Check out other comments in this series from: Graham Allison, Gordon G. Chang, David Denoon, Michael Fabey, John Glaser, James Holmes, Lin Gang, Kishore Mahbubani, Robert Ross, Ruan Zongze, Robert Sutter, Xie Tao, Xu Feibiao and Wang Jisi.
David Denoon, Professor of Politics and Economics at NYU’s Department of Politics and editor of China, The United States, and the Future of Southeast Asia:
The current downturn in U.S.-China relations began in 2007. The George W. Bush administration was so preoccupied with Iraq, and the Middle East more generally, plus its frustrations with the Six Party Talks on North Korea, that it failed to respond adequately as China became more assertive in the 2007-08 period.
In that period the Chinese government recognized that it could exert pressure on its neighbors without producing a sharp response from Washington. The initial signs of Chinese aggressiveness were in harassment of the Japanese over territorial claims in the East China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
The Obama administration began its Asia policy with a flourish, announcing the ‘Pivot to Asia’ and a ‘Rebalancing,’ implying a greater military and economic commitment to Asia than had been given by Bush. Although the ideas underlying the rebalancing were admirable, the follow-up was unimpressive.
Then a downward spiral began as the Obama administration proved indecisive. A weak response to the Arab Spring, vacillation over Libya, and the failure to respond when the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own population all contributed to a sense of weakness in Washington. The Chinese used the moment to press ahead with a more assertive policy in the South China Sea. Also, by 2009, the seriousness of the financial crisis in the United States was being understood, and it led many Chinese to conclude that the U.S. style of economic management was undercutting American strength. Thus, the combination of a flaccid foreign policy and economic turmoil created an ideal situation for the Chinese to be assertive.
Shortly thereafter, the Chinese proceeded with the occupation and militarization of seven atolls in the South China Sea and ignored the ruling against this occupation by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. This also led to a split among the Southeast Asian states with Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia essentially aligning with China. Subsequently the Philippines began its current game of trying to keep its treaty with the U.S. while trying to extract more aid and trade from China. The Chinese also launched a series of new institutions and programs (The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, and the Belt and Road Initiative) designed to link their economy with their neighbors.
This is not a story which appears likely to end with all the parties living happily ever after. The key variable will be China’s economic growth rate. If China can continue to grow annually at 6 percent or more, the attractions of its market and its aid will make it harder and harder to get its neighbors to resist Beijing’s blandishments. If China’s growth rate slows, however, that will provide more opportunities for the U.S., Japan, and India.
China is not currently capable of directly challenging the U.S. militarily, so we are likely to face a situation of long-term competition, not war. If the U.S. can deal with its budget and trade deficits and avoid getting involved in unnecessary wars, U.S.-China relations will be tense but manageable. If the U.S. mishandles its economy or appears to be withdrawing from Asia, then Beijing is likely to test American commitments and conflict is much more probable.