As China’s rise alarms US think tanks, the importance of good ties must not be forgotten

By Liu Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-31 19:28:01

Soldiers march through Tiananmen Square on August 23 during a parade rehearsal. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Many American policy elites are debating how the country should react to China's rise. Some are confused about China's intentions because of its assertiveness. Many argue the US should accommodate China's rise and shape China's choices, while others suggest that strengthening economic ties is the best way to manage disagreements.

It's an alarming tale: Chinese politicians are engaged in a secret and ambitious plan called the "Hundred-Year Marathon," which aims to allow China to topple the US as global hegemon in economic, military and political terms by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China. To achieve this goal, in the last 40 years or so, China has been seducing the US into training thousands of Chinese scientists who study at American universities to extract the latest scientific and technological expertise from the US.

This is China's supposed hidden agenda presented by Michael Pillsbury, consultant at the US Department of Defense, in his 2015 book The Hundred-Year Marathon. The book is just one manifestation of the growing concern among US politicians and academics, who worry that the rise of China, a potential rival superpower, will  eventually threaten the US and overthrow the current world order.

Not everyone shares Pillsbury's paranoid point of view. China experts in the US interviewed by the Global Times brushed off Pillsbury's book as being biased and full of factual mistakes, problems which stem from Pillsbury's background and focus on military confrontation. But even more dovish elites are more and more perplexed by China's intentions as a rising power. Most have a favorable view of China's good-neighbor diplomatic policy from the mid-1990s to early 21st century, but China's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea and other diplomatic moves are making some anxious that the country has lost its interest in being a good neighbor.

A lazy way of thinking

Robert Sutter, professor at George Washington University's Sigur Center for Asian Studies, said that serious discussions and debates are now going on in the US on how the nation should change its foreign policy in order to deal with China's rise, but it hasn't yet become the primary concern due to pressing issues such as terrorist threats from the Islamic State and Russia's military presence in Eastern Europe.

Sutter claimed that China is taking advantage of the weakness of Washington's China policy, and its recent diplomatic aggression has infringed on the interests of the US. He said that China should recognize the constraints of its national power if it wants to challenge the US - the US has many ways to stop China and China should not force the US to use them.

Sutter's view that China wants to challenge the US is not alone. In March, the US Foreign Affairs Council published a special report entitled Revising US Grand Strategy Toward China. The report criticizes American efforts to "integrate" China into the liberal international order, which threats US primacy in Asia, and argues that the US needs a new grand strategy toward China which, rather than continuing to assist the rise of Chinese power, should center on balancing its ascendancy.

This type of attitude worries David Lampton, professor and director of China Studies at John Hopkins University, who expressed concern over the growing portion of the American policy elite that are starting to see China as a threat to American "primacy."

In a speech entitled "A Tipping Point in US-China Relations Is Upon Us," he quoted former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who said that "In Beijing's eyes the US is deeply opposed to China's rise," while the American narrative is "Beijing's long-term policy is aimed at pushing the US out of Asia altogether and establishing a Chinese sphere of influence spanning the region." These narratives are eroding the predominantly positive US-China ties that have been developed in recent decades.

Jeffrey Bader, senior research fellow of international diplomacy at the Brookings Institution, also expressed his worries about the growing antagonism towards China among US foreign policy experts. He criticizes the argument that the policies pursued by eight presidents beginning with Nixon are outdated, and said that a China-US relation based on antagonism will not work out well. He believe the mood in both countries has moved in a negative direction, and he thinks this is based on some narrow perceptions. In Bader's opinion, assuming US and China are rivals is a lazy way of thinking.

Too many disagreements

But how should the two countries deal with their disagreements, which sometimes seem irreconcilable? Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the US, said the signal China is sending to the US on the West Pacific is to "get out of the way," while the US policy is to stay.

Most US academics agree that the US and China have no choice other than to cooperate. Jonathan D. Pollack, senior China expert at the Brookings Institution, said that there are too many differences between the United States and China that cannot be easily solved, but have to be managed because China and the US are in the same boat.

Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies and director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, criticized the Obama administration for its failure to publicize China-US cooperation on the Iran nuclear agreement and giving too much prominence to their disputes on the South China Sea issue. In his opinion, the Obama administration's inaction has caused the media to cover the bilateral relationship in a negative light.

Finding a peaceful method

Many experts think that China and the US have not yet found a way to get along with each other as China becomes a rising regional and world power. Pollack said that the US has to accommodate China's rise, and China has to get used to the US. It has to be a two-way compromise.  "China and the United States have yet to find a truly satisfactory way to manage the areas of potential competition or to find a truly satisfactory way to get along with each other on a lasting basis," he said.

Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, said that he does not think the US opposes China's rise and that "the US has understood the importance of China joining in international regimes, accepting that China would want a say in setting the rules, not just obeying them. At the same time, the US did not want to see China overturn the existing order but rather looked to China to develop its positions within the basic parameters of international norms and standards."

As for Internet security, the willingness of the US to work with China and other countries to establish Internet security norms shows that the US is open to China's contribution to world order. But at the same time, the US hopes it could exert influence on China's decisions, according to Bonnie S. Glaser, senior Asia advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

This view is echoed by Thomas J. Christensen, author of The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, who said that the US should not block China's rise, but influence its choices so that they could benefit both countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit the US in September, a trip that has been seen as an important step towards improving China-US relations. Romberg said during Xi's visit to California in 2013, Obama put too much emphasis on specific issues such as Internet security and missed the chance for two leaders to clarify their overall strategies. This time, Xi should clarify that China has no intention to make more aggressive moves in the South China Sea, while Obama should answer questions that China is eager to ask.

Bader said that he hopes Xi will open up to the US public during his visit about China's foreign policy and its take on the current international order, norms and laws. If Xi could make a speech, it will serve as a guarantee about the stability of US-China relations and let the Americans know that China's rise is positive, constructive and a stabilizing factor.

Using economic ties

Many experts believe that economic issues are key to resolving disagreements between the two powers. Jin Canrong, associate dean at the School of International Studies of Renmin University of China, said regarding the US debate over China policy that "whether the participant is a political hawk or dove, the intention is to safeguard the interests of the US… And when the economy is concerned, the picture can be much more optimistic."

Jin said that China and the US have both fallen into the Thucydides Trap, a term used to describe the phenomenon in which a rising power provokes fear in the ruling power, thus leading to danger in both parties. The current debate is a manifestation of the fear and anxiety the US is now facing.

His endorsement of strengthening economic ties is echoed by US economists on China. David Dollar, senior fellow with the foreign policy and global economy and development programs at Brookings Institution, said that the two countries should turn to the economy when their political relations are tense. Economic dependence is the stabilizer in the bilateral relationship between the two countries, and as long as that is strengthened, the two countries will be able to be more confident when dealing with thorny issues.

Dollar thinks that speeding up talks on a bilateral investment treaty, which could open the doors for large amounts of investment in both directions if it addresses key issues, is an important opportunity to boost mutual dependence between the two countries. In a paper, he also criticized the US for not joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an important new institution in the fastest growing region of the world economy. 

Newspaper headline: Finding balance

Posted in: In-Depth

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