replaced by the hope that the two countries could form a constructive and cooperative relationship, even a “partnership” of sorts.

Still, despite those praiseworthy and optimistic aspirations, the two countries do have a relationship that contains significant competitive elements. The key question is not whether such a relationship exists, but what form it takes and what consequences it produces. In this regard, it is interesting that competition is so widely believed to be an unfortunate development in international politics. In many other areas of human activity, competition – or at least certain forms of competition – is considered not only not to be harmful, but actually to be beneficial.

Competition is one of the most important features of market economics, where it is seen as the mechanism that improves the quality, increases the availability, and lowers the prices of the goods and services on offer. Most market economies have policies to promote competition, initially laws against monopoly, and more recently laws to increase access by foreign firms. From that perspective, economic competition between Chinese and American firms will be a positive development to be welcomed, not a negative outcome to be avoided.

Similarly, competition is one of the most important features of pluralistic political systems, where political parties and candidates for office compete for votes and for financial backing; interest groups compete for membership and contributions; and policies and ideologies compete for support from members of society. The concept of the “marketplace of ideas” draws the analogy between the benefits of competition for an economy and the benefits of ideological or political competition for a society. In that sense, too, a competition between the Chinese and American models of development, or even between Chinese and American norms of international governance, may be healthy.

The issue is not whether economic and political competition should exist, but what form it takes. The key question is whether competition occurs in such a way that it achieves the promise of positive-sum outcomes both for those directly engaged in the competition, and the broader community in which the competition occurs. While there are several aspects of competition that might be examined in this regard, the most important is whether the competition is conducted fairly or unfairly. The problem with US-China competition in the economic and political realms, in particularly, is that neither country believes that the competition is fair.

For its part, China believes that it is the target of discriminatory treatment by the US. Beijing points out that Chinese direct investment in the United States is scrutinized for security concerns involving both advanced technology and critical infrastructure. It also complains about continuing American controls on the export of advanced technology to China, and the fact that China is not yet regarded as a market economy with regard to the application of anti-dumping regulations.

Conversely, there have been many complaints, first in the US and now increasingly in the EU and Japan, that Chinese firms are not engaged in fair economic competition. The theft of intellectual property, and government regulations discouraging purchase of foreign products, are examples of trading practices that are widely regarded as unfair. So are various forms of government financial support, whether tax rebates, below-market loans, or export subsidies. One could increasingly add the lack of reciprocity in investment regulations, where one country limits investments in some sectors while seeking the right to make investments in those same sectors abroad. Many in the West also express their concern that China offers generous foreign aid packages to authoritarian regimes in the developing world, without imposing any conditions that might ensure the effective use of that aid.

This is not to imply that China is the only country to have engaged in such allegedly unfair commercial practices. Many others have, and some still do. But perceptions of unfairness will complicate the economic competition between China and other economies. Fortunately, the WTO provides rules to ensure fair competition, and a dispute resolution mechanism to adjudicate alleged violations of those rules. Bilateral negotiations between China and the US are intended to reduce other barriers to trade between the two countries. Regrettably, there is as yet no comparable international mechanism that can assure fair competition when it comes to investment or to overseas development assistance, and no bilateral agreements governing either of those two areas.

On economic and political issues, then, a key consideration is whether international competition is fair or unfair. Political and economic competition is usually regarded as beneficial, if conducted according to rules that ensure fairness, since its long-term outcomes can be positive for all parties. For security issues, in contrast, the problem is that competition may not be desirable at all. Strategic competition is usually regarded as wasteful, and potentially dangerous, if it involves costly arms races or if it increases the possibility of war by either miscalculation or accident.

The danger today, in other words, is not so much that the US and China increasingly regard themselves as competitors, but that they perceive each other as strategic competitors. The two countries’ militaries are designing and developing weapons systems and military tactics to overcome the other. This process will be costly for both sides, although both China and the US are sufficiently wealthy that this will involve more opportunity cost than absolute cost. Even worse, the process will be risky. We have already seen incidents in which American reconnaissance and patrol missions off the coast of China have literally collided – or nearly so – with Chinese military unions seeking to push them further away from Chinese territorial waters. The EP-3 incident of 2011, mentioned above, was the most dramatic of these. The risks that such incidents can escalate are not trivial – which is precisely why it led the G.W. Bush administration to stop describing China as a “strategic competitor” shortly thereafter.

There is a long history of arms control and other confidence-building measures to limit those costs and risks, but their results have at best been mixed. They are more effective in situations where strategic competition is only incipient and the overall relationships in question are cooperative; they are far less effective when strategic competition has already gotten well underway, and when that competition dominates the broader relationship.

This already appears to be the case with the US-China relations. The US has sought to engage China in military-to-military exchanges to increase transparency and build trust, and in discussions of possible arms control measures to govern the two countries’ nuclear deterrents and weapons in space. So far, the results have been disappointing, which creates the danger that the costs and risks of strategic competition will continue to mount. Fortunately, the overall US-China relationship is far wider and deeper than simply a strategic competition, which was the main feature of Soviet-American relations during the Cold War. That reduces the change of conflict – a point to which we will return later.


The existence of a competitive relationship does not preclude the possibility of cooperative behavior to advance common goals. Most frequently, these common goals may lie in other areas, as when economic competitors join together in a security alliance against a common enemy (like the US-Japan alliance against the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s). Less frequently appreciated is the possibility that two competitors may have a common interest in maintaining the viability of the arenas in which they compete. Asset managers are competitors, but they share an interest in maintaining efficient financial markets. Manufacturers and service providers may also be competitors, but they share an interest in maintaining the prosperity and openness of the markets to which they both wish to sell. Governments may compete for support in the UN Security Council, but they may also have a common interest in preserving the vitality of that key international body.

