emergence as a global power has become a source of strategic concern for
regional and global powers, most notably Japan and the US. China’s aspiration
to predominance as a strategic equal with the US in Asia increases the great
power rivalry between the two countries. The continuation of China’s economic
growth and its current military modernization and build-up, notably in its blue
water capabilities, compounded with its recent aggressive assertiveness with
its neighbours concerning their maritime territorial disputes in the East and
South China Seas in order to advance its strategic interests, are also seen as China becoming a threat to
other countries in the region, particularly by the US and Japan.
This paper argues that the perception of the rising China as a potential threat to the US is exaggerated and misleading. The greatest concern that China will become a threat to the US and other countries in the region, as Ming Xia puts it, mainly stems from China’s potential hegemonic status in the world and “the ideological incompatibility of China with the Western value system.” However, the only aspect in which China can be considered to be a threat is when there are challenges to China’s “core national interests,” because China will use all costs and means to protect its core national interests.
According to the Chinese government’s white paper, “China’s Peaceful Development 2011,” China’s core national interests include its state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, national reunification, its political system established by the Constitution, and its overall social stability and basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development. Within these six core interests which are interrelated with one another, China will use decisive force only when it comes to protecting its state sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially the Taiwan issue.1
Despite China’s continuing economic growth and military build-up, China does not pose a threat to the US given both the US and China have been cooperating well for their common interests in bilateral, regional, and global issues.
The 2013 Summit in the US between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-US President Barack Obama marked a new era of greater cooperation between the two superpowers. President Obama declared that the US welcomes China’s “peaceful rise.” During the meeting with his Chinese counterpart in June 2013, President Obama stated that “it is very much in the interest of the United States for China to continue its peaceful rise, because if China is successful, that helps to drive the world economy and it puts China in the position to work with us as equal partners in dealing with many of the global challenges that no single nation can address by itself.”2
However, the current bilateral relationship between China and the US has been very unpredictable with Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, relentlessly labelling China as a currency manipulator and job stealer, and making provocative rhetoric about the US trade deficit with China. President Trump has also threatened to impose tariffs of up to 45 percent on Chinese imports, potentially leading to a trade war between the two superpowers.
Moreover, the new US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has stated that China’s control and construction of artificial islands in waters claimed by neighboring countries in the South China Sea are akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea, and has sent two heated signals to China: the island-building must stop and China’s access to those islands is not allowed.
However, Tillerson has not been consistent in his words, and has toned down his rhetoric against China on the South China Sea, stating that “the US will uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” This was also US policy under the Obama administration, and it has been a long-time contribution to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. Historical lessons teach the US that any hawkish action leading to war with China will be costly and counterproductive, and the wise option for the US is to pursue peaceful solutions with China.
In addition, the US should put forward the proposal of “cooperative mission” in the upcoming 12th East Asia Summit in the Philippines when it comes to the issue of the South China Sea. The primary notion of this mission to encourage the Southeast Asian states and China to operate waterborne and airborne missions in and over the South China Sea singly, among themselves, or in coordination with the US. The proposal will lead to peaceful coexistence between the two giants.
While the prominent American political scientist John Mearsheimer has always underpinned the notion that both America and China will go to war with each other, President Xi’s recent visit to the US has proved that such stereotypes are irrelevant. One should note that President Trump and President Xi agreed that their summit was very fruitful because both sides better understood each other’s positions on trade and security, and in the meantime President Xi expressed his sincerity in welcoming the US to participate or cooperate with the Belt and Road Initiative. To sum up, some analysts believe that a confrontation between the US and China is not inevitable.
Chinese President Xi has made it clear that “China will unswervingly adhere to the road of peaceful development, continue to deepen reform and opening up, make great efforts to realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and strive to promote the just cause of peace and development for humankind.” The meaning of the “Chinese dream” is that China seeks “economic prosperity, national rejuvenation and people’s well-being. In short, this dream is about peace, development, cooperation and win-win outcomes.”
