Political Promise

US and China… Friends or Foes?

In Stephen Wager on July 7, 2011 at 10:41 am

“Let the dragon sleep, for when she awakes, she will shake the world”. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Napoleon Bonaparte’s words appear more and more prophetic, says Stephen Wager.

Indeed having outgrown the Maoist planned economy, China’s reforms, stimulated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, have seen the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) compile an impressive list of achievements. China’s economy has grown at an average of 9% for most of the past three decades and its export output has led Shirk to label China as “the manufacturing workshop of the world”, similar to that of Great Britain during the 19th Century. Indeed with growing FDI and rapid urbanisation illustrated by the 174 Chinese cities with over 1 million inhabitants, China truly can be labelled “an economic juggernaut”.

Naturally, the People Republic of China’s (PRC) phenomenal growth has intensified pessimistic paranoia, with scholars arguing China’s unmistakable rise will sharpen a historically acrimonious relationship with the world’s only superpower, the United States. Adherents to the ‘China Threat’ school, advocate policies of containment, arguing that the US, as the ‘Global Sherriff’, should act pre-emptively to check the growth of Chinese power before the PRC can challenge the US dominated regional and global status quo.

In contrast to unfounded cynical judgement, the US has played an instrumental part in fuelling the Red Dragon’s gradual rise to eminence. China specialist Thomas Christensen, goes further, seeing the role of the United States as pivotal, arguing, “No country has done more to make China stronger diplomatically and economically than the US”. Indeed it would seem that since the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, rather than intense inter-state rivalry, a mutually beneficial web of bilateral economic ties underpins an increasingly invaluable Sino-US relationship.
Undoubtedly this constructive Sino-US relationship rests on pillars of realism and mutual self-interest. A year before groundbreaking diplomatic change in 1970, China was still the sick man of Asia. Mao’s obstinate foreign policy left China isolated and its relationship with Russia in tatters, culminating in a brief border war. Moreover, domestically the ‘grotesque failure’ that was the Cultural Revolution channelled the Communist Party into a historically dismal, economic and social period (an estimated 7 million Chinese were killed during the CR hysteria). Such a low, in the words of Kissinger, created ‘a window of opportunity’ to build bridges between the two ideological adversaries.

Firstly, political rapprochement through the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué opened the path to partnership and as former CCP President Jiang Zemin later stated, ‘Constituted the foundation of the Sino-US relationship’. It laid the framework for the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, which saw the US transfer diplomatic recognition from Taipei under the rule of the nationalists (KMT) to Beijing. This watershed moment marked US recognition of the PRC. In sum, with a helping hand from the US, China, the once labelled ‘slumbering dragon’ was beginning to awake.

Secondly, Deng’s ‘open door policy’ in 1979, launched through designated Special Economic Zones (SEZ) on China’s southern coast, opened the immeasurable potential of the Chinese market to the world; the US duly exploited and China benefited from US FDI estimated to be over $300 billion. US FDI, low interest loans and capitalist innovation have facilitated the staggering growth that China has achieved. The fact that China’s volume of foreign trade had increased 25 times between 1978 and 2001 signifies the immense impact of the ‘open door’ reforms, eventually seeing China’s accession to the WTO in 2001.

Power transition theorists argue China will use its formidable economic power to challenge a US orientated status quo, similar to that of Nazi Germany and Meij Japan. Indeed, with the disconcerting ambiguity surrounding China’s growing military expenditure, its ‘alien’ authoritarian political system and increasingly assertive rhetoric, ill informed individuals will remain stricken with anxiety. Perhaps such feelings are compounded when one snapshots the current instability in the region: North Korea, Japan and Taiwan are all potentially unforgiving flashpoints between the two states. Yet I believe historical analogies and assumptions of conflict are as dangerous as they are wrong. Why?

Chinese military imperialism is a shackled and defunct notion. Only the reckless could make revisionist calculations in a globalized world of nuclear weapons. The CCP is many things; but reckless enough to wage war with the US, it is not. 1) The annual quantity of trade between the US and China now reaches $400 million: by far history’s largest interstate trade relationship. It is an economic symbiosis that noticeably gives both the giant states incentives not to rock the boat. 2) Even as China’s military enhances, its military expenditure is 1/7 that of the US. By any hard power measure the US dwarfs China. 3) Any reasoned scholar of China will know military imperialism is not in the Chinese mentality. Clausewitz, the leading Western strategic theoretician, focuses on the preparation and conduct of a central battle. Sun Tzu, his Chinese counterpart, instead places emphasis on the psychological weakening of the adversary. China seeks its objectives by careful study, patience and the accumulation of nuances – only rarely does China risk a winner-takes-all showdown.

Inevitably, there are strong political, cultural and strategic differences that act as a bone of contention in this prominent relationship. Yet these enduring differences will continue to be mitigated by one core restraint: Mutually Assured Destruction. Either state could act in a cavalier fashion and wreak havoc on the other, but it would be guaranteed to destroy its own economy and state in the process.


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