As President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States draws near, his phraseology of “New Great Power Relations” seems being shunned by Washington. A host of doubts and worries comes to mind. How robust is China’s Rise to merit Great Power status? Is it sustainable? What are China’s ultimate intensions? Should China be contained or confronted? What about the America-led post-War world order?
To read China correctly, a number of myths need to be debunked.
The first is that China may be dream-walking towards twilight . This recurrent “China collapse” speculation, as before, does not accord with reality. Despite slower growth, China’s ambitious Third Plenum reforms are beginning to shift the economy towards more moderate and less energy-intensive development. According to the work report of Premier Li Keqiang at the March 2015 National People’s Congress, despite slower growth, 2014 saw 13.22 million new urban jobs created, more than the year before. Newly created businesses increased by 45.9% or 12.93 million units. Energy intensity dropped by 4.8%, the largest in several years. Contribution by consumption and services to GDP increased slightly from 50% to 51.2% and from 46.1% to 48.2% respectively. A PEW 2014 Global Attitude survey puts China at the top of citizens’ satisfaction index with 87% positive response, up 2% over the previous year.
The second myth is that China’s power may be illusionary as it can hardly be considered at par with the United States. While China’s per capita GDP, creativity, military capacity, network of allies, and above all, soft power, are far inferior, power dynamics does not always depend on parity. China’s gravitas lies in connectivity at the hub of a globalized supply and production chain. This is likely to be further enhanced if China succeeds with a One Belt, One Road pan-continental strategy. Influence also comes with size as China has become the world’s largest trader and resource customer. More currencies now move in tandem with the Renminbi than with the Dollar.
Even though China’s comprehensive military strength is way behind, including firepower, global reach and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), her survivable nuclear arsenal, including multi-warhead, nuclear ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) on vehicular carriers, nuclear submarines and nascent hypersonic nuclear missiles, poses sufficient assured mutual destruction to make the classic Thucydides Trap less inevitable.
As for allies, while China has few to speak of, many American allies have China as a key trading partner, export market, and source for economic growth and job creation. Their recent rally for China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative speaks volumes.
The third myth is the fear that China’s Rise would overturn the world order at the expense of United States and her allies. China has been the greatest beneficiary, and indeed staunch supporter, of the existing world order. There is no sign that China wants or is able to form a new one. She desires to share power in global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), failing which she has launched the AIIB initiative. She yearns for status on equal terms (1) with the United States. But this is very different from re-writing the United Nations Charter or the established rules of international trade, finance and investment.
The fourth myth is that China’s Rise would dominate Asia, replicating America’s former Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere, and resulting in intense security competition with potential for war. “Offensive realists” (2) surmise that the United States would do all it can to retard China’s economic growth (3). However, the age of gunboat diplomacy is long past. The “flatter” world (4) is highly inter-connected and interdependent. China’s economy affects the world, America included, let alone her US treasuries purchases. Likewise, it makes no sense for China to push the US out of the Asia-Pacific. American trade and investments enlarge the economic pie. Her military presence underwrites regional security at little cost to China.
So, what does China want and should her Rise be confronted, contained or shaped to maintain world order and American primacy?
Despite warts and all, China’s vision is encapsulated in the “China Dream” – a strong, prosperous, harmonious, and sustainable nation harking back to glorious past as a great power. Facing umpteen internal and external challenges, the last thing China wants is to rock the global order through aggression, let alone military conflict. But central to the China Dream are what Beijing deems “core interests”. These include the One Party State, National Security, Territorial Integrity, and Development Interests. The South China Sea encompasses three of them. With a legacy of centuries of national humiliation, China is likely to fight tooth and nail in defence of these interests. Mishandled, the South China Sea could well boil over, destabilizing the Pacific (5), if not the entire world.
China is accused to be a spoiler in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China is increasingly ready to contribute to the global commons over such challenges as Dafur, the Gulf of Aden, North Korea, and the nuclear deal with Iran . China fields the largest peacekeeping contingent amongst Permanent Members of the UN Security Council.
In Still Ours To Lead (6), Bruce Jones, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, accepts the reality of rising powers and outlines America’s unparalleled leadership in pulling together broad and disparate coalitions for the common good. In The China Challenge – Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (7), Thomas Christensen, director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University, contends that the United States should aim not to block China’s rise but to provide strategic reassurance on China’s “core interests” so as to shape her choice of contributing to the global order.
In The China Choice (8), Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, argues that the United States should share power with China, Japan and India to form a stabilizing “Concert of Asia”. In Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (9), Zbigniew Brzezinski, a doyen in American foreign policy, proposes that America should accommodate and shape China’s rise by acting as a regional balancer, brokering a “cooperative triangle” between the US, China and Japan.
All in all, these prognoses seem to suggest that the United States should accept the reality of China’s Rise with all this implies, including China’s need for power projection to safeguard “core interests” with a blue-water navy. In Is the American Century Over? (10), Professor Joseph Nye explains why “leadership is not the same as domination.” In an era of diffused powers, America would be well advised to curb instincts of Jacksonian “exceptionalism” (11) by deploying still unrivalled yet increasingly-challenged (12) military, economic and soft powers to incentivize others and by sharing power and responsibility in maintaining a benign international order.
During President Xi’s state visit, the term “New Great Power Relations” may or may not be articulated (24). But an era of such relations may already be in the making.
(1) On Equal Terms: Redefining China's Relationship with America and the West, Mingxun Zheng, Wiley, 2011
(2) Offensive Realism is a structural theory belonging to the neorealist school. It posits that great powers are never certain of their adversaries’ intentions and inevitably want to maximize power in order to fortify dominance. John Mearsheimer is regarded as a leading protagonist of this theory.
(3) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago, W.W. Norton, 2014
(4) The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005
(5) Asia’s Cauldron, The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert Kaplan, Random House, New York, 2014.
(6) Still Ours To Lead, Bruce Jones, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Project on International Order and Strategy, Brookings Institution, 2014
(7) The China Challenge – Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, Thomas Christensen, W.W. Norton, New York, 2015. Similar arguments are advanced in Meeting China Halfway: How to Diffuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry, Lyle Goldstein, Georgetown University Press, 2015
(8) The China Choice, Hugh White, Australian National University, Black Inc, 2012
(9) Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Basic Books, 2013
(10) Is the American Century Over, Joseph Nye, Jr., Harvard Kennedy School, Polity Press, Cambridge UK, 2015. “Leadership is not the same as domination” (p.126).
(11) America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, Anatol Lieven, Oxford University Press, 2012.
(12) Jacksonian chauvinism informs much of America’s unilateral military adventurism in the Middle East, which has ignited a wildfire of anti-Americanism and fundamentalist terrorism. Together with crumbling physical and flawed social infrastructure, this has led to perceptions of American decline. See The End of the American Century, David Mason, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, USA, 2009.