China and America are bound to be rivals, but they do not have to be antagonists
Dec 2nd 2010 | from PRINT EDITION
TOWARDS the end of 2003 and early in 2004 China’s most senior leaders put aside the routine of governing 1.3 billion people to spend a couple of afternoons studying the rise of great powers. You can imagine history’s grim inventory of war and destruction being laid out before them as they examined how, from the 15th century, empires and upstarts had often fought for supremacy. And you can imagine them moving on to the real subject of their inquiry: whether China will be able to take its place at the top without anyone resorting to arms.
In many ways China has made efforts to try to reassure an anxious world. It has repeatedly promised that it means only peace. It has spent freely on aid and investment, settled border disputes with its neighbours and rolled up its sleeves in UN peacekeeping forces and international organisations. When North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month China did at least try to create a framework to rein in its neighbour.
But reasonable China sometimes gives way to aggressive China. In March, when the North sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, China failed to issue any condemnation. A few months later it fell out with Japan over some Chinese fishermen, arrested for ramming Japanese coastguard vessels around some disputed islands—and then it locked up some Japanese businessmen and withheld exports of rare earths vital for Japanese industry. And it has forcefully reasserted its claim to the Spratly and Paracel Islands and to sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea.
As the Chinese leaders’ history lesson will have told them, the relationship that determines whether the world is at peace or at war is that between pairs of great powers. Sometimes, as with Britain and America, it goes well. Sometimes, as between Britain and Germany, it does not.
So far, things have gone remarkably well between America and China. While China has devoted itself to economic growth, American security has focused on Islamic terrorism and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the two mistrust each other. China sees America as a waning power that will eventually seek to block its own rise. And America worries about how Chinese nationalism, fuelled by rediscovered economic and military might, will express itself (see our special report).
The Peloponnesian pessimists
Pessimists believe China and America are condemned to be rivals. The countries’ visions of the good society are very different. And, as China’s power grows, so will its determination to get its way and to do things in the world. America, by contrast, will inevitably balk at surrendering its pre-eminence.
They are probably right about Chinese ambitions. Yet China need not be an enemy. Unlike the Soviet Union, it is no longer in the business of exporting its ideology. Unlike the 19th-century European powers, it is not looking to amass new colonies. And China and America have a lot in common. Both benefit from globalisation and from open markets where they buy raw materials and sell their exports. Both want a broadly stable world in which nuclear weapons do not spread and rogue states, like Iran and North Korea, have little scope to cause mayhem. Both would lose incalculably from war.
The best way to turn China into an opponent is to treat it as one. The danger is that spats and rows will sour relations between China and America, just as the friendship between Germany and Britain crumbled in the decades before the first world war. It is already happening in defence. Feeling threatened by American naval power, China has been modernising its missiles, submarines, radar, cyber-warfare and anti-satellite weapons. Now America feels on its mettle. Recent Pentagon assessments of China’s military strength warn of the threat to Taiwan and American bases and to aircraft-carriers near the Chinese coast. The US Navy has begun to deploy more forces in the Pacific. Feeling threatened anew, China may respond. Even if neither America nor China intended harm—if they wanted only to ensure their own security—each could nevertheless see the other as a growing threat.
Some would say the solution is for America to turn its back on military rivalry. But a weaker America would lead to chronic insecurity in East Asia and thus threaten the peaceful conduct of trade and commerce on which America’s prosperity depends. America therefore needs to be strong enough to guarantee the seas and protect Taiwan from Chinese attack.
How to take down the Great Wall
History shows that superpowers can coexist peacefully when the rising power believes it can rise unhindered and the incumbent power believes that the way it runs the world is not fundamentally threatened. So a military build-up needs to be accompanied by a build-up of trust.
There are lots of ways to build trust in Asia. One would be to help ensure that disputes and misunderstandings do not get out of hand. China should thus be more open about its military doctrine—about its nuclear posture, its aircraft-carriers and missile programme. Likewise, America and China need rules for disputes including North Korea (see article), Taiwan, space and cyber-warfare. And Asia as a whole needs agreements to help prevent every collision at sea from becoming a trial of strength.
America and China should try to work multilaterally. Instead of today’s confusion of competing venues, Asia needs a single regional security forum, such as the East Asia Summit, where it can do business. Asian countries could also collaborate more in confidence-boosting non-traditional security, such as health, environmental protection, anti-piracy and counter-terrorism, where threats by their nature cross borders.
If America wants to bind China into the rules-based liberal order it promotes, it needs to stick to the rules itself. Every time America breaks them—by, for instance, protectionism—it feeds China’s suspicions and undermines the very order it seeks.
China and America have one advantage over history’s great-power pairings: they saw the 20th century go disastrously wrong. It is up to them to ensure that the 21st is different.