Where do China and the US disagree? Before we start thinking about the geopolitical implications of increasing Chinese power, let’s think about the actual disagreements that might spark conflict. Stalin and Truman didn’t just wake up in mid-1945 hating each other; rather, the USSR and the United States had a series of more or less intractable foreign policy disputes that made friendly, mutually beneficial collaboration extraordinarily difficult. It was obvious well before the end of World War II that these disputes would exist, and the only question was whether the leaders on both sides could resolve them in a peaceful manner.
There are a few areas of genuine disagreement between China and the United States. Taiwan is the big problem, as I’ll discuss tomorrow. China’s claims on various island chains create friction with several Asian countries, and thus the United States. China’s mild support of North Korea has been a source of mild tension.
But what else? Other than Taiwan, nobody thinks that any of the above would be worth fighting for. China has acquiesced in U.S. global hegemony. China has decided to play an active, supportive role in the economic order that the United States has created. Since the 1970s, the People’s Republic of China has made no effort whatsoever to revise the structure of international politics. Rather, China has enthusiastically joined and participated in that system. China has not even made a serious effort to challenge the ideological underpinnings of the modern US-dominated state system.
The contrast with Soviet behavior in 1945 could not be starker. The US and the USSR disagreed about the division of Germany, the disposition of Eastern Europe, the balance of power in China, the reconstruction of Japan, and the role of the Allies in Iran. Moreover, the USSR represented a fundamental challenge to the international order the United States and its allies were trying to construct. The ideological conflict was genuine and serious.
So, given that we have some grasp on what China does not want (a transformation of the international system), what does China want?
The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is built around two pillars. The first of these pillars is economic growth. The People’s Republic of China is dedicated, therefore, to foreign policies that maximize the opportunity for successful economic growth. In pursuit of this goal, there is no conflict whatsoever with the US dominated world economic system. That system creates no limitations on the economic growth of particular states, only on the method by which such growth can be achieved. While I suppose it could be argued that China’s semi-market economy is ill-equipped to match the challenges of the US dominated system, the empirical evidence seems to suggest that the Chinese economy is doing just fine. Although China’s economic statistics are suspect, and developing countries have more room to grow than developed ones, it’s pretty hard to argue that ANY country has done better economically since 1990 than China.
This goal does not a revolutionary power make. Indeed, it clearly inclines China towards a status quo position in international affairs. If China is doing well in this system, and if this system indeed seems to be leading to a degree of Chinese economic hegemony, then the Chinese really have no reason to change it. Rather, China’s interest is in upholding that system. Empirically, it would be difficult to argue that they’ve been doing anything other than that. The CCP has gone so far, in fact, that they’ve tied the health of the Chinese economy tightly to the health of the US through exports and investment in US debt.
As far as I can tell, the only remotely plausible argument that has focused on economic conflict between China and the United States regards scarcity of energy resources. As the Chinese economy grows, it will use greater energy resources. If the arguments about peak oil are anything close to correct, oil production will not be increasing to meet the Chinese demand. Eventually, we could see some sort of conflict between the United States and China over access to oil.
I don’t find this scenario particularly plausible. Oil has been crucial to the economies of the developed world for the last century, and has only played a significant factor in one great power conflict, that between Japan and the United States. In that case, the oil problem was only a surface manifestation of a deeper disagreement between Japanese and US foreign policy aims. The Japanese economy could have (and since 1945, has) grown without the need for the conquest of the oil resources of Southeast Asia. The Japanese desire to overturn the Eurocentric international system and the consequent need for control of oil resources caused the war, which is different than saying the war started because of oil scarcity. The Cold War wasn’t even remotely about access to war. Indeed, rather than fight about it, the Great Powers of the twentieth century tended agree more firmly about the flow of oil than just about any other issue. Thus, I think that oil scarcity will no more be a source of conflict between China and the US than it will between Japan or Europe and the US.
The other pillar of CCP legitimacy is national greatness. Nationalism causes difficulties, and is sometimes in tension with economic prosperity. The two pillars aren’t always in conflict, as national greatness requires a degree of economic prosperity. However, the goal of national greatness can create problems in relations between countries, as we saw in the recent disturbance over Japan’s lack of war guilt, or as we’ve seen in a few tense moments between the US and China. Nationalism can also turn small problems into big ones, as governments tend to be reluctant to back down even in minor disputes. With an authoritarian government, one that relies, as the CCP does, on being a defender of national greatness, real problems can emerge over small causes.
Chinese nationalism is a cause for worry, but it’s worth noting that the problem is limited in scope. The Chinese state is not expansionist in the same way that the Russian and eventually Soviet states were. To the extent that China has territorial disputes with other countries, they tend to involve areas once controlled by the Qing Dynasty. Even in these cases, Chinese action has been relatively subdued. The PRC has made no effort to regain control of Outer Mongolia or the Maritime Province, although it might well have the military power to do so. Chinese nationalism has made control of several island chains a touchy question, but is unlikely to lead to a major conflict, except in the Taiwan situation.
China’s diplomatic activity supports my argument that Chinese foreign policy goals are not directly in conflict with those of the United States. Over the past five or six years, China has taken pains to establish positive relations with its neighbors. Recently, China has even managed to patch things up with India a bit, suggesting that predictions of future Sino-Indian rivalry may be premature. China’s behavior during the War on Terror has been extremely supportive of the United States. It’s extremely odd that France, our democratic ally, supplied the primary diplomatic opposition to the Iraq War and that China stayed very quiet. A China even slightly hostile to US hegemony would have taken to opportunity to score some diplomatic points against the US. The Chinese did nothing. Can you imagine the Soviet Union taking a similar position on a US foreign policy move during the Cold War?
The realists and the hawks face a burden on the China question. Supposedly, China’s growing power will throw it into conflict with the United States on any number of different issues. That hasn’t happened yet. The one issue on which China and the United States might end up fighting, Taiwan, has been a point of contention for the past fifty years, and has nothing whatsoever to do with China’s increasing power. A period of mutual hostility may be on the way, but it certainly hasn’t hit yet.
This is the first in a six part series on the future of US-China relations.
Part I: Foreign Policy Goals of the CCP
Part II: China’s Growing Military Power
Part III: In Defense of Ambiguity: Taiwan, China, and the United States
Part IV: China and the Republican Party
Part V: A New Cold War?
Part VI: Chinese Democracy