Are China and America Destined to Clash?

Almost all of China's foreign-policy options would lead to more conflict with America—and vice versa.

The paramount question looming over twenty-first century international politics is: will the United States and China get along?

Most national-security experts express guarded optimism. Although rising powers have historically clashed with their established rivals—adopting revisionist foreign policies to secure more influence, territory, or status—this time, people say, is different. China is a major stakeholder in the current economic order and has no reason to overthrow the very system that has allowed it to grow rich and powerful. The regional maritime disputes that do exist—over small uninhabitable islets—may arouse emotions but do not demonstrate a deep revisionist streak in Beijing. In short, a status quo Washington and a status quo Beijing need not clash.

But pondering the future of East Asia—and great power relations—in terms of whether China will adopt a “status-quo” or “revisionist” grand strategy obscures the real sources of Sino-American conflict. It ignores the range of options available to Beijing, and it pins the future on China’s strategic decisions alone.

In reality, the tenor of great-power relations in the coming decades will depend on the interaction of U.S. and Chinese foreign policies—which collide to a far greater degree than is frequently acknowledged. In fact, smooth relations between the United States and China will only be possible in the unlikely event that China adopts an extremely docile national-security strategy, or in the equally unlikely event that the United States cedes its dominant position in the Western Pacific.

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Beijing has a broader array of options than the categories “status quo” or “revisionist” imply. What is striking, however, is that all but one of its options put Beijing and Washington on a collision course.

At one extreme, China might continue its rise as an economic powerhouse without substantially enhancing its military might, and without seeking to alter the international order in East Asia or the world.

The logic of this “Rich Nation, Weak Army” strategy is straightforward: China has enjoyed spectacular economic success for four decades while pursuing Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of strategic restraint—so why rock the boat now? Foreign-policy restraint has allowed China to focus on its homeland security, prioritize butter over guns, and benefit from the fact that other countries—particularly the United States—have borne the costs of protecting the global order. Continuing this modest strategy would help reassure Beijing’s wary neighbors, minimize the odds of conflict with the United States, and allow Beijing to concentrate on China’s many domestic challenges (social, demographic, environmental, and institutional).

According to this grand strategy, Beijing would pursue its foreign policy goals through multilateral institutions and posture its military for modest and internationally sanctioned missions such as peacekeeping, disaster relief and antipiracy operations. Its national-security policy and military would be akin to that of Australia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Skeptics might note that this strategy entails, de facto, relying upon the United States to ensure global order and protect China’s interests. True; but modern China has never been able to defend its airspace or coastal waters from the major military powers, let alone project military power far from its shores. And yet it has prospered.

Alternatively, Beijing might choose a strategy that reflects its emergence as the major regional power in East Asia. An accommodating version of a regionally focused strategy would seek to establish China as a major East Asian military power—while not changing the region’s political and economic order. China would not become expansionist, overturn the existing liberal economic system, or try to expel the U.S. military from the region. Rather, the goals of this strategy are modest and the logic is straightforward: although the current liberal order is good for Beijing—and should continue—it is natural that a great power such as China be able to defend itself and its interests in its own backyard.

In a more assertive version of this regional strategy, China would seek to become not just a major regional power, but also the dominant one. This would not necessarily be accomplished through conquest or coercion; instead, Beijing would simply generate so much economic influence and military might that it would become obvious to the countries of East Asia that there is one natural leader of the region—and it is China. China's growing military capabilities would convince other East Asian countries that the United States could no longer reliably protect them. The goal: to ensure that the countries of East Asia begin to look to Beijing—even with gritted teeth—much as the countries in Eastern Europe look to Moscow, and those in Latin America look to Washington. In the long term, China would establish its own informal Monroe Doctrine: while of course other countries’ ships would be welcome to sail through regional sea lanes, foreign military bases operated by regional outsiders would be as unwelcome in East Asia as they are now in the Americas.

To implement either version of this regional strategy, China would build the air and naval forces to control the airspace and waters out to a few hundred miles from the Chinese coast, and to project military power throughout maritime East Asia. Beijing would likely seek allies in the region to host Chinese military forces. The more assertive version would require the same sort of military forces—just more of them.

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