Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

May 12, 2015 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaMeeting China Halfway

Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

Book Excerpt: An important new work offers important ideas on how to defuse the emerging U.S.-China rivalry. 

Editors Note: The following is the introductory chapter from frequent TNI contributor Lyle Goldstein's new book Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging U.S.-China Rivalry. Copyright 2015 Georgetown University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Goldstein is the author of TNI's occasional essay series "Dragoneye" which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs​. You can read all essays from the series here

Reversing the Escalation Spiral: More than six decades have now passed since young Lieutenant John Yancey of the Seventh Marine Infantry Regiment watched half his platoon mowed down by Chinese bullets on an obscure ridge in Northeast Asia. He turned to his surviving men and said: “Stand fast and die like Marines.” More than one thousand fellow Americans would perish in the frozen onslaught of the Chosin Reservoir campaign in late 1950. That battle was not supposed to happen. Two weeks earlier, Far East commander General Douglas MacArthur had assured President Harry Truman in a face-to-face meeting on Wake Island that the chance of Chinese military intervention in the Korean War was “very small,” despite high-level warnings from Beijing that US forces crossing the 38th Parallel represented a “menace to the security of China.”1

As US-China rivalry continues to build a dangerous momentum in our own time, it will be important for those interested in the future of this crucial relationship to somberly reflect on the roughly 35,000 Americans killed in the Korean War—the first and only major US-China conflagration.2 They may also consider that in the fall of 1950, “no one in the Pentagon, the State Department, or the White House took [Chinese warnings] any more seriously than MacArthur did.” 3 Today, similar warnings are worryingly common in Chinese discourse on strategic affairs.4 The Cold War and related ideological struggles are now long past, of course, but the potential for a US-China military conflict has increased markedly in the past ten years and now encompasses scenarios ranging from the South China Sea, to the East China Sea, back to the Korean Peninsula, and even into the Indian Ocean and much further afield. In comparing the present era of geopolitical rivalry with the early Cold War, however, one difference is most prominent. In 1950 the United States was at the apex of its strength, and China had been gravely weakened by decades of war and internal turmoil. Today the United States confronts a China that is vastly strengthened. The concomitant risks, therefore, are that much greater. Indeed, given the strength of both powers, a military conflict today between China and the United States could resemble not so much the “limited” Korean War but the even graver tragedy of World War I, which has been the subject of so much discussion during its recent centenary.

Scholars who research US-China relations on both sides of the Pacific are nearly universal in concluding that such a catastrophic conflict today is far from inevitable. But what they have not done thus far is to provide concrete intellectual paradigms and accompanying policy proposals to lead this troubled relationship away from the brink of disaster. Therefore, this book seeks to be dramatically different from any other in the field in its treatment of US-China relations, by explicitly focusing on how to realize new paths to bilateral cooperation via “cooperation spirals”—the opposite of an escalation spiral. One hundred policy proposals are made throughout the chapters of this book, not because these are the only solutions to arresting the alarming course toward conflict, but rather to inaugurate a genuine debate regarding policy solutions to the most vexing problems in bilateral relations.

At present, unfortunately, the two nations’ rivalry continues to unfold across geopolitical, economic, and even cultural realms and is now extant in all corners of the globe. As China seeks to pursue its “New Silk Road Strategy” with a raft of new projects and initiatives, American strategists might do well to reflect on the obvious fact that China’s new “lean to the west,” in part at least, seems to reflect a disposition not to “lean to the east,” an alternative that would have meant seeking to meet the American rebalance directly in East Asia but was ultimately rejected. Beijing thus appears to be intentionally avoiding a kind of “head-on” collision by focusing China’s energies in a different direction. However, strategists with a zero-sum disposition are all but certain to try to conjure up a clever series of strategic countermoves to prevent the growth of Chinese influence in Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. The author has had the unique opportunity to witness firsthand, in both Washington and Beijing, the intense fear and loathing that drive zero-sum mentalities in both countries and the competitive and increasingly dangerous policies that have resulted. Of course, the combination of the “balance of financial terror” with the “balance of nuclear terror” thankfully lends considerable ballast to the relationship. But it would be foolhardy in the extreme to rely on these largely hypothetical shock absorbers to prevent a catastrophe. Moreover, the rivalry between the United States and China not only carries the risks of conventional or even nuclear warfare but, apart from these most obvious risks, also bears the immensely costly burdens of an arms race and proxy conflicts below the threshold of direct hostilities. And then there are the opportunity costs of this rivalry—in crucial areas, such as responses to nuclear proliferation or pandemic outbreaks—where cooperative opportunities have, far too often, been crowded out by the tendency toward rivalry. Of late, the US-China rivalry has been eclipsed, at least in the headlines, by tensions in US-Russian relations resulting from the 2014 crisis in Ukraine. But this trend is not likely to be durable since Russia is hardly strong enough to compete against the West on its own. The same cannot be said of China.