There is a long list of issues on which China and the US have had common or overlapping interests, and therefore on which they can cooperate: counterbalancing the rise of the former Soviet Union in Asia, encouraging the denuclearization of North Korea, preserving stability in Asia, ensuring the vitality of the international economy, opposing the rise of protectionism, suppressing piracy off the African coast, supporting counter-terrorist activities in Central and Southwest Asia, discouraging Taiwanese independence, promoting the security of energy supplies, developing alternative sources of energy, and preventing climate change, to name a few.

And the two countries have cooperated to advance some of these common interests. Their common interest in maintaining the vitality of the international economy was reflected in the parallel stimulus policies that they implemented after the Global Financial Crisis. Both countries have supported the creation of regional security and economic architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. Doubtless they would also cooperate if there were crises in other areas that threatened both of them, such as a pandemic such as SARS or avian flu. And they have agreed to work together or still other issues, including enhancing energy security, developing alternative sources of energy, and promoting the more efficient use of energy.

As with competition, however, the issue is not just whether or not cooperation exists, but what form it takes. The most basic issue is the question of relative gains. Even when two countries can identify common interests, they can differ over the allocation of either costs or benefits, making cooperation more difficult. The American and Chinese governments agree that climate change is a problem that would pose significant costs and risks to both their countries. But they cannot agree on the allocation of the burdens of reducing carbon emissions between the developed and developing countries. Both Washington and Beijing may agree on the desirability of creating a more robust regional architecture in Asia, but they do not necessarily agree on the membership or agendas of those organizations. They may have a common interest in the denuclearization of North Korea, but they differ on the extent they are willing to impose such severe sanctions on the country as to threaten the collapse of its government, since such a collapse would impose far higher potential costs on China than on the United States. These differences over burden-sharing have been frequent between China and the US, and they often reflect the competitive aspects of the relationship. They make the development of a fully cooperative relationship far more difficult.

The assessment of relative gains is only one way of evaluating a cooperative relationship. A closely related but less familiar way of distinguishing among various forms of cooperation is to distinguish the degree of enthusiasm and active collaboration that the relationship involves. At one end of the spectrum is simply a willingness to talk: a mutual agreement to identify and discuss common interests in the hope of achieving cooperative outcomes. Much of passes for US-China cooperation is little more than this. For example, many of the so-called “deliverables” reported as outcomes of the “strategic track” of the most recent US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington were little more than agreements to launch, or continue, discussions of various issues, without any indication of the specific outcomes that those dialogues were expected to achieve.

A slightly more positive form of cooperation is passive consent, given by a party that might otherwise be able to block an action that its counterpart might wish to take. In many votes taken by the UN Security Council, involving the imposition of sanctions or military action against third countries, the so-called “cooperation” from China that the US has been able to obtain is simply Beijing’s willingness to abstain, rather than exercising a veto. Even se Sometimes, Beijing may be able to water down the resolution under consideration, removing some of what it regards as the most objectionable passages, as the price for its consent. But securing this modest form of cooperation is important to Washington if it permits the adoption of a Security Council resolution that authorizes the United States to undertake the sanctions or military activity it seeks.

At the other end of the spectrum, the stronger forms of cooperative interaction are two forms of mutual assistance that I call “cooperation” and “collaboration,” respectively. By cooperation, I mean the willingness of two countries to acknowledge common goals, either tacitly or openly, and then to take action to advance those goals. By collaboration, I mean something more: not just identifying common interests, and not simply taking action to advance them, but the joint design and implementation of similar or coordinated measures to achieve those shared goals. The distinction between cooperation and collaboration can be seen as difference between working in parallel and working in tandem – or, to borrow terms from international politics, the difference between a united front and an alliance. In the former, each party retains far more autonomy and room for maneuver than in the latter.

Fairly or not, many Americans have perceived over the years that China may cooperate, but does so in a relatively passive way. In some areas, it consents to American initiatives that it does not have the ability to block, but it does not commit its own resources to undertaking those initiatives. In others, it may cooperate by adopting and implementing its own policies, but it does not collaborate with Washington in formulating a joint response, largely because it does not want to be perceived by either domestic or foreign audiences as working too closely with the United States. This was first apparent in the two countries’ opposition to Soviet expansion in Asia, where both countries shared the same interest but did not actively collaborate in the same way as the United States and Japan. On North Korea, Beijing wants to maintain a clear difference between its position and that of the Unite States, even to the point that it can play a mediating role between Washington and Pyongyang in a way that neither Seoul nor Tokyo would be able to do. It is the gap between these more nominal or passive forms of cooperation and the more collaborative and active forms that the US would like to see that makes even the cooperative aspects of the US-China relationship so unsatisfying to many American observers.


The third possible pattern in US-China relations can be called “confrontation.” That hostile form of relationship is what is meant when analysts discuss the likelihood of a “conflict” or “collision” between the two countries. Unlike cooperation, a confrontational relationship implies the existence of sharply different objectives, rather than common or overlapping interests. In the case of Chin and the United States, perhaps the most significant of these divergent interests have to do with Taiwan and human rights. Beijing regards the future relationship of Taiwan and the mainland an issue in which no outside party has the right to interfere, whereas Washington believes that it has a legitimate and historic interest in ensuring a peaceful future for the island.

Conversely, the United States believes that it has an interest in promoting human rights around the world, with particular attention to civil and political rights, whereas China insists that these are also domestic matters in which no other country has the standing to become involved, as well as maintaining what it regards as principled differences over the definition of civil and political rights and the priority to be assigned to them relative to economic development and political stability. A third issue is also emerging that would fall into this category: China’s desire to push American military activity farther back from its coasts, and America’s insistence that reconnaissance activity of this sort is justified to monitor potentially threatening Chinese military developments and is legitimized by the principle of the freedom of the seas.

