A Quest for Joint Pres­tige: Re­think­ing the Us-china Ri­valry

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Kai He & Huiyun Feng

Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing should work to­gether to pro­mote shared lead­er­ship to achieve greater co-op­er­a­tion among all na­tions.

Much has been made of the grow­ing power ri­valry be­tween the United States and China, which is cur­rently play­ing out with wor­ry­ing con­se­quences in the area of trade, as well as in other ways. While hard power ri­valry ap­pears to grab the most head­lines, the re­al­ity is that the two coun­tries are also com­pet­ing for in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship and pres­tige in world pol­i­tics.

But un­like power, lead­er­ship and pres­tige can be shared. Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing should work to­gether to pro­mote shared lead­er­ship in or­der to achieve greater co-op­er­a­tion among all na­tions, ar­gue Kai He and Huiyun Feng. no One Can Deny the in­evitable com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the United states and China in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, as we can see from the es­ca­lat­ing trade war be­tween the two na­tions. the 2017 Us na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy la­belled China a re­vi­sion­ist state, be­cause it “chal­lenge[s] amer­i­can power, in­flu­ence, and in­ter­ests, at­tempt­ing to erode amer­i­can se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity.” some Chi­nese schol­ars sug­gest that the


Us-china com­pe­ti­tion is a “struc­tural con­tra­dic­tion,” orig­i­nat­ing from the trans­for­ma­tion of the in­ter­na­tional or­der due to China’s rise and the de­cline of the Us.2 Gra­ham al­li­son also warns that the Us and China should avoid the “thucy­dides trap,” be­cause war is more likely to take place when a ris­ing power such as China chal­lenges a hege­mon such as the Us.3 How­ever, two unan­swered ques­tions re­main: what is it that the Us and China are com­pet­ing for? and is a military con­flict or war re­ally un­avoid­able?

nu­clear weapons and mu­tual as­sured De­struc­tion (mad) have ren­dered a large-scale war too costly for both the Us and China, al­though we can­not rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of military clashes be­tween the two in some hot spots in the re­gion, such as the tai­wan strait and even the south China sea. It is time to care­fully ex­am­ine what the Us and China are re­ally com­pet­ing for in world pol­i­tics. It is dan­ger­ous to as­sume that sur­vival or se­cu­rity is still a scarce com­mod­ity in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially be­tween China and the Us. the cur­rent trade war is a Us ef­fort to re­vive its un­chal­lenged power and pres­tige, as well as lead­er­ship, in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem. While the Us un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald trump

may be shun­ning in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship and re­spon­si­bil­ity, it re­mains to be seen if China is ready yet to fill the void. the two na­tions need to con­sider how to share lead­er­ship in world pol­i­tics. Un­like power, pres­tige and lead­er­ship are not only di­vis­i­ble, but also more ef­fec­tive in fa­cil­i­tat­ing co-op­er­a­tion when shared.

the power and pres­tige be­hind the trade war

When trump launched the trade war against China, his ra­tio­nale was to strengthen the Us econ­omy and “make amer­ica Great” again. the re­sult of the con­flict over trade is still not clear, be­cause glob­al­iza­tion and deep­en­ing eco­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence have blurred the line be­tween losses and the gains in in­ter­na­tional trade. For ex­am­ple, many Chi­nese ex­ports to the Us are ac­tu­ally man­u­fac­tured by Us com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in China. al­though trump’s high tar­iffs on Chi­nese ex­ports will cer­tainly hurt the Chi­nese econ­omy, they will also have a neg­a­tive im­pact on those Us com­pa­nies as well as its own econ­omy in gen­eral. It is not a cliché to say that there will be no real win­ner in the trade war, be­cause in eco­nomic terms, both coun­tries will lose as a re­sult of com­pet­ing tar­iffs. the key is­sue is who is los­ing more? trump bets that China will suf­fer more and there­fore will blink first. He might be right that China will lose more, but whether it will blink is a dif­fer­ent and com­pli­cated is­sue, which will be de­ter­mined by many non-eco­nomic fac­tors, such as lead­er­ship style, do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and na­tion­al­ism in China.