Moreover, China has no ambition to seek global dominance. China’s strategic policy is that it wants multi-polar power and it is against hegemonic power. It can be seen through the statement of Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei in response to a US intelligence report on China that “China will unswervingly pursue a way of peaceful development. China's development aims at making greater contributions toward peace and development of mankind, as well as a happy life for its people, instead of overwhelming others or scrambling for world dominance.”
In his speech at Harvard University in December 2003, former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao declared that China will pursue a peaceful rise, and made the following points. First, China's development depends upon and in return will contribute to the world peace. Second, China will resort to peaceful means for development. Third, China's development will rely more on its own resources and market. Fourth, China is prepared for a long-term process of hard work, even over several generations, for economic prosperity. Finally, even as China achieves economic development, it will not seek hegemony in the world or come out as a threat to any country.
China will go to war with the US only if the US seriously confronts China’s core national interests.
To reinforce his former colleague’s position, in his recent speech to the United Nations Office in Geneva, President Xi stated: “For several millennia, peace has been in the blood of us Chinese and a part of our DNA. China will never waver in its pursuit of peaceful development. No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence. History has borne this out and will continue to do so.”
In terms of bilateral relations, both the US and China are committed to working closely together to build a strong relationship. Both countries have a strong economic interdependence and they are both economic powers on a global scale. China’s growth is due to American investment and massive exports from China to the US: “everything here in the US is made in China”. As for the US, its corporations enjoy big benefits from the cheap labor force in China, and most of these benefits return to the US. China invested about USD 6.5 billion in the US in 2013, out of the total USD 175 billion in FDI the US attracted from around the world. Chinese investment to the US reached around USD 140 billion between 2005 and 2016 (Scissors, 2017). The US also invested hundreds of billions in China, which drew a total of USD 112 billion globally.
So far, both countries have been building good relations in many aspects. The two sides have set up more than 90 strategic and economic dialogues, cultural and educational exchanges, and high level consultations. Moreover, they have established over 220 pairs of sister provinces and states and sister cities. There are nearly 190,000 Chinese students in the US and over 20,000 US students in China.
Their military-to-military relationship has also been improving. There have been active high-level exchanges and dialogues such as the visit to China by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and visits to the US by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and Commander in Chief of the PLA Navy Wu Shengli. The two militaries have held joint military, anti-piracy, and anti-terror exercises, and plans are being made for future visits, dialogues, joint exercises, and training. There were three Chinese military ships that held a rare search-and rescue exercise with the US navy in September in Hawaii in 2013 where the two navies staged the first joint humanitarian aid and disaster relief drill that November.3
Globally, both countries have an interest in global stability, and have cooperated on some hotspot issues. The US and China both have issues with North Korea that may be more in synch than both realize. China has gone on record as saying that it “wouldn’t mind” seeking Korean reunification under South Korean control. China also does not like the instability to the region that North Korea brings, nor the massive amount of aid China gives to North Korea to help it to survive. Both the US and Chinese Presidents have called on North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons and both countries have agreed not to recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.4
Moreover, with regard to Iran, both China and the US share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Both countries had a productive first meeting as members of the P-5+1 in Istanbul and they look forward to the next meeting in Baghdad. China is committed to pressuring Iran to meet its international obligations, to negotiate seriously, and to prove that the Iranian nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.5 As for Syria, both countries are absolutely committed to end the brutal violence against civilians and help a reach negotiated solution to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis.