The difference between competition and confrontation is difficult to draw, since both are based upon divergent interests. One distinction is that competition can produce positive-sum outcomes, at least over the longer term, while confrontation is more likely to be zero- or negative-sum. Another is that competition is more likely to be conducted according to commonly accepted rules or judged by third parties who decide which party “wins” and which party “loses.” To draw on Anatol Rapoport’s distinction in his classic book on various forms of conflict, competition is more likely to take the form of a “game” or a “debate,” whereas confrontation is a form of a “fight.”

As with cooperation, however, we need to probe more deeply to understand that confrontational relationships are not all alike, but can take different forms. Just as earlier in this paper we distinguished among consent, cooperation, and collaboration, here we can distinguish among disagreement, confrontation, and open conflict.

By disagreement I mean a situation in which two parties, in this case China and the United States, have divergent interests that they openly acknowledge, but that do not lead to conflictual behavior and therefore do not disrupt the broader relationship. This pattern of behavior is frequently described by the Chinese as “reserving differences,” and by Americans as “agreeing to disagree.” Today, the United States continues to criticize China for what Americans regard as violations of human rights and as retrogression in China’s domestic political situation. But other than those statements, issued both publicly and privately in various forums, the United States undertakes no significant action to sanction China for its alleged human rights violations. Similarly, China continually criticizes the United States for selling arms to Taiwan – an action that it regards as the most objectionable example of American intervention in what it regards as a domestic issue – but it is no longer restricting military-to-military relations with the United States as a result of those arms sales. The key here is that each side has been is able to identify clear “red lines” that the other should not cross, and yet draw those red lines sufficiently conservatively such that the other is unlikely to cross them.

Such has not always been the case. In the past – including quite recently – the two countries have dealt with these same two issues in ways that embodied confrontation rather than simply disagreement. For some time after the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989, for example, the United States imposed a series of sanctions on China over its concerns about human rights, including the threat (never implemented) to remove China’s most-favored-nation status unless the human rights situation in that country improved. And China has periodically suspended military exchanges in retaliation for American arms sales to Taiwan. Such interactions involve a kind of negative quid pro quo: a sanction or punishment in response to a violation of a perceived interest. Even if they do not lead to a tit-for-tat pattern of escalatory retaliation – a common danger in this kind of situation – they can be difficult to reverse, if the sanctioning party insists upon a reversal, cessation, or repudiation of the behavior that led to the sanction, and if the target of the sanctions refuses to do so. But they still fall far short of the open conflict that many observers fear may develop in the US-China relationship.

The most dangerous and severe form of confrontation in any international relationship is the threat or use of force. The United States and China have already experienced such conflict in Korea and (to a lesser degree) in the Taiwan Strait. There is the possibility that armed conflict could recur if either of these hot spots exploded again. The most commonly acknowledged danger would be one of two developments in the Taiwan Strait: a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan which China sought to reverse through military means, or the unilateral use of force by the mainland to compel Taiwan to accept unification. In either scenario, the United States would have to decide whether or not to use force or the threat of force to uphold its residual commitments to Taiwan’s security as contained in the Taiwan Relations Act. If it decided to do so, then the risk of military conflict between the United States and China would be extremely high.

Although the scenario is less frequently discussed, the Korean Peninsula could once again become the occasion for armed conflict between China and the United States. The most worrying possibility would be the collapse of the North Korean regime, followed by a competitive intervention by outside powers to promote their interests, whether the installation of a friendly and effective successor government, or the securing of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and fissile materials. Such competitive intervention would not necessarily involve the United States directly. But if South Korea were to cross the DMZ in this situation, to be countered by Chinese forces crossing the Yalu River, the United States could conceivably also become involved. Note that the key development here is not the collapse of the North Korean government per se, but a competitive intervention following such a collapse. Unfortunately, China and the US have thus far not been able to discuss what their governments would do in the event of such a regime failure, making it impossible to rule out the possibility of such a competitive intervention.

Other scenarios are also conceivable. These might include a crisis in the South China Sea or an incident between American and Chinese military forces, similar to the EP-3 incident of 2001. Fortunately, the possibility that either of these scenarios would escalate to a point that involved actual armed conflict between Chinese and American military forces is quite low.

Looking ahead

What are the relative probabilities that any of these broad categories of interaction – competition, cooperation, and confrontation – will characterize the US-China relationship in the years ahead? And if none of them dominates, what blend of the three types of relationship will the two countries experience?

In my judgment, it is highly unlikely for the relationship between the US and China to be primarily cooperative, at least in the short to medium term. The differences in values, political systems, interests, levels of development, and perceptions of the existing international order are simply too great for the two countries to find common ground on all issues, or even to find a mutually agreeable allocation of costs and benefits when they try to pursue common interests. Only a common interest that was massively compelling – say a widespread pandemic, another financial crisis, a global outbreak of terrorist activity targeted at both countries, or increasingly severe consequences of climate change – might produce a predominantly cooperative relationship.

Fortunately, an essentially confrontational relationship is also unlikely, especially if one is primarily concerned with the risks of military conflict. The high degree of economic interdependence between the two countries has already created a relatively resilient relationship. The cost of military conflict, especially given the fact that both China and the US are nuclear powers, will be a significant deterrent against military conflict. Equally important, the probability of the most worrying of the trigger events identified above– a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan – is presently quite low, as is the risk that China would try to compel unification through the use of force.

If the analysis above is correct, then the most likely future for the US-China relationship will be largely competitive, although with some elements of cooperation and divergence as well. The balance among these elements will depend on whether the two countries can:

-- Increase the cooperative elements in the relationship, and minimize the confrontational.
-- Transform those cooperative interactions from the relatively passive (unproductive “dialogue” or passive consent) to more positive (active and fruitful collaboration)
-- Ensure that the competitive aspects of the relationship are governed by rules and norms that make them fair to both sides
-- Avoid introducing strategic elements into the two countries’ competitive relationship.
-- To the extent that divergence is avoidable, keep it at the level of disagreement, rather than confrontation or open conflict.

