The Dance of Superpowers

us-china-relations-pivot

(Photo: Wikipedia)

By now, the phrase “Pacific Pivot” gives off a whiff of nostalgia.

The Obama administration’s announcement of its intention three years ago to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia seems to belong to an entirely different era. It was a time when the United States had the luxury to think geopolitically: to craft long-term policies rather than simply respond to immediate crises. The United States was drawing down its engagement in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, considering significant reductions in Pentagon spending, and focusing more and more on domestic issues such as the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. It seemed as good a time as any for the United States to pursue the long-cherished goal of shifting its post-Cold War emphasis away from protecting Europe and securing access to Middle East oil to tapping the rich markets of Asia and checking a rising China.

Since then, of course, the Obama administration has been blindsided by one global crisis after another: the leadership crisis in Afghanistan, the civil war in Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea, renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the rapid growth of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The presidency has been forced by circumstance to refocus on foreign policy. But this focus itself has a focus. President Obama faces pressure from allies and domestic critics to reengage in the traditional arc of crisis familiar to students of geopolitics from the late 1970s, a zone that stretches from what had once been the Soviet Union through southwest Asia and into the Middle East and North Africa.

China is not part of this arc of crisis, either geographically or conceptually. For all the challenges it poses to U.S. hegemony in the world, China does not behead journalists, seize the territory of other countries, or rain missiles down on obstreperous regions on its borders. Its Cultural Revolution long behind it, China now behaves like most other large states. It is, in other words, largely predictable in its actions. And, like other superpowers, China It has global ambitions, which the United States is even willing to encourage where they intersect with U.S. national interests, namely on the global economy, anti-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, peacekeeping, and a handful of other issues.

These intersecting global interests were on display in the latest encounter between the leaders of the two countries this month in Beijing. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping bumped up their global cooperation by concluding an agreement on climate change that may provide a model for breaking the deadlock between developing and industrialized countries on reducing carbon emissions. The agreement is only a modest first step, and obviously Beijing and Washington do not see eye to eye fully on even the issues where their interests intersect. But as this agreement demonstrates, the United States wants China at the table for discussions of the big-picture problems. In her trip to China in September, to prepare for the president’s visit, National Security Advisor Susan Rice put it succinctly: “most major global challenges of [the] 21st century cannot be addressed effectively without U.S. and China working together.”

What the United States does not tolerate, however, are China’s regional ambitions.

This is, of course, not absolute. Washington doesn’t care so much about Chinese energy plans in the Russian Far East. It’s when China’s regional ambitions conflict with those of the United States and its allies that talk of containment becomes more pronounced inside the Beltway. Chinese conflict with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and with the cluster of countries that encircle the South China Sea, which escalated in the spring of 2014, raised warning bells in Washington. Suddenly, the U.S. media was writing about hypothetical military clashes between the United States and China. The concern was acute, and it centered on various contested islands. But it was also part of a larger U.S. preoccupation that China’s “peaceful rise” had taken a martial turn.

Since then, China has pulled back from its more assertive positions, and the Obama administration has moderated its rhetoric. Even the clash in mid-August over a Chinese intercept of a U.S. surveillance flight did not derail the preparations for President Obama to visit China in November. U.S. pundits have sought to make a distinction between the frontal assault that Putin has made on a U.S.-centered global order and what Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl has called “the more patient and subtle” challenge mounted by China. The bottom line is that the Obama administration, assailed on all sides by global crises, needs China’s help, even if Washington continues to eye Beijing with caution.

Here then is the central paradox of U.S.-China relations. As a result of various global crises, the two countries are engaged in a dance of global partnership in which the two tightly embrace or wriggle warily in tandem at a distance, depending on the background music. At the same time, where there is overlap in the perceived spheres of influence—namely, across large swathes of East Asia—the music stops and the two countries argue over who calls the tune.

The U.S.-China relationship, then, is nearly the exactly opposite of what prevailed in U.S.-Soviet relations when Moscow and Washington had only negligible cooperation at the global level but generally tolerated what took place within each other’s spheres of influence. Over the next decade the challenge for diplomats in both countries is to prevent the disagreements at a regional level from destroying the global partnership and to bring some of the music of concord into relations in East Asia as well.

Global Partnership

The Chinese dream, as Orville Schell and John Delury persuasively argue, has been to recapture the wealth and power of dynasties past.

