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. 

Thucydides Trap

More than two thousand years ago, Thucydides explained how the Peloponnesian Wars resulted from the rapid growth of Sparta and the fear that this growth precipitated in Athens.53  Quite remarkably, this important historical analogy is now apparently being considered by the most senior Chinese foreign policy decision makers.54 From the experience of Athens and Sparta, as well as a plethora of other rivalries in history, the dominant realist paradigm has been developed to explain why major wars have accompanied the rise of new great powers. This theory has been justly criticized from a variety of perspectives, perhaps most effectively by David Kang, who characterizes realist theorizing as ethnocentric—that is, as overly based on the European experience and thus quite inapplicable to contemporary East Asia.55 Other intellectual traditions, including obviously various strands of liberal theorizing, call into question the dire realist prediction regarding China and the inevitable rivalry that it predicts. Even realist theorizing itself, on the margins at least, may provide some possibilities for mitigated power competition through enhanced security and deterrence. And yet the undercurrents of rivalry in US-China relations are deep and actually intensifying.

Confronted with intensifying rivalry, the United States faces certain stark choices. It can either seek to preserve the status quo of American global hegemony—necessitating a massive arms buildup and requiring more active and risky “brinkmanship” to hold rising powers firmly in check. Or it can assume the much more rational and practical vision of its original founders: preserving first and foremost its own security and the liberties of its citizens, adopting a demeanor that is slow to anger, and steadfastly refusing to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”56 Indeed, such monsters or dragons as lurk among the reefs and shoals of China’s proximate waters are actually no more worthy than those that haunt the footpaths of obscure valleys in Afghanistan. Those calling for the United States to maintain the utmost vigilance against challengers and to take up arms at the slightest affront must understand that the United States today is in a manifestly different position than was Britain when it was confronted with the aggressive Nazi regime in the late 1930s. In fact, the United States is immensely strong and has an almost unassailable strategic position. From this position of strength, Washington can afford to take the lead, demonstrating its maturity and taking brave risks for the sake of peace. As theorists who have considered the problem of “power transition” in world politics have concluded, “The goal is to embark on a long-term process of rapprochement that will eventually succeed in fostering the mutual attribution of benign character.”57 Such a process will benefit American security and prosperity most directly. The November 2014 Obama-Xi Summit in Beijing may hint at a positive turn in the relationship. The numerous agreements that emerged from that meeting suggest that both sides emphatically decided to prioritize pressing global problems such as climate change above petty and ultimately nonsensical disputes over reefs and shoals. Such farsighted statesmanship should be applauded and will hopefully initiate a much-needed trend in managing US-China relations.

In order to shift the daunting intellectual tide against rivalry and toward cooperation in pursuit of “peaceful systemic change,” scholars must climb down from the ivory tower and enter the realm of subjective argumentation and normative judgment. And they cannot do this armed only with elegant models and esoteric analyses. Rather, it is imperative for them to develop an academically defensible set of proposals—here presented in the form of “cooperation spirals.” In the pages that follow, ten separate cooperation spirals are elaborated, each with a graphic figure and text explaining the recommendations. The author readily admits that certain proposals require greater specificity, although this has been provided to the extent possible here, given space limitations. Also, the author in no way believes that just one set of steps should constitute these cooperation spirals, or that they should be limited to just a hundred steps in ten issue areas. Issue area experts are certainly welcome to propose superior cooperation spirals, with greater specificity, realism, and thus promise to improve the relationship. The book is thus intended to spark a debate and perhaps further research about how such spirals should be correctly structured—above all, to incorporate the principles of gradualism, reciprocity, fairness, and enforceability. The aim is to move bilateral diplomacy in this most crucial relationship beyond the red-faced wagging of fingers and the bland and seemingly useless recitation of well-worn talking points. A creative dialogue among scholars and strategists on both sides of the Pacific may seek to perfect these cooperation spirals with the ambitious goal of moving the relationship to a better place—enabling a modus vivendi built on the principles of negotiation and compromise that will undergird global peace and development in the decades and centuries to come.


1. This paragraph is drawn from Martin Russ, Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950 (New York: Penguin, 1999), 1–2, 31.