In short, the familiar formula that the US-China relationship will be characterized by a combination of competition and cooperation is not wrong, but is incomplete. Some of the competition will be healthy and constructive, even though possibly intense. Some of the cooperation will be grudging or strained, and thus disappointing. While open conflict is unlikely, there will almost certainly be disagreements, and possibly even elements of confrontation in the relationship. As a result, the US and China are not necessarily on a collision course, but they will be passing through turbulent waters that will test the resilience of their highly interdependent relationship.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How resilient is China's "resilient authoritarianism"?

The essay below was written for the Asia Foundation’s blog, In Asia.

It is interesting to compare the situation today with that in the late 1980s. Then, as now, China was faced with rising inflation, differences within the leadership, stalled political reform, growing corruption, and an international environment undergoing democratic change. The result was the June 4th crisis of 1989.

That said, there remain important differences between the two periods. Today, the divisions within the Chinese elite are narrower, public support for the present system is wider, the government’s ability to manage the economy is somewhat greater, and the attractiveness of the political revolutions outside China is somewhat smaller. Thus, it would be foolish to forecast with any confidence that China is about to experience another crisis just as severe as that in 1989.

Even so, to quote the last sentence of this essay, “The odds are beginning to shift in ways that suggest that the resilience of [the Chinese political] system may be increasingly tested.”

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Many observers both inside and outside China have come to perceive the country’s political system as remarkably resilient. Sustained economic growth, greater political responsiveness, and considerable public satisfaction with the status quo have seemingly created a high degree of political stability. This widely shared assessment of Chinese politics was reflected in the title of a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune comparing the situation in China with the “jasmine revolutions” in the Middle East: “Why It Won't Happen in China.”

And yet, there is reason to believe that China’s own leaders are less confident about their country’s stability than these foreign observers. Recent crackdowns on political activists suggest to some a growing nervousness about the future. Are Chinese leaders worrying needlessly? Or do they accurately perceive that their country’s political system may be subject to increasing strain?

Perhaps the most important cause for concern is the increasing level of inflation in China, the result of the flood of foreign capital into the country, China’s chronic foreign trade surpluses, growing labor shortages, and rising global prices for food, energy, and raw materials. If not brought under control, inflation has the potential to create a high degree of popular dissatisfaction. Over the last 20-odd years, China has been beset by numerous public protests over issues ranging from environmental pollution to contaminated food. But almost all of those grievances have been localized and the number of people affected by them has been limited. In contrast, inflation will affect virtually everyone in China, and is already leading to grumbling over rising energy costs and strikes for higher wages.

Second, China is on the verge of a political succession, with a new generation of leaders to be elected at the Eighteenth Party Congress in 2012. Although the succession procedures are now highly institutionalized and the policy differences within the leadership are far less than they were in the 1980s, there remains considerable uncertainty about the composition of the new leadership and how it will address the country’s problems. Moreover, one characteristic pattern of Chinese political life historically has been that dissenters may be emboldened to speak out and act up if they perceive there to be differences among the top leadership.

Third, whatever foreign observers may say, Chinese leaders do appear to be worried about the “jasmine revolutions” in the Middle East and the “color revolutions” that have occurred elsewhere in the world. Theirs is not simply a generalized fear of contagion, but a more specific perception that the same communications technologies that sparked the protests in the Middle East could have an impact on China as well. Recent reports indicate that Chinese activists working both inside and outside the country have begun to create networks that cross local and provincial boundaries, creating a virtual version, however embryonic, of the independent nationwide political organizations that Chinese leaders have long tried to prevent.

And finally, there is the widespread perception that political liberalization in China has stalled. Chinese leaders have once again made clear that pluralistic democracy is not on the agenda, and the pace of more limited types of political reform appears to be controversial. This perception can itself become a further cause of grievance and instability.

All of these developments -- increasing inflation, apparent differences within the political elite, revolutionary protest in the Middle East, and the continuing revolution in communications technology -- make it easy to see why Chinese leaders might be concerned about their country’s stability, and why they are imposing stricter controls on political expression.

China’s political system remains resilient, and there is still considerable popular satisfaction with the country’s achievements. But the odds are starting to shift in ways that suggest that the resilience of that system may be increasingly tested.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Three Competing Strands in Chinese Foreign Policy

The following essay represents my attempt to understand some of the contradictory elements that have emerged in Chinese foreign policy over the last several years. It is based on talks given at the Kokoda Foundation in Australia in November 2010, at Singapore Management University in January 2011, and at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in February 2011. I thank friends and colleagues at each institution for their comments and suggestions.


China’s foreign policy today contains many contradictory elements. The Chinese navy is working with others in trying to suppress the pirates operating off the east coast of Africa, but also is asserting its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Beijing is launching an international cable news channel, broadcasting in English around the world, at the same time that it is harassing foreign journalists who are trying to cover street protests in China. Chinese firms are increasing their investments abroad, even as the Chinese government continues to limit foreign investments in China.

How can we understand these contradictions in China’s approach to the world? I will suggest that they all reflect a commonly held objective – the quest for great power status – but also embody competing strategies for achieving that goal. I will conclude with some thoughts about how the balance among these competing strategies may shift over time, but why the main objective of competing for relative power is unlikely to change.

The competitive quest for great power status: China’s basic orientation toward international politics

Most Chinese believe that competition among great powers is, and will continue to be, the essence of international politics, as it has been since the emergence of the nation-state system. Chinese leaders and analysts acknowledge the emergence of other actors (international organizations, MNCs, NGOs). They recognize that a growing number of transnational issues require cooperation between and among national governments, and are increasingly willing to engage in that kind of cooperation themselves. But they continue to assume that the rise and fall of great powers remains the basic narrative of international history, and that competition among the powers lies at the heart of international politics. In line with that view of history, China’s goal is to become a great power once again.

