Great powers cannot confidently assess the strategic intentions of one another because of inherent private information problems and the deliberate use of deception by statesmen, making misunderstandings and miscalculations common in world politics. This is a prominent problem in today’s US-China relations, because the US fears that a rising China surely has a rising appetite and will try to expand its interests and prestige at the US’ expense, while China worries that the US is seeking any opportunity possible to slow down its growth, delegitimize its regime at home and abroad, and even overthrow the Chinese Communist Party’s rule if possible. The spiral of misunderstanding and instability puts the two countries on a collision course with each other. China-US relationship experts increasingly worry that a Sino-US cold war is becoming more likely.
A focal point of the contemporary Sino-US relationship is the US rebalancing strategy and its consequences. Washington considers it as a comprehensive and durable strategy that aims at shaping a rule-based order in East Asia. The China component of rebalancing aims at “building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China” on one hand, and shaping China’s behavior particularly in the case of China’s maritime disputes with its neighbors on the other1. The US’ China policy within the rebalancing strategy was initially defined by those — particularly vice Secretary of State James Steinberg and Jeffery Bader in the National Security Council — who stressed the importance of great power cooperation in President Obama’s first term. The policy was later reshaped by the Pentagon and conservatives from the Department of State, which stressed the use of military presence, diplomatic pressure, and integration in regional institutions, to deter Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.2
The administrative shift and the high-profile US military presence in the South China Sea reinforce the belief among Chinese that the rebalancing is actually a military-centric strategy targeting China, implying the coming of Cold War-style containment, which was described as “new threats from hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism” in China’s national defense whitepaper in 2015.3
Beijing’s understanding may stem from various factors. Owing to domestic turmoil, the economic slowdown, and legitimacy crisis owing to the waning ideological foundation and the lack of democracy, Beijing has a strong sense of “structural insecurity,” which makes itself very sensitive to external risks and possible overreaction. It may also intentionally exaggerate the external threats to fuel nationalists’ sentiments and increase domestic support.4 However, Washington should also reflect on its responsibility in formulating and reinforcing Beijing’s misperceptions of the US rebalancing.
The US and China’s Core Interests
First of all, the US is the only actor that is involved in all aspects of China’s core national interests and major concerns, ranging from various territorial, economic, and political hotspots. Beijing vows to defend its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, but faces serious challenges from the Taiwan independence movement and separatism in Tibet and Xinjiang in name of human rights and ethic self-determination. In the East China Sea, the US claims to be neutral in the sovereignty dispute of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, but objects to any unilateral efforts to change the status quo, namely any of Beijing’s provocative moves to jeopardize Japan’s “administrative control” over these islands. In the South China Sea, the US recently deepened its presence with high-profile naval patrols. It is also strengthening its security cooperation with regional allies and security partners, and is building a security network against Chinese aggressiveness. What’s more, Beijing also believes that Washington is trying to delegitimize its domestic rule by internationalizing Chinese human rights problems in global platforms, sympathizing and sometimes funding Chinese dissidents, and embarrassing Chinese leaders by exposing their political scandals. Washington has also allegedly supported the democratic movement in Hong Kong, which is seen by Beijing as a pre-play of a possible Western-backed “color revolution” in China.
Washington can obviously justify all its moves by attributing them to its security interests, its alliances with regional actors, and its firm beliefs in liberal-democratic principles and the common values of humanity. Labeling China as an authoritarian and arrogant revisionist, the US seems to justify its actions on moral grounds. However, an all-aspect presence in Beijing’s concerns surely raises Beijing’s anxieties and deep suspicions of US strategic intentions. Under these circumstances, US rebalancing only exploits and does not assuage Beijing’s anxieties.
Reassuring Beijing Is Necessary, but Washington Won’t Do That
Great powers cannot confidently assess the intentions of one another, particularly when they are trapped in certain status competitions and security confrontations.5 In this case, Beijing is uncertain about the real intentions of the US rebalancing strategy. On one hand, it may be a comprehensive strategy aimed at building a rule-based order in East Asia which would then shape China’s choices, making aggression costly and a peaceful resolution of various disputes appealing. In this case it remains a moderate strategy using a mixture of coercion and dialogue, cooperation and deterrence, to deal with the China challenge. On the other, the rebalancing might be the beginning of containment, implying the coming of a Cold War-style China-US rivalry.
Successful rebalancing needs the US to reassure China that its strategy has limited objectives and that it has no intention to jeopardize China’s core national interests and other “legal” interests in the region.6 Otherwise, China may see no real difference between a rebalancing strategy and all-aspect containment.
Necessary reassurance measures should clarify that the rebalancing will not incorporate the following moves: taking sides in regional sovereignty disputes; building a regional alliance against China; adopting pre-emptive military doctrines; forward deployment of US troops or advanced weaponry systems that would seriously undermine China’s strategic defense capacity; delegitimizing Chinese regimes; or supporting separatist movements within China.
