The U.S. strategy long has been geared against the rise of any hegemonic power in Asia and for a stable balance of power. Yet, as its 2006 national security strategy report acknowledges, the United States also remains committed to accommodate “the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and that cooperates with us to address common challenges and mutual interests.”
Can U.S. policy reconcile these two seemingly conflicting objectives? The short answer is yes.
The U.S., in fact, has played a key role in China’s rise. One example was the U.S. decision to turn away from trade sanctions against Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and instead integrate that country with global institutions – a major decision that allowed China to rise. Yet, paradoxically, many in the world today see China as America’s potential peer rival.
Often overlooked is the fact that U.S. policy has a long tradition of following a China-friendly approach.
In 1905, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt – who hosted the Japan-Russia peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after the war between the two countries – argued for the return of Manchuria to Manchu-ruled China and for a balance of power in East Asia. The Russo-Japanese War actually ended up making the U.S. an active participant in China’s affairs.
After the Communists seized power in China in 1949, the U.S. openly viewed Chinese Communism as benign and thus distinct from Soviet Communism. In more recent decades, U.S. policy has aided the integration and then ascension of Communist China, which began as an international pariah state.
It was the U.S. that helped turn China into the export juggernaut that it has become by outsourcing the production of cheap goods to it. Such manufacturing resulted in China accumulating massive trade surpluses and becoming the principal source of capital flows to the U.S.
America’s China policy has traversed three stages. In the first phase, America courted the Mao Zedong regime, despite its 1950-51 annexation of Tibet and its domestic witch hunts, such as the “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign. Disappointment with courtship led to estrangement, and U.S. policy then spent much of the 1960s seeking to isolate China.
The third phase began immediately after the 1969 Sino-Soviet bloody military clashes, as the U.S. actively sought to take advantage of the open rift between the two communist states to rope in China as an ally in its anti-Soviet strategy.
Even though the border clashes were clearly instigated by China, as the Pentagon later acknowledged, Washington sided with Beijing. That helped lay the groundwork for the China “opening” of 1970-71 engineered by Henry Kissinger, who had no knowledge of China until then.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. has followed a conscious policy to aid China’s rise – a policy approach that remains intact today, even as Washington seeks to hedge against the risks of Chinese power sliding into arrogance. The Carter White House, in fact, sent a memo to various U.S. departments instructing them to help in China’s rise.
In the second half of the Cold War, Washington and Beijing quietly forged close intelligence and other strategic cooperation, as belief grew in both capitals that the two countries were natural allies. Such cooperation survived the end of the Cold War. Even China’s 1996 firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait did not change the U.S. policy of promoting China’s rise, despite the consternation in Washington over the Chinese action.
If anything, the U.S. has been gradually withdrawing from its close links with Taiwan, with no U.S. Cabinet member visiting Taiwan since those missile maneuvers. Indeed, U.S. policy went on to acknowledge China’s “core interests” in Taiwan and Tibet in a 2009 joint communiqué with Beijing.
In this light, China’s spectacular economic success – illustrated by its emergence with the world’s biggest trade surplus and largest foreign-currency reserves – owes a lot to the U.S. policy from the 1970s, including Washington’s post-Tiananmen decision not to sustain trade sanctions.
Without the significant expansion in U.S.-Chinese trade and financial relations since the 1970s, China’s economic growth would have been much harder.
From being allies of convenience in the second half of the Cold War, the U.S. and China have emerged as partners tied together by close interdependence. America depends on Chinese trade surpluses and savings to finance its supersized budget deficits, while Beijing relies on its huge exports to the U.S. both to sustain its economic growth and subsidize its military modernization.
By plowing two-thirds of its mammoth foreign-currency reserves into U.S. dollar-denominated investments, Beijing has gained significant political leverage.
China thus is very different from the adversaries the U.S. has had in the past, like the Soviet Union and Japan. U.S. interests now are so closely intertwined with China that they virtually preclude a policy that seeks to either isolate or confront Beijing. Even on the democracy issue, the U.S. prefers to lecture some other dictatorships rather than the world’s largest and oldest-surviving autocracy.
Yet it is also true that the U.S. views with unease China’s not-too-hidden aim to dominate Asia – an objective that runs counter to U.S. security and commercial interests and to the larger U.S. goal for a balance in power in Asia.
To help avert such dominance, the U.S. has already started building countervailing influences and partnerships, without making any attempt to contain China. Where its interests converge with Beijing, the U.S. will continue to work closely with it. American academic John Garver, writing in the current issue of the Orbis journal, sees a de facto bargain between Washington and Beijing in the vast South Asia-Indian Ocean Region (SA-IOR): “Beijing accepts continuing U.S. pre-eminence in the SA-IOR in exchange for U.S. acceptance of a gradual, incremental and peaceful expansion of Chinese presence and influence in that region.”
For the U.S., China’s rising power helps to validate U.S. forward military deployments in the Asian theater, keep existing allies in Asia, and win new strategic partners. An increasingly assertive China indeed has proven a diplomatic boon for Washington in strengthening and expanding U.S. security arrangements in Asia.
South Korea has tightened its military alliance with the United States, Japan has backed away from a move to get the U.S. to move a marine airbase out of Okinawa, Singapore has allowed the stationing of U.S. Navy ships, Australia is hosting U.S. Marine and other deployments, and India, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others, have drawn closer to the U.S.
The lesson: The rise of a muscle-flexing power can help strengthen the relevance and role of a power in relative decline.
Let us not forget that barely a decade ago, the U.S. was beginning to feel marginalized in Asia because of several developments, including China’s “charm offensive.” It was worried about being shunted aside in Asia.
Today, America has returned firmly to the center-stage in Asia, prompting President Barack Obama to declare his much-ballyhooed “pivot” toward Asia. To lend strategic heft to the “pivot,” the U.S. is to redirect 60 percent of its battleships to the Pacific and 40 percent to the Atlantic by 2020, compared to the 50-50 split at present.
Despite the “pivot,” the U.S. intends to stick to its two-track approach in Asia – seek to maintain a balance of power with the help of its strategic allies and partners, while continuing to accommodate a rising China, including by reaching unpublicized bargains with it on specific issues and Asian subregions.
Brahma Chellaney is a prolific writer. He has authored “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).