Issue 2, June 2008
|The United States|
China’s relationship with the United States is complex, involving both power dynamics and fundamental differences in culture and governance.
History illustrates that the United States’ relationship with the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been an unsteady one. Although the United States provided support to both the Nationalists and the Communists as they fought to defeat the Japanese in WWII, the United States declared its allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT when the Nationalists were defeated by Mao’s Communist forces and retreated to exile in Taiwan in 1949. The US joined most of the international community in recognizing Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC) as the true China, shunning the Maoist Mainland as it shut itself from the rest of the world during the 1950s and 1960s. Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 opened the door to US-PRC relations, and by 1978, the US had switched diplomatic recognition to the Mainland, viewing the PRC as a hedge against its other Communist rival, the Soviet Union. Sitting with Communist China on the UN Security Council, US-China relations warmed on economic and trade matters, even against the backdrop of tacit US support for Taiwan’s defense against potential Chinese aggression.
US policy regarding the PRC-Taiwan stand-off is one characterized as “strategic ambiguity.” The US maintains treaties that both recognize Taiwan to be a renegade province of China (the One China Doctrine) and promise support to Taiwan should the Mainland attempt reunification by military aggression (The Taiwan Relations Act). Taiwan depends on the United States' military stationed in the region to deter Chinese reunification attempts. The Taiwan Strait has long been considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for its potential to bring the US and PRC to war over Taiwan because both the US and PRC are nuclear powers. There has been occasional saber-rattling in the Strait over the past half century that has disrupted Chinese-American relations, and diplomatic dust-ups routinely occur around the visit of Taiwanese officials to the United States and vice versa. Although, tensions have cooled considerably since March 2008 elections in Taiwan ushered in an administration less combative to China (see Taiwan section). The diaspora community of Chinese nationals and immigrants living in the US similarly splits along Taiwan-PRC lines, and this dynamic causes some friction in ethnic Chinese communities and within the US-China lobby.
Beyond the issue of Taiwan, US-China relations are cautiously friendly. Exceptions include: US condemnation of the CCP response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots; nationalistic anti-American sentiment after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 by the US military; and the US spy plane collision with Chinese aircraft in 2001. With the economies of the US and PRC inexorably linked, there have been efforts to maintain productive diplomatic relations over the past thirty years. Substantial business and tourist travel takes place between the two countries, and there are currently over 40,000 Chinese nationals enrolled in American universities. In addition, Mandarin Chinese instruction is becoming more commonplace in many American primary and secondary schools.
As a prevailing superpower and competitor, the relationship between these two countries affects the global community. At the risk of great oversimplification, commentary on the US-China relationship, as it relates to the global power dynamic, by American press, experts, and scholars can be said to fall into three camps, broadly.
Those Who Believe China’s Rise Is a Result of US Weakness
There are those along the US political spectrum who believe that the rise of China has been facilitated by declining effectiveness of US domestic and foreign policies. In short, these experts believe the US needs to get its own house in order to maintain its advantage over China. In this view:
This group is often joined by those who believe the US engages in unproductive hypocrisy when it comes to criticizing China, and that America only alienates China and the rest of the world when it leads its engagement of China with scolding rather than recognition of the similar challenges both nations face. Some examples that are routinely pointed out generally fall in to six categories. First, many believe some US policies surrounding the Global War on Terror could be described as excessive and/or extralegal, including the invasion of Iraq, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the practice of “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects, and alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as it pertains to foreign nationals and US citizens. The second area where experts have been known to point out hypocrisy on the part of American critics of China is in the treatment of ethnic minorities. Comparisons are often drawn between Chinese policies toward Tibetan and Uighur minority populations and US policies toward Native American and African-American populations throughout history. Third, some believe that the US cannot fairly take the high road when it comes to free press when many news media outlets are owned and influenced by corporate conglomerates, and ex-Pentagon officials and military contractors act as “independent” commentators on American foreign policy on news programs. Fourth, in the area of environmental protection and consumer safety regulations, there are those who point out that America has its share of failings, as well, to the detriment of its own citizens and those around the world. Fifth, some believe that US support for unsavory regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan mirror China’s support for similarly unsavory regimes such as Iran and Sudan. Finally, many believe that the US has a long way to go in providing a minimum standard of living and health care for its citizens and should keep its own inequalities of wealth distribution in mind when commenting on the plight of the working poor and elderly in China.
This group generally subscribes to the classic “rise and fall of empires” theory of history, believing that the US, like Rome and Britain before it, is in decay and has over-reached in its power projection, and is now in inevitable and natural decline. The rise of China here is seen as less of a cause of US decline than a symptom of it.
Those That Believe China’s Rise Can Be Managed by the United States
This camp includes both those who simply believe China is no match for US hegemony and power, as well as those who acknowledge that China possesses significant advantages, but that its power can be harnessed for the greater good of the world.
The first group believes China has not yet unseated the US in power projection – economically, militarily, or culturally. In this view, the US is blessed by its geography, its durable system of governance, its enormous innovative potential, its cultural appeal worldwide, the strength of its economy, its influence in international institutions, its connections, and the unchallenged strength of its military. And though it is catching up, the PRC’s growth, in this view, is built on an untenable bargain between the CCP and the Chinese people that will not survive inevitable economic fluctuations and the opening of society that accompanies modernization. When this happens, domestic upheaval and chaos will ensue. China simply won’t need containing or engaging.
Among those here who acknowledge China’s potential to challenge US hegemony, they generally believe the US and China (and the rest of the world) are all fumbling along in a century marked by unprecedented challenges wrought by globalization, the clash of civilizations, and increased competition for resources on a damaged planet. The best bet for the future is for the US and China to both engage in international institutions that come together to solve pressing global problems. These institutions were largely created by the United States after WWII, and, in this view, remain the best avenue for retaining US power, bringing China into the fold of the international community, and preventing a dangerous alignment shift, with Western powers on one side and rogue and developing nations on the other.
This contingent generally assumes that China’s advance toward democracy and responsible stewardship of the international order are inevitable. China expert James Mann calls this the “soothing scenario,” and believes this is where the loudest and most powerful voices are in the American foreign policy establishment. Also known as the “red team,” this typically includes the substantial China industry in the US government – advisors in the Executive Office, lobbyists, China specialists, diplomats, think tanks, as well as representatives of multinational companies. Mann describes this group as embracing the “paradigm of inevitable change,” and advocating strategies of engagement and integration, often overlooking China’s abuses as temporary strategies of a growing nation. Evidence cited to support this view often includes the handling of China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) status during the Clinton years. Whereas MFN status had always been subject to yearly Congressional approval and linked to human rights progress in China, President Clinton removed Congress from this process. He also removed human rights conditions, placing MFN in the realm of the Executive until it was no longer relevant upon China’s accession to the WTO. Recently, the controversial US decision to drop China from its list of Top Ten Violators of Human Rights in March of 2008 shows evidence of this continuing trend among decision-makers.
In this view, as China is brought into the prevailing international system in which the US and, to a lesser extent, the European Union have enjoyed power, it will begin to look more like and think more like Western nations. As China becomes more deeply engaged in international treaties and institutions, its power will necessarily be checked by global norms, and this pressure to become a responsible stakeholder could divert attention from its economy. This strategy advocates containing China’s power by engaging it in responsible international leadership.
Those Who Believe the US Underestimates China’s Potential Threat
This scenario portrays the future as dominated by the continued strength and influence of a CCP-dominated China that does NOT agree to play by the rules. As James Mann has written, proponents of this theory are known informally in policy circles as the “blue team,” consisting of US pessimists on the future global order. In this view, China will not likely embrace Western democratic values any time soon, and will continue to accrue power in a pragmatic way, cooperating in international institutions only when doing so serves its interests.
In this forecast, China will play by its own rules, ultimately leading a bloc of countries who do the same against a US or EU-led bloc of Western style democracies. This will require the US to employ both hard (military and coercive economic sanctions and/or tariffs) and soft power mechanisms to counter China’s leadership. Alternatively, some here believe China will use its influence to change the rules of the game in its favor. International institutions may become the battleground as China’s power continues to grow and shape the norms of the international order among the hundreds of growing Second and Third world nations, diminishing Western liberal democratic values worldwide. Kishore Mahbubani, in a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “The Case Against the West,” describes current US and Western-led international institutions as “outdated” and “flouting principles of democracy, rule of law, and social justice.”
America’s Strength Within the West
No matter the trajectory of China’s rise, most experts believe that US strength lies in its alliances with the larger Western community through the institutions it helped create. Most believe the era of US unilateral behavior and leadership is gone, and that leadership must be more inclusive of the West, and ultimately of China. John Ikenberry writes, “If the defining struggle of the 21st Century is between China and the United States, China will have the advantage. If the defining struggle is between China and a revived Western system, the West will triumph.”