Within five years, if it has not already occurred, China’s economy will surpass that of the United States in size. And China has steadily improved its military prowess and weapons technology, such that it has even moved ahead of the US military in certain domains, for example, the not insignificant area of antiship cruise missiles.5 The ideological factor in the bilateral relationship, moreover, which pits democratic and market principles against authoritarian state capitalism, has the frequent effect of spraying gasoline over already-red-hot coals. A rather typical, ideologically tinged American analysis of the strategic dilemma posed by China’s rise ends as follows: “Only a fully democratic China would undoubtedly seek to . . . maximize the happiness of the population rather than [its] . . . own power.”6 In other words, the dilemma, as understood by many if not most Americans, can be resolved only if China embraces American values and institutions. But might there be other ways to mitigate the two countries’ “natural” tendency toward rivalry, with its myriad costs and dangers?

A spring 2011 Brookings Institution report by Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi marked an important reality check for observers of US-China relations. Their dismaying conclusion revealed that relations were plagued with “strategic distrust,” despite more than sixty bilateral dialogues intended to foster greater trust. In explaining the Chinese perspective on strategic distrust, Wang reports candidly that “some high-ranking officials have openly stated that the United States is China’s greatest national security threat. This perception is widely shared in China’s defense and security establishments and in the Communist Party’s ideological organizations.” Lieberthal likewise offers a similarly suspicious American perspective: “Americans . . . worry . . . that China seeks to displace the United States as Number 1, and [Beijing] views US-China relations in fundamentally zero-sum terms.” This book adopts and seeks to carry forward several recommendations made in Lieberthal and Wang’s path-breaking report, but it also draws inspiration from their attempt “to spark creative thinking.”7

The June 2013 meeting of presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California illustrated the top-level recognition on both sides that the bilateral relationship is evolving in troubling directions. The concept of the meeting—that the two leaders would spend extended “free time,” without a formal agenda or large groups of advisers— was undoubtedly positive. As one wise commentary on the Sunnylands summit observed: “It is extraordinary that the leaders of the world’s two great powers meet so rarely in this way,” and further noted that “it is easy to mock the idea of meetings for the sake of meetings,” but quite correctly concluded that personal trust between the leaders could amply facilitate much-needed diplomatic breakthroughs and also help mitigate the most severe crises.8 A breakthrough of sorts could even be seen in President Xi’s proposed “新型大国关系” (new-type major power relations). Although many will undoubtedly criticize the term as frustratingly lacking in specific frameworks regarding how to proceed, what the term does usefully provide is a strong recognition that, on one hand, the relationship is of supreme importance to both powers and indeed to the world. On the other hand, and perhaps even more important, the term illustrates the clear understanding by Beijing of the inherent dangers of unbridled great power competition and the imperative, therefore, to break with patterns of past great power rivalries.9 Since the Sunnylands summit, a string of positive, albeit small-scale joint activities has been undertaken by the US and Chinese armed forces. And yet troubling military confrontations have also continued—for example, in December 2013, involving warships from the two countries in the South China Sea; and in August 2014, involving US and Chinese military aircraft over the East China Sea. Regrettably, US-China relations are still lacking fundamental stability. A second major Obama-Xi summit occurred in November 2014 in Beijing. Encouragingly, this meeting seemed to yield some tangible results in key areas, such as carbon emissions, trade, easing visa requirements, and military confidence-building. President Xi said that “a pool begins with many drops of water,” while President Obama remarked that “when the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively, the whole world benefits.”