The extent of that general ambition remains unclear. Some Chinese leaders certainly believe that China can and should become a paramount power, if not globally, then at least in its region. But most realize that this can be at best a long-term objective and, equally important, one that should not be expressed openly for the time being. For one thing, most Chinese assume that, given the competitive nature of great power politics, the United States and other established powers will attempt to slow or block China’s rise, especially if they think that China will be a threat. Expressing ambitious objectives simply exacerbates that risk. Better to engage in what some have called the “hiding and biding” strategy, after Deng Xiaoping’s injunction that China should “hide its capabilities” and “bide its time.”

Moreover, the outcome of China’s quest for great power status cannot be guaranteed. One crucial factor will be China’s power relative to others. Although China is seeking to build up its “comprehensive national power,” the success of its efforts cannot be forecast with any accuracy or confidence. Even more uncertain is the future levels of comprehensive national power that will be available to other major states, particularly those that exist in close strategic proximity to China: Russia, Japan, India, and particularly the U.S.

However, in the short run, most Chinese leaders and analysts seem to believe in the desirability of pursuing a more limited but still significant objective, mainly having to do with how China is perceived and treated by others. This more limited goal is defined in three interrelated ways:

  • China now deserves to be treated as an equal, even by other major powers. The days in which others sought to lecture China on its domestic and international behavior, even if done out of good intentions, are over.
  • While China will demand to be equal, it will also seek to be different. China will go its own way, seeking its own model of political and economic development. In many ways, many Chinese believe, its model is already proving to be effective and even superior to the models promoted by the United States, including early democratization in politics and the implementation of the “Washington Consensus” in economics.
  • China has made many changes in its domestic economic structure and international behavior to conform to “international standards” so as to integrate itself into the international order. This represented China’s accommodation of that order, and was appropriate at the time. But as China becomes more powerful, and as its development path proves its worth, that pattern of behavior will be at least partially reversed. The time has come in which, as one Chinese scholar recently put it, “the rest of the world is going to have to adapt to China.”

To become a great power, especially a paramount power, China needs to seek and achieve power on all three dimensions: economic, military, and soft power. Chinese believe that, although they are still in many ways a poor country, they have made significant strides along the first two of these dimensions. Although gaps remain between China and the established powers, China will be able to narrow if not fill those gaps over the next twenty years and more, at least in aggregate if not per capita terms, by taking advantage of the prospect that growth rates in the United States and the advanced West will slow. The “growth gap” that so many Western analysts anticipate – the difference between slower growth rates in the advanced economies and faster growth rates in emerging markets such as China – will work to China’s advantage. China’s military capabilities will also increase, and China will seek to develop asymmetrical strategies for using its military power in ways that will further redress the imbalance between China and the United States.

China is also attempting to develop its soft power, but is finding it difficult to do so. It has traditionally espoused its own set of norms to govern international relationships – the five principles of peaceful coexistence -- but they embody the Westphalian concepts of absolute sovereignty and therefore appear dated. Beijing seeks trust, but does not yet appear to understand that trust can only be earned, not just demanded. It asks for understanding, without promoting that understanding through candor and transparency. Above all, China remains preoccupied with its own rise and its own interests. And until it begins to stand for more than itself, its attempts to acquire soft power will fall short.

However, as with the harder forms of power, China will try to narrow that gap. Already, Beijing has been able to delegitimize Western models of finance, development, and governance. It is trying to promote the study of Chinese language and the appreciation of both Chinese traditional and modern culture abroad. It will try to develop new, more attractive concepts of international relations, starting with the ideas of a “harmonious world” made up of “strategic partnerships.” And it may begin to act in more altruistic ways as its resources and self-confidence grow. China’s quick dispatch of relief workers to New Zealand, following the devastating Christchurch earthquake, is but one recent example of this latter trend.

Three strands in Chinese foreign policy

Although this is the basic direction of contemporary Chinese foreign policy, there appears to be considerable difference of opinion in China over the details. I see three competing strands of thought – three different tendencies -- in discussions of Chinese foreign policy, the balance among which will be a key variable in determining the country’s future international course. These tendencies are distinct, but not mutually exclusive. They can be, and are, combined in various ways at various times. But the balance among them varies over time. One reason for this is that each of the tendencies has shortcomings and poses dilemmas. As those shortcomings appear, other tendencies may seem to offer attractive alternatives – at least until the dilemmas associated with those alternatives themselves become apparent.

Defensiveness: Chinese leaders believe they are passing through a middle-term period of domestic vulnerability, and thus they remain highly insecure and suspicious as they face the rest of the world. China’s economic performance is essential to domestic political stability, and yet Chinese leaders know that their country’s investment- and export-led growth model needs to be revised in favor of greater domestic consumption. There are significant societal grievances over issues ranging from corruption to environmental degradation, without a responsive and accountable political system that can adequately absorb them. Chinese leaders see dangerous separatist tendencies in Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Foreign observers sometimes find these perceptions to be unnecessarily pessimistic, given China’s economic successes. But Beijing’s highly sensitive reaction to the recent protests and revolutions in the Middle East shows the influence of this line of thinking.

At the same time, as China’s power and footprint grow, the world makes more and demands on China: to allow greater religious freedom, to open its markets to foreign trade and investment, to cease censoring the internet, to revalue the renminbi, to reduce carbon emissions, and so forth. Chinese leaders suspect the intentions behind those demands. Many believe that foreign powers (especially the United States) are seeking to exploit China’s domestic problems in an attempt to block or delay China’s rise. This perception is intensified when – as is often the case – the demands are regarded as hypocritical: when they involve changes in China’s economic and environmental policies that other countries are not prepared to make themselves.