2. US Department of Veterans Affairs, “America’s Wars,”

3. Russ, Breakout, 2–3.

4. See, e.g., 郑明 [Zheng Ming, PLA Navy Admiral (ret.)], “钓鱼岛, 黄岩岛事件: 或可成为我国制定和实施海洋发展战 的一个切入点” [The Events Related to the Diaoyu and Huangyan Islands: How They Might Become Defining Points for Laying Out and Realizing Our Country’s Maritime Development Strategy], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], September 2012, 12–17: or more recently 何雷 [He Lei, PLA general] “反思甲午战争历史教训凝聚强军胜 战智慧力量” [Reflections on Historical Lessons of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and on Concentrating Wisdom Concerning Strengthening the Military for Gaining Victory] 中国军事科学 [China Military Science] (March 2014), 53.

5. See, e.g., John Patch, “Regain ASCM Standoff: Improve the Harpoon,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2010, 78–80.

6. Edward N. Luttwak, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 270.

7. Kenneth  Lieberthal  and  Wang  Jisi,  Addressing  US-China  Strategic  Distrust (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), xi, 13, 22.

8. “The Summit: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping Have a Chance to Recast This Century’s Most Important Bilateral Relationship,” The Economist, June 8, 2013, 11.

9. On Chinese studies of great power rivalries, see, e.g., Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle Goldstein, “China Studies the Rise of Great Powers,” in China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective, ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and Carnes Lord (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 401–25.

10. Patrick M. Cronin, “How to Deal with Chinese Assertiveness: It’s Time to Impose Costs,” National Interest, December 4, 2014,

11. Jane Perlez, “China’s ‘New Type’ of Ties Fails to Sway Obama,” New York Times, November 9, 2014 /chinas-new-type-of-ties-fails-to-sway-obama.html.

12. Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama and China’s Rise: An Inside Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 141.

13. Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 197–99, 269.

14. Ibid., 141.

15. Ibid., 183; see also 167.

16. Ibid., 35. See, e.g., Malik Singleton, “OECD Report Says China’s Economy Will Overtake the US by 2016,” International Business Times, March 13, 2013, available at; and “Rancho Eclipse: We Invite You to Predict When China’s Economy Will Overtake America’s,” The Economist, June 6, 2013,

17. Friedberg, Contest, 271–82.

18. Bader, Obama, 113, 116, 149–50.

19. Ibid., 29, 79.

20. Bader states that criticism of the Obama administration by Republicans was muted and attributes that to his “thorough grounding in US national interests”; Bader, Obama, 141. Further evidence of the right-wing turn in administration policy toward China is, e.g., a Heritage Foundation analyst heaping praise on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s approach to the South China Sea. See Walter Lohman, “Secretary Clinton’s Asia Trip: Keep the Pressure on South China Sea,” September 4, 2012, secretary-clintons-asia-tour-keep-the-pressure-on-south-china-sea/.

21. Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 522–27.

22. Ibid., 529.

23. Michael  D.  Swaine,  America’s  Challenge:  Engaging  a  Rising  China  in  the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011), 8, 15, 352.

24. James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the 21st Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 47, 148, 157.

25. Ibid., 71–73.

26. Ibid., 88, 93, 99, 183, 188.

27. Ibid., 203.

28. Ibid., 142–49.

29. Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 6, 55, 116–18, 127.

30. 陈建  [Chen  Jian],  “讨论新型大国关系”  [A  Discussion  of  New-Type Great Power Relations], 国际问题研究 [International Studies], November–December 2012, 11, 13.

31. 庞中英 [Pang  Zhongying],  “‘东亚合作’向何处去?  论东亚地区秩序的困境与中国的战略选择” [Where Is “East Asian Cooperation” Heading? On the Challenges Facing the East Asian Order and China’s Strategic Choice], 中国外交 [Chinese Foreign Policy], November 2012, 43.

32  . 吴心伯 [Wu Xinbo], “论奥巴马政府的亚太战略” [On the Obama Administration’s Asia-Pacific Strategy], 国际政治 [International Politics], September 2012, 90.

33. 沈丁立  [Shen  Dingli],  “中国无需担忧‘再平衡’”  [China  Need  Not  Be Anxious regarding “Rebalancing”], 东方早报 [Oriental Morning Post], November 22, 2012.

34. 乔良  [Gen.  Qiao  Liang,  PLA  Air  Force],  “洞察美国’2013年中国军力报告” [A Clear View regarding the US “2013 Report on Chinese Military Power”], 航空知识 [Aerospace Knowledge], August 2013, 26.

35. See, e.g., 段昭显 [Duan Zhaoxian, PLA Navy Admiral], “论建设海洋强国 的战略目标” [On the Strategic Objective of Building China into a Maritime Power], 中国军事科学 [China Military Science], March 2013, 14.