What­ever the out­come of the trade war, one thing is un­de­ni­able: the Us re­mains the more pow­er­ful coun­try, eco­nom­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily. trump was bold enough to mess around with amer­ica’s ma­jor trad­ing part­ners due to un­par­al­leled Us eco­nomic and military might. If trump were to use the trade war to val­i­date amer­ica’s un­ri­valled power in the world, he might be able to con­fi­dently claim a vic­tory. al­though China may not of­fi­cially com­pro­mise with the Us, it has al­ready fur­ther lib­er­al­ized its econ­omy and re­duced reg­u­la­tions on for­eign in­vest­ments, as the Us has de­manded. more im­por­tant, China has toned down the hype about its eco­nomic growth as well as its am­bi­tious “made in China 2025” pol­icy — the state-backed in­dus­trial strat­egy that has trig­gered alarm in the West.

to a cer­tain ex­tent, for Chi­nese lead­ers, trump’s trade war has been a hard rev­e­la­tion about the huge power gap be­tween China and the Us. Bei­jing seems to have no other choice but to con­tinue deep­en­ing its eco­nomic open­ing and mar­ket-ori­ented re­forms, and fur­ther in­te­grat­ing it­self into the world econ­omy in or­der to off­set the neg­a­tive im­pacts of the trade war. If that is the case, the so-called eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the Us and China ac­tu­ally helps both coun­tries re­po­si­tion their sta­tus in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem so that they can avoid po­ten­tial mis­cal­cu­la­tions and mis­per­cep­tions that might lead to un­nec­es­sary military con­flicts or even war.

Be­sides power pol­i­tics, trump is pur­su­ing an­other “cur­rency” — pres­tige — in world pol­i­tics, as seen from his high-pro­file meet­ings with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, de­spite do­mes­tic crit­i­cism. Putting aside the per­son­al­ity fac­tor, trump’s con­tro­ver­sial diplo­macy points to his pur­suit of in­ter­na­tional pres­tige for the Us in world pol­i­tics. Pres­tige is closely re­lated to, but dif­fers from, power. Power is about get­ting what you want de­spite re­sis­tance, but pres­tige is about get­ting oth­ers to do, and even want, what you want. It is trump’s be­lief that he and the as­so­ci­ated pres­tige of the Us could per­suade Kim to give up nu­clear weapons and con­vince Putin to change course in syria and Ukraine. Un­for­tu­nately, so far, amer­ica’s un­par­al­leled ma­te­rial power has not brought about the equiv­a­lent level

of pres­tige to the Us in achiev­ing what trump wants from north Korea and rus­sia. a sim­i­lar dilemma arose when trump uni­lat­er­ally with­drew from the Iran nu­clear deal de­spite strong op­po­si­tion from amer­ica’s euro­pean al­lies.

When trump re­al­ized that power alone could not get what he wanted, es­pe­cially from north Korea and Iran, China’s as­sis­tance seemed nec­es­sary. not sur­pris­ingly, China said “no” when trump re­quested that it halt its oil im­ports from Iran. China seems able to teach the Us a les­son that ma­te­rial power is not om­nipo­tent in world pol­i­tics. In­ter­na­tional pres­tige should be based on per­sua­sion and soft power, in­stead of co­er­cion and hard power. soft power is an in­trigu­ing yet puz­zling con­cept. Joseph nye sug­gests three sources of soft power: cul­ture, ide­ol­ogy and for­eign pol­icy.

One com­mon but com­pletely wrong way to strengthen a state’s soft power is try to do it through hard power. For ex­am­ple, if a coun­try in­ten­tion­ally uti­lizes its hard power — i.e. money or military force — to pro­mote its cul­ture or ide­ol­ogy (two sources of soft power) in an­other coun­try, the out­come may be un­de­sir­able and, in some cases, even coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. China’s soft power deficit to a large ex­tent is a re­sult of its mis­use of hard power to pro­mote a Chi­nese model or cul­tural val­ues in the world. now, trump is fac­ing a sim­i­lar prob­lem with his pur­suit of pres­tige through co­er­cive means.

lead through Co-op­er­a­tion

lead­er­ship is an el­e­ment of soft power and also a foun­da­tion of pres­tige for states. nye ar­gues that a state’s for­eign pol­icy can be a source of soft power. How­ever, it does not mean that all com­po­nents of for­eign pol­icy can turn into soft power. In an an­ar­chi­cal in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, states are self-re­gard­ing, uni­tary ac­tors. the only dif­fer­ence be­tween states is ma­te­rial power — i.e., there are su­per­pow­ers, great pow­ers, mid­dle pow­ers and small pow­ers. to win the re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion of oth­ers, a state will need to do what oth­ers are un­able or un­will­ing, but as­pire and de­sire, to do — to solve com­mon prob­lems by fos­ter­ing co-op­er­a­tion among states. the com­mon prob­lems in world pol­i­tics in­clude some tra­di­tional chal­lenges, such as war and in­ter-state dis­putes, as well as non-tra­di­tional is­sues such as poverty, cli­mate change, or pan­demics. the Iran nu­clear is­sue is a vivid ex­am­ple of a “com­mon prob­lem” for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, which led to mul­ti­lat­eral ef­forts and co-op­er­a­tion among ma­jor pow­ers through the “P5 plus 1” mech­a­nism (in­volv­ing the five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the United na­tions se­cu­rity Coun­cil plus Ger­many).