The combination of internal vulnerability and external pressure produces the first strand in Chinese foreign policy: a defensive desire to evade foreign threats or demands that might be disruptive to domestic economic and political stability. I associate this defensive tendency above all with the top Chinese political leadership, whose main concern (or “core interest”) has been candidly defined as the preservation of the leading position of the Chinese Communist Party. “Avoid trouble” might be the paramount concern of this first group. Supporting this strategy would be those sectors of the Chinese business community who want protection from foreign competition, supported by those leaders who can be persuaded that such protection is a necessary part of a national security policy. “Avoid competition,” would be the slogan I would associate with this second group.

The dilemma for China is that this defensiveness contributes to the international perception of China as a “free rider” – a country that seeks to benefit from its integration into the international community, but not to take on many domestic or international obligations in return. Unable frankly to admit its weaknesses, China instead falls back on the increasingly unpersuasive argument that it remains a poor, developing country that cannot be expected to do too much, or the even angrier response of accusing the rest of the world of unwarranted intervention in its internal affairs.

Assertiveness: Other Chinese perceive that the balance of power has shifted in China’s favor in recent years, particularly as the combined result of the global financial crisis, which has weakened the major advanced economies; the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have drained the United States of both hard and soft power; and China’s sustained double-digit growth, which has greatly enhanced China’s economic and military capabilities. These developments have given China the opportunity to advance interests it has previously had to compromise, and even to renegotiate some arrangements (formal and informal) that it previously had to accept.

China’s resulting assertiveness has taken many forms, some of which have been more widely accepted outside China than others. China has sought a greater voice in international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF, and support the idea that a broader grouping in which China is included – the G-20 – should supplant the narrower one whose membership is restricted to traditional advanced economies (the G-7/8). These are widely regarded as reasonable demands, reflecting China’s increasing role in the global economy.

But other examples of China’s assertiveness are less broadly acceptable. At various times, Beijing has taken a more assertive approach to its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, demanded that foreign governments reduce or terminate their contacts with the Dalai Lama, insisted that the US stop arms sales to Taiwan, requested that it announce its support for Taiwan’s peaceful unification with the mainland (as opposed simply to a “peaceful solution”), and above all tried to push American naval patrols and reconnaissance activities away from China’s coasts, especially those that occur in China’s exclusive economic zones.

This strategy is associated not only with the military, which views the promotion of China’s security interests as its core responsibility, but also with what are variously called Chinese “netizens” or “angry youth”: the highly nationalistic internet users, usually young men, who also are extremely attracted to the idea that China’s increasing national power gives it the ability to overcome past humiliation by greater assertiveness. “Our time has come,” “it’s China’s turn,” and “China can say no” are all ways of summarizing the thinking of the supporters of this second strategy. The influence of these two groups challenges two familiar assumptions about the nature of Chinese politics: that the party controls the army, and that the state controls society. Instead, it illustrates that, in a more pluralistic China, even the authoritarian party-state is influenced by interests that are either powerful (as in the case of the PLA) or numerous (as in the case of the “netizens.”)

The dilemma here is that many instances of Chinese assertiveness have counterproductive consequences. They give rise to exactly the perceptions of a “China threat” that Beijing has sought to avoid and, in so doing, are leading more and more countries in Asia to form some kind of soft balance against China. As one Japanese scholar recently put it, China has unintentionally been engaged in a process that amounts to “self-encirclement.” In the future, China may have enough relative power to compel bandwagoning – to force others to accommodate its demands. At present, however, the rest of the region can still engage in a form of balancing. This discourages overly assertive Chinese behavior, and in so doing promotes the third tendency: integration into a broader international community.

Integration: China’s quest for comprehensive national power has involved a high degree of integration into the international system. At first, the motivation for this integration was almost entirely economic: to attain access to capital, markets, advice, and technology abroad that would facilitate China’s economic reform and development. Increasingly, however, Beijing has seen additional benefits from a policy of international integration. By joining free trade arrangements, China not only gains more secure access to those same foreign markets, but also introduces greater competitiveness into its home market and provides greater choice for its consumers. By joining cooperative security arrangements in Asia, China may reduce the suspicions about its growing military power. And by joining international organizations more generally, China may build trust and increase confidence that its rise will be governed by international norms and thus not be a threat to others.

The strategy of integration also reflects, to some degree, a departure from the purely realist approach to international relations that still dominates most Chinese thinking on the subject. Chinese increasingly accept the logic of globalization: that, alongside its benefits, globalization is producing or exacerbating a wide range of transnational problems that affect all societies that are integrated into the emerging international community; and that those problems can only be dealt with by collaboration with other members of that community. China’s response to the challenges of global climate change, terrorism, and the global financial crisis shows an increasing realization that China’s self-interest requires a degree of international cooperation. China has shown greater willingness to work together with other countries on all these issues, as well as playing a more active role in addressing the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program and in combatting piracy off the coasts of Africa. It has also taken the initiative in creating global and regional institutions that fill in gaps in the international structure or address new international needs, such as the G-20, the ASEAN+3, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The strategy of integration is supported by a coalition of interests that either benefit from it directly, or else are convinced that it serves China’s broader long-term economic and geopolitical interest. These include, most notably, the more internationalized sectors of China’s business community, China’s more cosmopolitan urban elites, and liberal academics. Unfortunately, the political base for this third tendency is probably the weakest of the three – at least so far.

Moreover, as with the other two tendencies, this strategy generates its own dilemmas. Even as China becomes more integrated into the international community, its essentially realist approach to international relations makes many Chinese suspicious of international institutions that Beijing did not create and international rules that it did not write. This reinforces the assertive tendency noted above – the desire to increase China’s participation in these organizations, to participate in the drafting of responses to new issues, and, to some degree, even to rewrite existing rules in China’s favor.

In addition, the more integrated China becomes, the more demands it brings upon itself, especially when the solutions being applied to international problems fall short. This can trigger the defensive tendency: to reject demands that China do more on the grounds that China’s capabilities are limited.