Looking at China’s military capability, the Chinese government’s white paper, “China’s National Defense in 2010,” clearly states that, since its first edition in 1998, the national defense policy is wholly “defensive in nature”. China’s military is developing for the exclusively purpose of safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests, and its development is in line with the country’s need to deal with multiple security threats. As for Chinese defense capability, currently, despite its military build-up, China lacks two strategic prerequisites for great power status: power projection capabilities, and a high-tech military. China is unable to project air and naval power beyond its backyard.6
Moreover, although the Chinese aircraft carrier is in operation, its power projecting capability is still limited, at least in the near term. Its main functions now are for enhancing China’s national prestige, providing personnel training, and conducting military diplomacy. However, once the Chinese get over the significance of prestige, they will focus on the real purpose of the carrier, that is, for China to project power and protect its interests.7 Of course, China is building its military capabilities, but its military spending may just be a quarter that of the US.8
As far as China’s internal politics is concerned, the country faces significant domestic issues, such as political reform and the future of the Chinese Communist Party, corruption and localized unrests, human rights and religious freedom, and demographic challenges. One Chinese senior colonel claimed that “China is too busy to think about its own domestic issues and we have no time to think about other international issues.”9 China is the world’s second largest economy but its per capita output is at most only one-fifth that of the most developed country.10 China’s recent strategic activities and assertiveness in the region and the globe are for its own survival — energy, the economic ambition to feed its populace, and its core national interests.11
The recent Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago has demonstrated optimistic prospects for further strengthening Sino-US bilateral relations. In addition to welcoming US participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi also extended his invitation to President Trump to make a state visit to China and it was reported that the President Trump’s visit is likely to happen at the end of 2017. After their summit, both leaders agreed to establish four-level mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation on diplomacy and security, economy, law enforcement and cyber security, as well as social and people-to-people exchanges. It is undeniable that both China and the US hold different strategic positions in global politics which could lead to disputes. However, these are very unlikely to lead to armed conflicts, since both giants have enormous convergence especially in their economic interests and in issues of international security, for example North Korea and Syria.
In summary, as mentioned above, China and the US have a lot of common interests. Thus, there is no reason to expect that both countries will fight with each other. Therefore, the perception of the rising China being a threat is a complete misjudgement. There is no surprise that China, one of the world’s biggest countries with a big population, and a member of the P5, is undertaking military modernization and build-up, because it has and continues to have global responsibilities. China’s recent aggressive assertiveness with its neighbours concerning their maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas was due to its protecting its core national interests and resources, as China considers these areas within its territorial sovereignty.
The issue that can lead both the US and China to go to war, even if it is unwanted, is if China’s push for change in regional and global systems, intended or unintended, remains a big concern for the US. For example, China’s core national interests can come into conflict with the US’ national interest to protect its allies in the region. It can be argued that China will go to war with the US only if the US seriously confronts China’s core national interests. As a result, the only issue that can get China and the US to fight to protect their respective national interests is if the US and China do not have agreement on China’s core interests (and the US’ core interests for that matter).
Therefore, hedging against the possibility of a more aggressive China is fine, but if the US adopts a policy of containment, this would be premature and could instead create an adversarial relationship that would lead to losses on both sides. The sources of disagreement are obvious, but they should not prevent the two governments from improving their relations wherever possible.
In today’s world, much will depend on the willingness and ability of the US and China to work together wherever they can for their own benefit and for the world’s. The US’ pivot/rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific will not be fully achieved without cooperation from China. China deserves to have a piece of the pie in the world order.
1. The author shared the views on China’s threat with a PLA senior colonel.
2. Lawrence, S. V. (August 1, 2013). US-China Relations: An Overview of Policy Issues. Washington, DC: US Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, p. 5.
3. Fox News. (September 6, 2013). 3 Chinese ships, 680 officers and sailors visit Hawaii for rare exercise with US Navy.
4. US Department of Defense. (June 9, 2013). Obama, Xi agree North Korea must denuclearize.
5. Council on Foreign Relations. (May 3, 2012). Clinton’s remarks at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue opening session.
6. Layne, C. (2005). China’s role in American grand strategy: Partner, regional power, or great power rival?. In The Asia Pacific: A Region in Transition, ed. Jim Rolfe. Honolulu: APCSS, pp. 66-67.
7. Billingsley, B. (August 11, 2011). Is China’s aircraft carrier a threat to US interest? Center for Strategic & International Studies.
8. Haass, RH. (December 28, 2011). China’s greatest threat is internal. Council on Foreign Relations.
9. The author (Veasna Var) asked one of the Chinese Senior Colonels, who was a student at Australian Defense College, Canberra, Australia in 2011.
10. Haass, R. H. (December 28, 2011). China’s greatest threat is internal. Council on Foreign Relations.
11. Reilly, B. O. (December 18, 2012). China’s rise can be peaceful. Asia Time Online.