When he became Communist Party chief at the end of 2012, Xi Jinping expressed this 200-year-old aspiration in his “China has a dream” speech. The dream consisted of four parts: a China that is strong, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful. When it comes to foreign policy, most observers focus on the first pillar, that is, to double per capita income by 2020, strengthen national security, and act fully as a global power. In the lead-up to the recent APEC summit in Beijing, Xi offered to export this dream to the region through a $40-billion Silk Road Fund, with both land and sea components, that will finance an infrastructure upgrade in and around China.

On the major issues of wealth and power, the United States and China have found some common ground. For instance, the United States is as eager as the Chinese leadership to see the Chinese economy continue to grow. True, the United States is distinctly unhappy about what it perceives to be an uneven playing field for American business, Beijing’s dubious approach to intellectual property rights, and an industrial policy that privileges state enterprises. Much of the tension in U.S. policy results from conflict between the administration and Congress. The latter takes a more skeptical view of China, for instance on the issue of IMF reform, in which Republicans in Congress have opposed the administration’s efforts to give China, among other countries, greater say in the financial institution.

But these pale in comparison to the sheer U.S. dependency on China. Beijing owns more than a trillion dollars in U.S. debt, and it accelerated its purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds at a record pace in 2014. This simultaneously boosts Chinese exports (by keeping the value of the yuan low) and keeps the U.S. housing market strong (by depressing U.S. interest rates). The United States also depends on Chinese manufacturers and consumers to sustain bilateral trade and the global economy more generally. Although the rate of U.S. growth is edging up and that of China dipping down, Washington still calls on Beijing to help keep the levels of trade and foreign investment high, which China also needs to do for a variety of reasons, including regime stability.

To the extent that Washington has adjusted its economic lens to accommodate the threat of climate change and resource depletion, it has also welcomed Xi Jinping’s emphasis on sustainable growth over growth at any cost (though it’s unclear whether Beijing can impose this approach on the provinces). The problem is that the two countries still don’t quite see eye to eye on reducing carbon emissions. China has introduced some regional caps on emissions, but the country remains the main driver behind rising levels of greenhouse gas levels. And with the economic crisis behind it, the United States is registering its own recent increases in emissions. The recent agreement in Beijing identifies a date by which China will peak in its carbon emissions (2030, though Beijing will aim for 2025) and accelerates emission cuts in the United States, particularly after 2020. It has narrowed the gap between the positions of the two countries but, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite put them on the same page.

The issue of military power—in other words, “security questions”—also offers several overlapping interests. One of these is counterterrorism. China has coordinated counterterrorism policies with the United States ever since September 11. It is increasingly concerned about separatism in Xinjiang and the connections between domestic terrorists and international terrorist organizations. So far, this hasn’t translated into Chinese support for the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. China continues to adhere, at least formally, to a non-intervention policy. But as it discovers links between the Islamic State and Chinese nationals, China may very well change its mind. China’s significant energy interests in Iraq may also influence its decision.

China and the United States, both members of the nuclear club, are also very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear material and weapons. The two countries have cooperated on fashioning a multilateral response to North Korea’s nuclear program, though the Six Party Talks have produced only minimal results. There is perennial speculation in Washington policy circles that Beijing is on the verge of abandoning its alliance with Pyongyang. But while nonproliferation is the central issue in U.S.-North Korean relations, it is not the priority between China and its erstwhile ally, for they have important economic ties, border issues, and some residual geopolitical coordination. China has also supported negotiations to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions—but here too other factors, such as commercial relations and even arms sales, shape Beijing’s relations with Tehran.

Until recently, China did not aspire to the kind of global diplomatic role that the United States has played in the post-World War II era. But that has begun to change, as China’s economic engagement around the world has steadily grown. In May 2013, Xi Jinping announced that he would take the lead in negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian settlement by inviting both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to China. They both came, but to separate cities and never met. China has become the leading trade partner for most Latin American countries, and that has swelled support for China’s positions at the United Nations. And while the Obama administration made a big deal about bringing together African leaders in Washington in August, China has been doing exactly this on a triennial basis for the last decade.

