Chang Fan | January 1, 2019
Responding To: Managing U.S.-China Cooperation and Competition
Considerations for Washington
With an economy greater than all of the states of East and Southeast Asia combined, China has defied all traditional theories of politics and economics, developing faster and with a magnitude of force unprecedented in modern history. Placed under intense scrutiny by leaders of the existing world order, China and its expanding role within the international system has raised a number of concerns. Critics of President Xi’s “China Dream” and “Made in China 2025” argue that this rising world power is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda intent on usurping American hegemony. Regardless as to whether this prediction accurately reflects Beijing’s long term strategy, global leaders and American politicians alike have interpreted China’s behavior based on this perspective, resulting in the development of President Obama’s Pivot to Asia and President Trump’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Unsurprisingly, frictions between the two countries have surfaced, reaching an all-time high. Maintenance of cooperation, therefore, requires that the two countries clearly identify key areas of mutual interest, from environmental concerns to issues of terrorism. In efforts to enhance cooperation and enact tangible change, Washington must work to better understand China’s rich historical legacy and Beijing’s underlying motivations.
To begin, China is frequently criticized for not upholding the liberal, free market principles espoused by the United States and its allies. Despite these claims, from its accession to the WTO in 2001 to its support of the U.S. dollar during the 2008 financial crisis, China has demonstrated a willingness to accept the norms of and participate in key multilateral institutions, such as the WTO and IMF. Additionally, its decision to duplicate the model the World Bank’s governance structure when creating the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) demonstrates China’s willingness to uphold the existing frameworks of global financial institutions. It would not be an unfair assertion, however, to argue that much of China’s recent behavior, from its aggressive military posture in the South China Sea to its continuance of stringent market-entry policies, suggests it is pursuing a more active role within the international community. While China has indeed deviated from the liberal, pro-democracy trajectory that many advocates had hoped for, the Communist Party’s unwillingness to succumb to every single approach observed by western powers should hardly be interpreted as a hegemonic desire to upend the liberal order. For example, critics have speculated that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the product of a grand strategic calculus designed to purchase political influence. While many BRI projects, from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to the Hambantota port, do seem to be tactical given the opacity of certain Chinese banks’ financing practices, countless BRI projects have yet to come to fruition. Therefore, until China actually delivers on these sizeable commitments, Washington should avoid treating Beijing as a “strategic competitor.” Instead, the United States must prioritize the issues it finds most strategically salient, and identify areas in which the US and China’s interests align.
In addition to objective prioritization, Washington must understand the Chinese Communist Party’s fundamental goal of self-preservation and the influence of China’s historical legacy in shaping its public policy. China’s foreign policy and military actions are fundamentally driven by its domestic agenda, regime stability through economic growth. Dating back to the Mao era, continuing through Deng Xiaoping’s seminal economic policies in the 1970s, China’s intention to maximize its economic welfare has never wavered. Thus, the entire foundation under which the CCP’s power lies is the notion that one party rule is the only political system able to continue achieving prosperity. Successful negotiation requires mutual understanding on both sides.
All in all, China’s increased engagement abroad will undoubtedly lead to geopolitical tensions. Power politics aside, Stephen Kotkin’s emphatic declaration in Foreign Affairs’ that “...the course of the coming century will largely be determined by how China and the United States manage their power resources and their relationship” provides a powerful reminder to China and the United States that their decisions have a profound effect on the international system. As two of the world’s largest economies and prominent leaders, China and the United States have the capacity to enact great change or harm depending on their willingness to work together. At the present time, the US does not have the economic or political capacity to quell China’s thirst for growth, and it should not try to. Instead of engaging in a zero-sum game of power politics, the United States should make a conscious effort to work with China as it navigates its changing role within the world. As Joseph Nye Jr. best articulated, "If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy... It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
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