Successful rebalancing needs the US to reassure China that its strategy has limited objectives and that it has no intention to jeopardize China’s core national interests and other “legal” interests in the region.
However, the reality is that today the US has decreasing incentives to reassure China. For example, US strategic analysts used to be cautious about rearming Japan,7 but the US currently endorses Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to transform Japan into a “normal state,” including revising the constitution to allow Japan to fully exercise the right to collective self-defense, which would allow Tokyo to send troops outside Japan’s borders and assist with US naval patrols in the South China Sea. Washington has escalated its commitment to defend Japan’s “administrative control” over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and objects to “any unilateral efforts to change the status quo” by China.
The lack of substantive measures to reassure China stem from multiple reasons. The bureaucratic politics game between soft- and hard-liners in Washington has failed to build a coherent consensus on how to deal with the China challenge; under the power transition scenario, the US does not want to accommodate China too much to avoid appearing “weak” or “declining;” and the US does not want its credibility in rebalancing China and in its security commitments to its allies to be questioned.
Without Engagement, Rebalancing Would Spell Components of Containment
To convince Beijing that rebalancing is not containment, US should continue to engage China economically and extend their cooperation in areas with common interests. Again, the role of engagement in the US’ China policy is decreasing, and Washington is unwilling to further invest political capital in engaging China extensively, making Beijing more cautious and pessimistic about the future.
Various issues indicate such trends. China’s efforts to establish the AIIB — a multilateral financial institute aimed at helping regional countries accelerate their infrastructure building — met with US resistance; the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has built itself into an “anyone but China” club8 ; and the two countries’ bilateral investment treaty (BIT) negotiations have made slow progress and have gradually faded from the spotlight of US-China relations. Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington in last September reveals that the two countries can cooperate on limited issues like climate change, piracy, and people-to-people exchanges, which are of little importance to the big picture of bilateral ties, while distrust and confrontation dominates the agenda of high-politics issues.9
The engagement approach in the US’ China policy is increasingly seen as a failure. The US has long tried to engage China and integrate it into the world economic system, in the hope that China will liberalize its economy, democratize its politics, and be a “responsible stakeholder.” However, China remains an authoritarian regime after three decades of reform, behaves aggressively in regional territorial issues, and has no intention to devote much resources to supply global public goods. All these contribute to Washington’s belief that engagement is done, and now is the time for a new China policy.
This “engagement failure” argument is biased, however. The economic prosperity and social stability in China have benefited from US engagement and China’s integration into the Western-oriented system; China has cautiously started to contribute to the solutions of global public problems; and Beijing continue to integrate itself into regional institutions and international organizations, and is open to bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. Beijing’s increasing integration into the world system continues to moderate its foreign behavior, although it has not totally eliminated the possibility of China’s confrontation with its neighbors.
The US should continue to engage China intensively, as rebalancing without extensive engagement assembles features of containment which does not serve US national interests. On one hand, the lack of intensive engagement will convince Beijing that containment is coming sooner or later, although Washington continue to deny the existence of such strategy; on the other, regional allies may overestimate the US’ intentions and behave more proactively to confront China, ultimately trapping US into a conflict that it may not want to fight.
This article has no intention to criticize US foreign policy or to merely defend Beijing. I am simply arguing that, China may misbehave in the South China Sea and related issues, but Washington should also rethink its China policy and why Beijing firmly considers rebalancing as the beginning of containment. Washington still has time to deal with the China challenge with a right approach that plants the seeds of hope and peace for the future, before a new Cold War arrives.
1. Complete transcript: Thomas Donilon at Asia Society New York. (2013, March 11). Retrieved from http://asiasociety.org/new-york/complete-transcript-thomas-donilon-asia-society-new-york
2. Liberthal, K. (2011). The American pivot to Asia: why President Obama’s turn to the East is easier said than done? Foreign Policy, December 21. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/12/21/the-american-pivot-to-asia/
3. The Information Office of the State Council. (2015, May 26). Whitepaper on China’s military strategy. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-05/26/c_134271001.htm.
4. See for example, Luttwak, E.N. (2012). The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 19, 21.
5. Rosato, S. (2015). The inscrutable intentions of great powers. International Security, 39(3), 48-88.
6. See for example, Steinberg, J. and O’Hanlon, M.E. (2014). Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S-China Relations in the 21st Century. Princeton University Press; Nathan, A.J. and Scobell, A. (2012). How China sees America: The sum of Beijing’s fears. Foreign Affairs, 91(5), 47.
7. See for example, Shirk, S.L. (2008). China: Fragile Superpower. Oxford University Press, pp. 264-265; Waltz, K.N. (2000). Structural realism after the Cold War. International Security, 25(1), 5-41.
8. Pilling, D. (2015, October 7). The ‘anyone but China’ club needs a gatecrasher. Financial Times. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/62613e6a-6b5a-11e5-aca9-d87542bf8673.html#axzz43nVRnapo
9. Auslin, M. (2015, September 25). Xi Jinping’s state visit reveals US, China relationship more dysfunctional than ever. Fox News. Retrieved from