But the more significant challenge to the U.S. global role is geo-economic. This summer, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) agreed to set up a development bank headquartered in Shanghai. Although the leaders pledge to work in tandem with the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, IMF), this New Development Bank could very well offer a rival approach to development that emphasizes the state’s role in managing the market. The bank will be financed with an initial $100 billion, and the currency of operations will be the Chinese yuan. China has long been unhappy that its voting power at the Bretton Woods institutions does not reflect its economic power. Now it has joined forces with other countries that want to level the global playing field—at the expense primarily of the United States, which enjoys disproportionate influence in the Bretton Woods institutions and through the use of the dollar as the global currency.

The most intriguing realm of U.S.-Chinese cooperation is military to military. In June 2013, after Obama met Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in California, military officials from the two countries met four times and identified eight different areas of potential cooperation. The most significant fruit of these discussions was China’s participation in 2014 RIMPAC exercises off Hawaii this summer. The invitation was not universally welcomed by U.S. politicians. “Given Beijing’s belligerent behavior towards its neighbors across the Asia-Pacific in recent months, it gives me pause they would be rewarded with the opportunity to participate in such a prestigious exercise,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA). Here, too, Congress has taken a more skeptical view of China than the administration has. It is important for China to understand the difficulties for any U.S. administration in developing a unified policy toward Beijing.

Talk of a G-2 working out the problems of the world has largely faded. But there are still plenty of opportunities for the United States and China to coordinate policies to initiate a major breakthrough on global issues, whether it’s climate change or counterterrorism. The space on the dance floor has opened up in the middle, and the two countries have been invited to join hands for a dance. But there remains the problem of who calls the tune in East Asia.

Regional Confrontation

The chief element that prevents the United States and China from having a more robust global partnership—apart from the usual existential rivalry that hegemons experience—is the pattern of confrontation that takes place in East Asia.

The United States has a set of bilateral alliances (with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines), a military commitment to the defense of Taiwan, and a stated security interest in preserving access to sea lanes that run through the region. During the Cold War, Washington built up an unrivalled military presence in the region in support of these objectives. But it also aspires to maintain a balance of power by restraining its allies and ensuring that certain red lines— the Taiwan Strait and the 38th Parallel among them — remain intact. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and the further development of China’s military capabilities, the United States has refined this strategy — evolving away from fixed bases, developing Air-Sea Battle, launching the Pacific Pivot — but without changing any of the fundamental aims.

The United States has been reluctant to change the terms of engagement with China in East Asia. For instance, ever since the Hainan Island incident in 2001, many experts have argued that the United States doesn’t need to run surveillance flights near Chinese borders because it can get sufficient intelligence from satellites, submarines, and ground surveillance. But Washington hasn’t wanted to send the wrong signal to Beijing and indicate weakness, even if cutting back on the flights — which is what China has asked for — would improve the overall bilateral relationship. The United States has continued to maintain that the flights are necessary because of the “lack of transparency in China’s military modernization.”

The tensions in East Asia are not simply the result of the United States refusing to alter its post-Cold War stance in the region. China’s maximalist claims to islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea—and its moves to assert these claims—have presented the United States with a golden opportunity to strengthen relations with existing allies and make new friends. The United States has long encouraged Japan to break out of the constraints of its “peace constitution,” and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has accelerated this trend. Washington has pushed Seoul to take a warier view of Chinese military developments, and the much debated new South Korean naval base on Jeju Island will offer new missile defense and surveillance opportunities. The United States and the Philippines have negotiated a new basing agreement. Vietnam has been coordinating its security policy more closely with the United States. And even Malaysia, which has traditionally enjoyed good relations with China, agreed recently to host U.S. spy planes.

The United States has inserted itself into the middle of the South China Sea conflict. At the most recent ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Burma in August, Secretary of State John Kerry offered a U.S. proposal to “freeze” potentially provocative actions such as setting up oil rigs in contested waters. China rejected not only the proposal but the very idea that the United States should be involved in the imbroglio. The United States has also supported the Philippine effort to bring its dispute with China to the arbitration court associated with the International Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), something China has also rejected.

Washington has been disingenuous. It has presented itself as an honest broker in a situation in which it clearly has taken sides—with traditional allies such as the Philippines and with new partners like Vietnam. This is, of course, nothing particularly new in U.S. foreign policy (compare Washington’s efforts to be an honest broker in the Middle East even as it pours money into the Israeli military). But if the United States believes in multilateral solutions in the region, it should step back from its own unilateral role and support existing multilateral mechanisms and institutions.

