international analysis and commentary

A rising China and America’s dilemma


The just-concluded summit meeting in Washington between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao has generated an exceptional amount of discussion concerning US-China relations. President Obama accorded the Chinese leader a red carpet reception, including a lavish state dinner at the White House. That VIP treatment reflected the administration’s recognition that China is a vital global player in both the economic and security arenas—that China is now a full-fledged great power.

What worries China’s critics, though, is what kind of great power the rising Asian giant is likely to be. Many of those critics focused less on the Hu-Obama summit, which seemed long on symbolism and short on substance, than they did on the meetings in Beijing a week earlier between US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his Chinese counterparts. Aspects of that visit alarmed analysts who believe that China’s “peaceful rise” might not be all that peaceful. Just before Gates arrived in the Chinese capital, reports surfaced about a breakthrough in China’s nuclear capabilities and, perhaps even more significant, the test flight of a new stealth military aircraft.

The most likely explanation about the timing of those “leaked” reports was that they were designed to rattle Gates and enable Chinese defense ministry officials to conduct the subsequent dialogue with him from a stronger position. But when Hu and other civilian leaders insisted that they had known nothing about the test flight, anti-China hawks latched onto another theory—that the civilian leadership was no longer fully in control of the generals in the People’s Liberation Army. Jacob Heilbrunn, a scholar with The National Interest (a leading US foreign policy journal) interpreted the episode as a deliberate snub directed at Hu and the leadership of the Communist Party. Heilbrunn asked: “Are China’s neocons taking power?”

Other analysts adopted a less extreme but still worried view. While the PLA may not have “gone rogue,” they argued, the incident did suggest that the military was an increasingly potent and independent player in China’s political system. And that development was not comforting: the generals typically take more hawkish positions than other domestic factions which place a high priority on good relations with the United States and China’s East Asian neighbors as essential to the country’s continued economic growth.

Concerns about the extent of the PLA’s power and influence are not new. For example, there was a flurry of speculation about the nature of the military’s clout after the CCP leadership needed troops to put down the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Ultimately, though, the Party elite still seemed to be in charge on that occasion; now, there is some doubt on that score.

The underlying reality is that ever since the end of the Maoist era in the mid-1970s, China is less a monolithic totalitarian system than a complex market authoritarian system with multiple players. The secrecy in the political decision-making process obscures disputes and divisions over policies, but it does not make them less real. And the PLA has always been one of the influential players. There are some indications that with Hu and other top civilian leaders scheduled to leave their posts next year, ambitious military types may be exploiting that transition to enhance the role and influence of their institution.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the PLA is the principal cause of a more assertive China on the global stage. There is little doubt that Beijing has become increasingly bold on multiple issues. Its territorial claims in the Sea of Japan led to a nasty spat with Japan last year. China’s even more expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea have created serious tensions with several of its neighbors and caused the United States to emphasize a commitment to navigation rights and the free flow of commerce through what Washington regards as international waters.

One can find evidence of similar Chinese assertiveness on an assortment of economic issues. But such developments reflect more fundamental factors than merely greater influence by the PLA. History suggests that it is typical behavior of a rising great power that is beginning to relish—and perhaps overestimate—its new status.

Americans and others seemed to believe that China would forever be content to focus on its internal economic progress and be satisfied to play a subordinate role in international economic and security affairs. As the incumbent global hegemon, the United States obviously would find such an outcome highly desirable, but rising great powers do not tailor their policies to suit incumbent hegemons. We should not expect China to break that historical pattern.

The likelihood that Beijing will become steadily more assertive in the international arena, however, creates a dilemma for the United States. A majority of Americans regard the extensive US-Chinese economic relationship as beneficial and desirable. But as Cato Institute foreign policy scholar Justin Logan points out, that relationship greatly strengthens China’s economy and, indirectly, Beijing’s ability to develop political and military power.

Given that reality, one would expect that there would be growing wariness in the United States – especially among hawkish types – about maintaining, much less expanding, bilateral economic ties. Yet even most outspoken critics of China’s regional and global behavior rarely advocate drastically curtailing the economic relationship. That produces the odd spectacle of many anti-China hawks simultaneously warning that China poses a growing threat to America’s interests, and even the republic’s security, while endorsing wide-ranging trade and investment links that contribute to Beijing’s rising power.

Logan is correct that there is a fundamental contradiction in the hawkish camp—and to a significant extent in current US policy. If China is a potential strategic challenger to the United States, much less a potential outright adversary and security threat, it does not seem to make sense to maintain an economic relationship that strengthens that challenger.  Conversely, if America wants to preserve the extensive economic relationship, it may have to accept the erosion of its status as the dominant power in East Asia, and perhaps beyond.

At a minimum, US leaders and members of the foreign policy community need to acknowledge that the dilemma exists. There are some hard policy choices ahead, and they can’t be avoided indefinitely.