Why the U.S.-China re­la­tion­ship is a con­ve­nient co­op­er­a­tive ri­valry

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - JOSEPH S. NYE

On a visit to Bei­jing in Oc­to­ber, I was of­ten asked whether U.S. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s re­cent harsh crit­i­cism of China marked the dec­la­ra­tion of a new Cold War. I replied that the United States and China have en­tered a new phase in their re­la­tion­ship, but that the Cold War metaphor is mis­lead­ing.

Dur­ing the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union tar­geted tens of thou­sands of nu­clear weapons at each other and had vir­tu­ally no trade or cul­tural ties.

By con­trast, China has a more lim­ited nu­clear force, an­nual Sino-Amer­i­can trade to­tals a half-tril­lion dol­lars, and more than 350,000 Chi­nese stu­dents and three mil­lion tourists are in the U.S. each year. A bet­ter de­scrip­tion of to­day’s bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship is “co­op­er­a­tive ri­valry.”

Since the end of World War II, U.S.-China re­la­tions have gone through three phases last­ing roughly 20 years each.

Hos­til­ity marked the 20 years af­ter the Korean War, fol­lowed by lim­ited co­op­er­a­tion against the Soviet Union dur­ing the phase that fol­lowed Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s fa­mous 1972 visit. The Cold War’s end ush­ered in a third phase of eco­nomic en­gage­ment, with the U.S. help­ing China’s global eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion, in­clud­ing its en­try into the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2001.

Yet in the first post-Cold War decade, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s ad­min­is­tra­tion hedged its bets by si­mul­ta­ne­ously strength­en­ing the U.S.-Ja­pan al­liance and im­prov­ing re­la­tions with In­dia. Now, since 2017, the U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Strat­egy fo­cuses on great power ri­valry, with China and Rus­sia des­ig­nated as Amer­ica’s main ad­ver­saries.

While many Chi­nese an­a­lysts blame this fourth phase on U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is also to blame. By re­ject­ing Deng Xiaop­ing’s pru­dent pol­icy of main­tain­ing a low in­ter­na­tional pro­file; by end­ing pres­i­den­tial term lim­its; and by pro­claim­ing his na­tion­al­is­tic “China Dream,” Xi might as well have been wear­ing a red hat read­ing, “Make China Great Again.”

The con­ven­tional wis­dom on China within the U.S. had al­ready be­gun to sour be­fore the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Trump’s rhetoric and tar­iffs were merely gaso­line poured on a smol­der­ing fire.

The lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der helped China sus­tain rapid eco­nomic growth and re­duce poverty dra­mat­i­cally.

But China also tilted the trade field to its ad­van­tage by sub­si­diz­ing state-owned en­ter­prises, en­gag­ing in com­mer­cial es­pi­onage, and re­quir­ing for­eign firms to trans­fer their in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty to do­mes­tic “part­ners.” While most economists ar­gue Trump is mis­taken to fo­cus on the bi­lat­eral trade deficit, many sup­port his com­plaints about China’s ef­forts to chal­lenge Amer­ica’s tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tage.

More­over, China’s grow­ing mil­i­tary strength adds a se­cu­rity di­men­sion to the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. While this fourth phase of the re­la­tion­ship is not the Cold War, ow­ing to the high de­gree of in­ter­de­pen­dence, it is much more than a typ­i­cal trade dis­pute like, say, Amer­ica’s re­cent clash with Canada over ac­cess to that coun­try’s dairy mar­ket.

Some an­a­lysts be­lieve this fourth phase marks the be­gin­ning of a con­flict in which an es­tab­lished hege­mon goes to war with a ris­ing chal­lenger. In his ex­pla­na­tion of the Pelo­pon­nesian War, Thucy­dides fa­mously ar­gued that it was caused by Sparta’s fear of a ris­ing Athens.

Th­ese an­a­lysts be­lieve that China’s rise will cre­ate a sim­i­lar fear in the U.S., and use the anal­ogy of World War I, when a ris­ing Ger­many set hege­monic Bri­tain on edge.

The causes of World War I, how­ever, were far more com­plex, and in­cluded grow­ing Rus­sian power, which cre­ated fear in Ger­many; ris­ing na­tion­al­ism in the Balkans and other coun­tries; and the risks de­lib­er­ately taken by the Hab­s­burg Empire to stave off its de­cline.

Even more im­por­tant, Ger­many had al­ready sur­passed Bri­tain in in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion by 1900, while China’s GDP (mea­sured in dol­lars) cur­rently is only three-fifths the size of the U.S. econ­omy. The U.S. has more time and as­sets to man­age the rise of Chi­nese power than Bri­tain had with Ger­many. China is con­strained by a nat­u­ral bal­ance of power in Asia in which Ja­pan (the world’s third­largest econ­omy) and In­dia (about to sur­pass China in pop­u­la­tion) have no de­sire to be dom­i­nated by it.

Suc­cumb­ing to the fear Thucy­dides de­scribed would be an un­nec­es­sary self-ful­fill­ing prophecy for the U.S. For­tu­nately, polls show that the Amer­i­can pub­lic has not yet suc­cumbed to a hys­ter­i­cal por­trayal of China as an enemy as strong as the Soviet Union was dur­ing the Cold War.

Nei­ther China nor the U.S. poses an ex­is­ten­tial threat to

In an age of pop­ulist na­tion­al­ism, it is much eas­ier for politi­cians to cre­ate fear about a new Cold War

the other the way Hitler’s Ger­many or Stalin’s Soviet Union did. China is not about to in­vade the U.S., and it is un­able to ex­pel Amer­ica from the Western Pa­cific, where most coun­tries wel­come its pres­ence. Ja­pan, a ma­jor part of the so-called first is­land chain, pays nearly three-quar­ters of the host na­tion costs to keep 50,000 U.S. troops based there.

My re­cent visit to Tokyo con­firmed for me that the al­liance with the U.S. is strong. If the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion main­tains it, the prospects are slight that China can drive the U.S. from the Western Pa­cific, much less dom­i­nate the world. The U.S. holds bet­ter strate­gic cards and need not suc­cumb to Thucy­didean fear.

There is an­other di­men­sion, how­ever, that makes this fourth phase a “co­op­er­a­tive ri­valry” rather than a Cold War. China and the U.S. face transna­tional chal­lenges that are im­pos­si­ble to re­solve with­out the other.

Cli­mate change and ris­ing sea lev­els obey the laws of physics, not pol­i­tics. As borders be­come more por­ous to ev­ery­thing from il­licit drugs to in­fec­tious dis­eases to ter­ror­ism, the largest economies will have to co­op­er­ate to cope with th­ese threats.

Some as­pects of the re­la­tion­ship will in­volve a pos­i­tivesum game. U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity will re­quire power with China, not just over China. The key ques­tion is whether the U.S. is ca­pa­ble of think­ing in terms of a “co­op­er­a­tive ri­valry.” Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? In an age of pop­ulist na­tion­al­ism, it is much eas­ier for politi­cians to cre­ate fear about a new Cold War.

Joseph S. Nye is a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard and au­thor of “Is the Amer­i­can Cen­tury Over?” THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.project-syn­di­cate.org).

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