“In contrast to previous administrations, the Obama administration has dismissed China’s legitimate security interests in its border regions, including even those that are not vital to U.S. security,” concludes China watcher Robert Ross. “By threatening China and challenging its sovereignty claims over symbolic territories, Washington has encouraged Chinese leaders to believe that only by adopting belligerent policies will a rising China be able to guarantee its security. Herein lies the great irony of the pivot: a strategy that was meant to check a rising China has sparked its combativeness and damaged its faith in cooperation.”

The low-level conflict extends into the trade realm. Both China and the United States have reacted to the failure of multilateral trade talks by pursuing regional and bilateral trade agreements. The United States has been pushing for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Theoretically, China could join the TPP. But it might have difficulty meeting the requirements. In the meantime, if the TPP goes ahead without China, it will cost the country dearly. One study shows that TPP will reduce China’s GDP by as much as $28 billion by 2020 and $47 billion by 2025. China, meanwhile, has concluded an FTA with ASEAN, for instance, and has worked to fold new sectors into this agreement. It has also been pushing its more ambitious Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which has already picked up support from export giant South Korea.

The United States and its partners are generally comfortable with what they perceived to be the status quo in the region. China is not. It has steadily built up its economic power through trade and investment with its Asian neighbors. It has accepted U.S. military presence in the region, and even welcomed it to the extent that it has put a brake on the military ambitions of U.S. allies. But now that these allies have acquired greater independence and have undertaken their own large-scale military modernizations, China perceives the status quo as increasingly threatening, and it is unenthusiastic about the U.S. regional strategy of building up the independence and capabilities of its allies.

The current security mechanisms in the region are incapable of handling the many conflicts that have sprung up. A G-2 is not in the offing. So, what can we expect from the future, if not more of the same?

Multilateralism of the Unwilling?

Both the United States and China have an inconstant relationship with multilateralism.

As large powerful countries, they prefer to negotiate bilaterally, for they can more easily and predictably obtain their objectives in this manner. China’s foreign policy leadership, writes Wang Yizhou, is “not familiar with or fond of using international practices or norms (including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). They are not skillful at creating win-win results through multilateral regimes; they would rather choose bilateral negotiations that may give them a possible advantage.” The U.S. foreign policy leadership is perhaps more adept at achieving such win-win results, particularly under the current administration. But it is reluctant to cede authority in East Asia, for it does not want to appear to give ground to an increasingly powerful China.

The United States complains that China does not act like a responsible stakeholder. China complains that the United States acts unilaterally when it can’t achieve what it wants multilaterally. Both criticisms have merit.

Both countries also pursue “multilateralism of the willing.” The United States establishes multilateral frameworks among its allies, for instance trilateral coordination with Japan and South Korea. China has pushed for similar structures, whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the new mechanisms connected to the BRICS.

The challenge for East Asia, of course, is achieving a “multilateralism of the unwilling.”

The Six Party Talks were just such a structure, for they included countries with very different perspectives. Ultimately they failed to achieve the desired results—namely North Korean denuclearization and the establishment of a regional security mechanism. But they serve as a model for how disparate countries in the region can achieve at least interim agreements. A better example, but from outside the region, would be the Cold War-era Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. The United States and Soviet Union were engaged in bilateral arms control talks in the 1970s. The OSCE, meanwhile, became the forum that addressed the full range of multilateral questions that the Cold War generated (borders, human rights, economic exchanges).

China and the United States may continue the current trend of closer bilateral cooperation on global issues. Some of that cooperation may even spill into regional relations, as it did at the recent summit when the two sides agreed to provide prior notification of military exercises in the Asia-Pacific. But Congress and the election cycle in the United States often undo whatever cooperation the leaders of the two countries manage to achieve.

So, even as the two countries aim for but never reach a G-2 arrangement, the best way to maintain global coordination and overcome regional rivalry would be by setting up a “multilateralism of the unwilling” in East Asia to manage disputes between large and small powers. Both the United States and China will have to compromise in order to achieve this result, for they both would prefer to play it safe with bilateralism. But playing it safe—in a region of rising military spending and aggressive posturing—is no longer a safe option for either China or the United States.

An earlier version of this essay was given as a paper at a conference in Seoul, South Korea, on relations with China sponsored by Wonkwang University. The author would like to thank Dennis Florig for his comments.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus