This week's tensions aside, China and the United States still need each other more than they admit.
Everyone knows that China is on the rise, that the United States is in decline, and that the two countries depend upon each other more than ever to solve global problems. As it has since the onset of the global financial crisis, this received wisdom in part shapes the U.S.-China relationship, including at bilateral forums such as this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). But what if this "wisdom" is wrong?
The S&ED, though overshadowed by the drama over the fate of activist Chen Guangcheng, addressed other critical issues such as North Korea, Syria, and bilateral economic tensions. But even without the Chen case, Washington and Beijing are approaching each other with more apprehension than usual these days due to each country’s ongoing concerns about the other’s strategic intentions. For the United States, the growing fear is that it will be "eclipsed" — that one day China will dominate Asia. For China, the perpetual fear is America’s overreaction to its rise. Chinese leaders, with some justification, view the Obama administration’s "pivot" to Asia as a move to contain China’s growing power and keep it down.
But the United States and China are worrying about the wrong things. The downfall of popular Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai exposed the high-stakes political struggles in Beijing during a period of political succession. And though we do not know Chen’s motivations for planning his escape during this already shaky period, a negative outcome of this drama could lead to further incidents involving activists who might sense cracks in the system. These sudden changes and their longer-term implications should cause Washington to be more worried about an unstable and unpredictable, yet likely still authoritarian, China. In the United States, a nationwide weariness with global leadership is manifested most concretely in a reluctance to fully fund its grand strategy, even though this will undercut the stated political goals that have provided the conditions for great-power peace in Asia. Beijing should be more troubled by a United States that cannot or will not fulfill its global obligations.
Officials in Beijing often try to reassure their counterparts in Washington that China "does not want to be No. 1" on the world stage. Americans watch China’s assertiveness in Asia and greet this reassurance with skepticism. In turn, Washington cajoles Beijing to take on more global responsibility. The Chinese view this as a trap — a way for America to tie China down in any number of international quagmires.
But, in fact, neither side is entirely disingenuous. Not only does China eschew the burdens of being "No. 1," but the events of recent months demonstrate why it is not currently in a position to be a global leader. Meanwhile, the United States truly is looking to enhance cooperation with partner nations that could lead to the sharing of great-power burdens in the future. There was once a real hope that China might play such a role by applying real pressure to North Korea on its nuclear program or in policing the global commons. However, on these issues, China has largely indicated an unwillingness to play a constructive role.
The United States must adjust to deal with a changing China. Though it is maintaining a veneer of internal harmony, the Communist Party is spooked. The Bo scandal revealed the mafia-like nature of Chinese politics. The fate of Chen and his supporters is uncertain, even after the deal announced Friday, May 4, but their case does demonstrate the determination of reform-minded individuals to shed international light on Chinese human rights abuses and give credence to the fact that the government’s view is not the only one.
Growing internal fractures will make China a less predictable and pricklier power that remains authoritarian. But a weak China is nothing to celebrate, especially since the country’s failure to enact any democratic reform will make the potential fallout from a political crisis more dangerous. There are no Chinese institutions other than the military that can hold the country together if the leadership fails. A strong, authoritarian China has already demonstrated little interest in upholding the liberal international order. But a brittle authoritarian power may be even less likely to do so. Indeed, a China beset by strife, with a growing role for the military, may well lash out against its neighbors more forcefully. Washington’s mistake is assuming that the China it knows today is the one it will know tomorrow.
China’s main worry is that the United States is too strong and too tough. An editorial last week in the Global Times summarizes the Chinese view well. The authors cite U.S. military deployments both inside and outside the first island chain as evidence that America is reneging on its "pledge" not to contain China, and calls on Washington to find a new "balance point" for the relationship rather than "hop[ing] to extend the old way of bullying weaker countries." A weaker America, however, would not be in China’s interest. Benign U.S. hegemony has provided the stable conditions that have allowed China to prosper. Beijing has long enjoyed a free ride off the security Washington provides. If that ride disappears, China will be in even deeper trouble.
China should think carefully about what the world would look like if the United States fails as a great power. What if no country provided the public goods requisite for great-power peace, such as open access to the global commons, deterrence of adversaries, and efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Can China continue to prosper in a world with unprotected sea lanes or with an increasing number of volatile nuclear states?
As China grows less predictable and the United States less willing to shoulder its responsibilities, familiar patterns of bilateral relations must change. The first step is for both countries to recognize that weakness in either country will not benefit the U.S.-China relationship or international order. America must be prepared for a less stable China. While continuing to check destabilizing Chinese activities, the key objective for Washington is to press harder for the stability that can only come with democratic reform. China should desist from undermining American efforts to preserve regional and global stability, and instead encourage the United States to maintain its commitments. And both sides need to prepare for the possibility that by the time the next big summit rolls around, China may be in decline and America may still be on the rise.