But co-op­er­a­tion is by no means easy for sel­f­re­gard­ing states, as we can see from trump’s de­ci­sion to re­nege on the Iran agree­ment as well as China’s at­ti­tude to­ward Iran’s oil ex­ports. In the­ory, there are two ob­sta­cles to co-op­er­a­tion: a dis­tri­bu­tional prob­lem and a com­mit­ment prob­lem. ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship is re­quired to solve both prob­lems. In nye’s def­i­ni­tion, a leader is some­one who helps a group cre­ate and achieve shared goals. lead­er­ship is not just who you are, but what you do.4 Just as lead­ers are im­por­tant for main­tain­ing or­der and co-op­er­a­tion within a so­ci­ety, in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship is the key to solv­ing these two prob­lems and en­cour­ag­ing states to co-op­er­ate. On the one hand, a lead­ing state has the author­ity to solve the dis­tri­bu­tion prob­lem by de­ter­min­ing which state gets more and which state gets less. On the other hand, the lead­ing state will al­le­vi­ate the com­mit­ment prob­lem by en­forc­ing the agree­ment among states through ne­go­ti­a­tion.

For ex­am­ple, if the Us in­tends to play a lead­er­ship role in ad­dress­ing ei­ther the north Korea or the Iran is­sue, it needs to show other states, espe-

cially its pro­posed part­ner — China — what they can gain from co-op­er­a­tion. more im­por­tantly, the Us should also com­mit to en­forc­ing or at least hon­or­ing the agree­ments that it has signed. Un­for­tu­nately, trump failed to do ei­ther of these. China had no idea what it would gain from co­op­er­a­tion with the Us, be­cause trump seemed de­ter­mined to es­ca­late the trade war against it. the newly passed Us 2019 De­fense au­tho­riza­tion act fur­ther chal­lenged China’s core in­ter­ests in tai­wan, at least in the eyes of Chi­nese lead­ers. the in­ter­na­tional cred­i­bil­ity and rep­u­ta­tion of the Us has also been se­ri­ously dam­aged, be­cause trump walked away from the mul­ti­lat­eral deal on Iran signed by the Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, leav­ing its al­lies in fury. While trump might “make amer­ica Great again” by fill­ing the whole world with worry and fear, Us pres­tige and soft power have de­clined dra­mat­i­cally. a state’s pres­tige, es­pe­cially that of the Us, is built on ad­mi­ra­tion and re­spect, not fear and in­se­cu­rity. It seems only a lit­tle ex­ag­ger­ated to sug­gest that no coun­try, even the clos­est Us ally, knows what trump will do the next day.

power is about get­ting what you want pres­tige de­spite re­sis­tance, is about get­ting oth­ers to do, and even want, what you want

tra­di­tion­ally, a state can in­crease its pres­tige and power through co­er­cive means — for ex­am­ple, by win­ning a ma­jor war. this seems less likely in to­day’s world be­cause of the nu­clear de­ter­rence among ma­jor pow­ers. How­ever, a great power can also build up its de­sired rep­u­ta­tion and pres­tige by lead­ing co-op­er­a­tion among states and re­solv­ing com­mon prob­lems in world pol­i­tics. In other words, ex­er­cis­ing lead­er­ship is a path­way for states to nur­ture and es­tab­lish pres­tige in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially in peace­time.

CAN the us and China share lead­er­ship?