And, once again, the issue of reciprocity emerges. As China’s integration increases, it begins to act in ways that challenge the policies toward others. China’s economic integration, for example, now involves outbound, as well as inbound, foreign direct investment. And this is triggering, both in the US and elsewhere, concerns that Chinese investment in certain strategic areas threaten the security interests of the host country. China’s integration into international energy and commodity markets raise questions about whether China is trying to “lock up” supplies or even “take them off the market.” Its increasing foreign assistance programs are sparking concerns that China is giving aid that is tied to resource deals and is insufficiently conditioned on good governance and sound economic policy. Beijing understandably asks whether it is being held to the same standards as others and, even if it is, whether those standards should be open to challenge. This reaction to integration can take the form of a more assertive Chinese approach to its international relationships.

The balance among the tendencies

These three tendencies are not diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive, but can be blended in complex and sometimes contradictory patterns. One reason for this is that all three tendencies reflect core Chinese interests – indeed, interests that are shared by many other states: defending against threats to domestic stability, advancing national objectives interests that remain unfulfilled, and achieving the benefits of integration into the international community. Many of China’s recent foreign policy initiatives can be seen as pursuing some of these goals simultaneously. Beijing’s quest for “strategic partnerships” with other countries, for example, reflects a combination of defensive and integrative strategies, in that it seeks both to reduce criticism and advanced cooperation with other key nations. China’s desire for a more prominent role in the new global financial structure is a blend of assertiveness and integration.

Another reason is that, as already noted, each of the three tendencies has significant bases of support within China. Although China’s current political system is in not democratic, it is a form of consultative authoritarianism in which powerful domestic interests are at least partially accommodated. This suggests, as a general rule, that none of these three tendencies will ever become entirely dominant, but that elements of all of them will be blended into Chinese foreign policy, albeit in different proportions at different times.

What, then, changes the balance among these three tendencies?

In the short run, the changing balance among the three tendencies results from the fact that the dilemmas inherent in one tendency may trigger another. In particular, the international demands generated by the strategy of integration can contribute to Chinese defensiveness and assertiveness; and the negative foreign response to an overly assertive Chinese foreign policy can lead to a renewed emphasis on integration as a way of reassuring others of Beijing’s intentions. The global financial crisis, for example, played a major role in moving Chinese foreign policy in more assertive directions through most of 2010. The sharp foreign response to that development promises to make integration a more prominent theme in Chinese foreign policy in 2011.

In addition, specific developments inside and outside China clearly make a difference. Major domestic events (particularly Party Congresses or sensitive anniversaries) lead to a marked increase in defensiveness. In particularly, that can be expected in the run-up to the next Party Congress in 2012. Conversely, some major international events (particularly state visits to major powers) usually generate a more cooperative approach, so that the visit can be declared to be a “success.” That may help explain the more accommodative attitude to the United States taken on the eve of Hu Jintao’s trip to America in early 2011.

But what about the longer term? Here, much speculation has centered on the looking political succession. And yet, I believe that the succession process has become highly routinized, and that China’s collective leadership structure makes it not only possible, but highly likely, that all three tendencies will be reflected in the post-succession leadership to some degree. As a result, the succession is unlikely in itself to produce big changes in China’s foreign policy.

Instead, more enduring changes in the balance among the three tendencies are more likely to be the result of larger trends and forces outside the leadership. Specifically:

  • Domestic problems in China will certainly reinforce tendencies toward defensiveness. But in addition, will they also promote assertiveness? The proposition that governments seek foreign adventures abroad to distract their citizens from problems at home has a long standing in both scholarly and popular literature. In the case of China, however, I think that today there an equally powerful case can be made that Chinese leaders, while certainly blaming foreigners for any domestic problems, will not seek to exacerbate the risk that foreign governments will try to manipulate them. I would suggest that greater integration (in the sense of greater cooperation) is more likely in such a situation than greater assertiveness, but that both are less likely than greater defensiveness.
  • The international situation will also play a role in determining the relative weight of these three tendencies. A robust balance of power – as we have seen this past year -- will discourage assertiveness and encourage integration. On the other hand, a shift in the balance in favor of China, and particularly a power vacuum in any area peripheral to China, will encourage greater assertiveness. And, as we have seen recently, anti-authoritarian or pro-democracy movements in countries that leaders in Beijing see as presenting parallels to China will trigger a defensive response.


Most foreign countries – especially the other major powers with interests in China’s strategic space – prefer the integrative strategy, oppose the assertive strategy, and can tolerate, although not welcome, the defensive tendency. But whatever their preferences may be, Chinese foreign policy is likely to show a shifting balance among these three themes, depending on the international and domestic factors outlined above. Still, other major powers, especially the United States, can influence the relative weight of the three tendencies. Expecting China to play a constructive role in the international community, and rewarding it when it does, will strengthen the integrative tendency. Providing a firm counterweight to assertive Chinese behavior that challenges international norms or threatens the interests of others will weaken the assertive tendency. And, although China has the principal responsibility for managing its domestic situation, clear indications that the other major powers will not try to sabotage China’s economic development and international stability, even as they compete with it economically and urge domestic political reform, will help reduce Chinese defensiveness.

But what about the main continuity that runs across all three tendencies: China’s quest for great power status and its realist approach to international affairs? There is some hope that, over time, the realist approach will weaken in favor of more liberal outlooks. This may occur if the perception grows that there is an emerging international community, governed by international institutions, and facing common problems and opportunities. The coexistence of liberal and realist perspectives on international affairs reflects the fact that the international system itself contains both the traditional elements of anarchy and self-help (on which realism is based) and growing institutions of international governance (in which liberalism is rooted). The changing balance between these structural features in international politics will have a strong influence on Chinese perceptions of international affairs, although the realist tradition in Chinese thinking is so powerful that it will be difficult to completely overcome.

