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The dangerous domestic politics of U.S.-China relations

The dangerous domestic politics of U.S.-China relations

Over the past six months, China and the United States have experienced political transitions that allow the leaders of both countries to focus on bilateral relations free from the pressures of domestic political campaigns. With political maneuvering among China’s elites for spots on the Standing Committee of the Politburo finally over, the country’s leaders can return to the business of governing the world’s largest population. In the United States, President Obama’s reelection has been accompanied by the appointment of a new team of foreign policy managers. But rather than freeing up Washington and Beijing to cooperate more fulsomely, the domestic political frictions produced by the bilateral relationship are, like the structural tensions between the established power and its rising challenger, intensifying.

On the one hand, changes in President Obama’s second-term cabinet mean that U.S.-China relations are being handled by a more dovish set of managers than those who drove the first-term "rebalance" towards Asia. Ironically, this kind of shift traditionally has led to more discord in U.S.-China relations than when American leaders were clear and consistent in their policies toward China — hence Mao Zedong’s famous assertion to President Nixon that "I like rightists" and the stability of U.S.-China relations over the course of the George W. Bush administration.

For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing that he was not convinced of the need for the "increased military ramp-up" in Asia. Chinese observers reportedly believed that this signaled a diminishment of the U.S. commitment to the "pivot," which in their view ended when Hillary Clinton left Foggy Bottom. Kerry took his first foreign trip to the Middle East and seems to be spending most of his time trying to put in place a more credible strategy on Syria to replace the malign neglect that has characterized administration policy to date. Meanwhile, China is stepping up military coercion of neighbors who are U.S. friends and allies, most recently India.

Meanwhile, Leon Panetta, who had warned apocalyptically of the impact of sequester-related defense cuts on military readiness, has been replaced as secretary of defense by Chuck Hagel, who has maintained that the armed forces can absorb cuts of this magnitude. His comments have raised doubts about whether the United States will be able to resource its military rebalance from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is widely perceived to be more concerned with the politics of American foreign policy — namely watching the president’s back at home — than with any grand strategic design abroad.

More broadly, however, American hopes that "engagement" of China through trade and membership in international institutions would turn it into a status quo power have faded. A new consensus has emerged among experts, officials, and many business executives that this is a fundamentally competitive relationship, encompassing everything from mercantilist Chinese trade practices to daily cyberattacks to China’s buildup of offensive military power designed to target unique American vulnerabilities. Expectations that China would liberalize politically as a natural outgrowth of its economic success have given way to an understanding that China today is in many ways more politically repressive than it was in the 1980s — even if Chinese people enjoy greater economic freedom than before.

In China, political maneuvering in the run-up to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition led leading candidates for politburo seats to cultivate ties to ranking officials of the People’s Liberation Army, the domestic security services, and the giant state-owned enterprises that still dominate much of the Chinese economy. As a result, these illiberal forces have arguably grown in power and influence even as China has become more prosperous and its internal politics more competitive. 

At the same time, no Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping has enjoyed a highly personalized form of authority. China since the 1990s has been run by an oligopoly of men on the Standing Committee of the Politburo who exercise rule-by-committee and undertake their own Game of Thrones-style factional intrigues — as demonstrated vividly by the downfall of then-Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai in his messianic quest to join that elite circle. As the authority of individual Chinese leaders has eroded, the domestic Chinese constituencies that either desire or help create greater friction in U.S.-China relations — those who stand to gain politically by appealing to nationalist passions or likely to access to more state resources by painting the United States as an enemy — have grown in influence and authority.

As a result, structural forces pitting the dominant United States against its rising peer competitor are in some ways being intensified by domestic pressures in both Washington and Beijing to take a harder bilateral line. These structural forces are compounded by the region’s geography, in which China’s territorial claims bump up directly against allies the United States is pledged to defend. This raises the risk of military confrontation. 

There are, however, powerful countervailing factors that mitigate the likelihood of all-out conflict. These include the deep interdependence of the American and Chinese economies. Given its export dependency, shallow financial markets, and questionable domestic resiliency, any conflict would likely bankrupt China first. 

Indeed, we have seen in China’s own history how external conflicts have often led to internal rebellion and even revolution — a prospect its rulers fear more than any other. Any actual decision by China’s leaders to engage in direct military conflict with the United States would be very likely to lead to the downfall of the Communist regime that has governed the country since 1949. This link between the regime’s external and internal insecurities is an Achilles’ heel that gives the United States and other democracies facing military pressure from China — Japan over the Senkakus, India over parts of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh — a potentially decisive strategic advantage.