But even if this should occur, it is unlikely that it will alter China’s desire to become a great power. That, too, is an enduring theme in Chinese thinking about its role in the world. And it does not depend on a realist perspective. Many decades ago, Anatol Rapoport identified three forms of competition in human affairs in his book entitled Fights, Games, and Debates, published in 1960. In a world of anarchy, the principal form of competition is the fight, and realist theories try to explain and predict how countries prepare for such fights, try to deter them, and how to win them. But competition does not end in a more orderly world; it simply takes a different form. Countries will have different interests, and will continue to seek advantage in pursuing them. Even in a global community with international governance, better understood by liberal analysis than by realist models, there will still be competition, but it will take the form of economic and cultural competition (a form of game) and diplomatic and possibly ideological competition (a form of debate) rather than by military competition (preparation for a fight). China will then change its strategies, but it will remain determined to be an effective and successful competitor.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On "Nixon in China"

I had the great pleasure of giving the introductory lecture before the live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of the opera Nixon in China here in Charlottesville on February 12, 2011. The paper that I prepared as background for my lecture is far too long to reproduce here, but it is attached as a pdf. I have simply posted the introduction and conclusion of that paper below.
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Nixon in China is an opera about a fairly recent historical event: the visit of President Richard M. Nixon and his delegation to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972. The visit marked the end to a period of more than twenty years during which the United States tried both to isolate and contain China following its successful Communist revolution in 1949.

From a theoretical perspective – the perspective of realist theory in international relations – this event was what scholars call “over-determined.” It is not difficult to explain, and thus is not particularly interesting. Both China and the United States were facing a rising rival – the former Soviet Union – during periods of weakness. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was still tearing China apart. Two of Mao’s probable successors, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, had been were dead: Liu of illness, allegedly untreated, while under arrest; Lin in an airplane accident in Outer Mongolia, trying to flee the country after attempting a coup against Mao. For its part, the U.S. was bogged down in the war in Vietnam and, as a result, was also experiencing political turmoil at home, although not at anywhere near the scale of the Cultural Revolution. The outcome of Nixon’s reelection campaign was therefore uncertain. In this context of shared vulnerability, the growing military power of the Soviet Union in Asia gave the two countries a common enemy, one of the most powerful incentives for two foes to mend their fences.

But probing beneath the surface, although the rapprochement between the two countries is easy to explain now, it was difficult to predict at the time. Both Mao and Nixon had reputations of implacable hostility toward the other country: Mao, the great anti-imperialist; Nixon, the staunch anti-Communist. Nixon had written, in 1968, about eventually bringing China into the family of nations, and had given a few other public signs suggesting an interest in improving American relations with that country, but few expected so dramatic a breakthrough. Mao had also given a few indications that he was willing for China to welcome a high-level American visitor, but as late as Nixon’s arrival at Beijing airport, it was uncertain as to whether he personally would receive him. The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” has entered the American language to refer to the surprising possibility that a hardliner would be well-positioned to engage in détente, if he so chose.

Thus, from the perspective of the principal personalities involved, the visit was a far more dramatic event than it may have appeared from a purely theoretical point of view. And it was the drama of the moment that made it the subject for grand opera.

How accurately does the opera Nixon in China reflect the reality of Nixon in China? Obviously, the scene featuring The Red Detachment of Women is a complete fantasy; and the last act of the opera is like a docudrama – we have no idea what the main characters talked about in their bedrooms during the Nixons’ last night in Beijing.

But parts of the opera are actually quite realistic, or at least are based on fact. In particular, much of the dialogue in the meeting between Nixon and Mao is based on the Nixon and Kissinger memoirs. Winston Lord, who was present during that meeting, has said that the opera accurately captures the essentially philosophical nature of the production. And, while Nixon did not actually state his concerns about the possible failure of the trip when he landed at Beijing Airport, we know that that what was on his mind and the minds of his assistants.

What’s entirely missing from the opera is what is normally regarded as the most important event of the trip: the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué. This is not accidental. In his long interview at the Asia Society, Sellars argued that the Communiqué was basically meaningless, and thus the last act is appropriately despairing, not triumphant. (He seems to think that the last scene occurred after the Shanghai Communiqué was signed, but in fact it is described as the “last night” in Beijing, before the American party moved on to Hangzhou and Shanghai. Nonetheless, his assessment of the communiqué is important and worth noting.)

This skeptical view of the Shanghai Communiqué is particularly interesting given the importance that is now assigned to that document as creatively providing a workable framework for a relationship between two nations that once regarded themselves as implacable adversaries. In fact, just before Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington, in an op-ed in the New York Times, Zbigniew Brzezinski called for another communiqué that could similarly define a new framework for a relationship between two countries that increasingly view themselves as rivals.

Unfortunately, this nostalgia for the Shanghai Communiqué is as unrealistic as is the nostalgia for the Middle America in the mid-20th century that permeates the soliloquies of Richard and Pat Nixon in Nixon in China. Brzezinski apparently forgot that the two leaders had already produced just such a communiqué in 2009, during Obama’s visit to China. And the fact that he had forgotten, while surprising, was understandable; unlike its predecessor, that communiqué was an unmemorable document that did little to redefine the US-China relationship. The communiqué that was produced this time, following Brzezinski’s advice – a Joint Statement with no fewer than 41 points -- will suffer, I fear, the same fate.

Peter Sellars’s skeptical view of the Shanghai Communiqué may not have been fully justified at the time. But today it is far more appropriate than Brzezinski’s naïve hope for a document that will “codify the historic potential of productive American-Chinese cooperation.” Alas, the days of that kind of diplomatic breakthrough in US-China relations, undertaken by “heroic” characters who create a “game-changing event” by making “one of the moving gestures in human history” are over. It’s unlikely that even Peter Sellars will conceive, or John Adams will write, another “CNN opera” called Obama in China, or even Hu in America.