If pres­tige is what the Us and China will vie for in the fu­ture, lead­er­ship com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the two coun­tries seems in­evitable. Un­like power, how­ever, lead­er­ship is a di­vis­i­ble and share­able com­mod­ity in world pol­i­tics. more­over, shar­ing lead­er­ship is more de­sir­able, re­li­able and ef­fec­tive in fa­cil­i­tat­ing co-op­er­a­tion among states. the key for the Us and China is to know what in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship is and how to share it in world pol­i­tics.

there are three types of lead­er­ship that are im­por­tant for state co-op­er­a­tion in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. the first is “struc­tural lead­er­ship” rooted in the ma­te­rial power dis­tri­bu­tion in the sys­tem. a state with the ca­pac­ity to ex­er­cise struc­tural lead­er­ship will be able to “trans­late its struc­tural power into bar­gain­ing lever­age as a means of reach­ing agree­ment on the terms of con­sti­tu­tional con­tracts.” the sec­ond

5 is “en­tre­pre­neur­ial lead­er­ship,” re­fer­ring to the ne­go­ti­at­ing skill to frame is­sues in ways that foster in­te­gra­tive bar­gain­ing and to put to­gether deals. the third is “in­tel­lec­tual lead­er­ship,” which means of­fer­ing in­no­va­tive ideas and pro­duc­ing in­tel­lec­tual cap­i­tal to shape the per­spec­tives on co-op­er­a­tion.

Oran young sug­gests that suc­cess­ful in­stitu- tional bar­gain­ing for co-op­er­a­tion re­quires at least two types of lead­er­ship.6 mere struc­tural lead­er­ship can­not en­sure suc­cess­ful bar­gain­ing for co-op­er­a­tion. af­ter the First World War, the Us be­came the most pow­er­ful state in the world in terms of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. How­ever, the Us failed to use this struc­tural power and lead­er­ship to play an ef­fec­tive role in avoid­ing or cop­ing with the Great De­pres­sion — the so-called Kindle­berger trap.7 as young sug­gests, this was due to a lack of the two other types of lead­er­ship (in­tel­lec­tual and en­tre­pre­neur­ial) in the Us in the late 1920s. the United states learned a hard les­son from the First World War and af­ter the sec­ond World War started to uti­lize all three types of lead­er­ship — struc­tural, en­tre­pre­neur­ial and in­tel­lec­tual — in build­ing the Bret­ton Woods sys­tem, which has en­sured a sta­ble eco­nomic or­der in the world for more than 50 years.

How­ever, the Us will not be able to mo­nop­o­lize all three types of lead­er­ship for­ever. the rise of China will gen­er­ate some de­gree of Chi­nese struc­tural lead­er­ship, whether the Us likes it or not. more im­por­tant, China’s grow­ing struc­tural lead­er­ship does not nec­es­sar­ily mean a de­cline in Us struc­tural lead­er­ship. In­stead, the Us and China can both en­joy a pos­i­tive sum out­come re­gard­ing struc­tural lead­er­ship if they can work to­gether to solve com­mon prob­lems. For ex­am­ple, trump’s sum­mit with Kim in sin­ga­pore would not have been suc­cess­ful with­out Xi’s ef­forts, es­pe­cially pres­sure on north Korea. even trump pub­licly ad­mit­ted the in­dis­pens­able role of China in bring­ing north Korea to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. In a sim­i­lar vein, many transna­tional chal­lenges, such as cli­mate change, can­not be tack­led ef­fi­ciently and ef­fec­tively if China and the Us do not work to­gether.

more im­por­tant, both en­tre­pre­neur­ial lead­er­ship and in­tel­lec­tual lead­er­ship can be shared.

not only the Us and China, but also other states, should be in­vited to ex­ert en­tre­pre­neur­ial and in­tel­lec­tual lead­er­ship to foster more in­ter­na­tional co-op­er­a­tion. Both the Us and China should be open-minded in shar­ing in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship with one an­other as well as with other states. Pres­tige is based on lead­er­ship, but lead­er­ship is built on con­crete ac­tions by states, not on any ab­stract feel­ing or self-per­cep­tion. there­fore, it is pos­si­ble that fu­ture com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the Us and China for pres­tige in world pol­i­tics can ma­te­ri­al­ize as a healthy com­pe­ti­tion to pro­mote global co-op­er­a­tion. the two na­tions may com­pete to of­fer struc­tural lead­er­ship to lever­age bar­gain­ing, pro­vide en­tre­pre­neur­ial lead­er­ship to fa­cil­i­tate ne­go­ti­a­tions, and con­trib­ute in­tel­lec­tual lead­er­ship to gen­er­ate new ideas.

north Korea’s nu­clear cri­sis pro­vides an ex­am­ple. even though the Us could uti­lize its power lever­age or struc­tural lead­er­ship to force Kim to give up his nu­clear weapons pro­gram (which is still un­likely to hap­pen any­time soon), how to help north Korea in­te­grate into the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is a tough chal­lenge, eco­nom­i­cally and strate­gi­cally, for the Us to han­dle alone. Other con­cerned states, es­pe­cially south Korea, Ja­pan, China and rus­sia, can po­ten­tially ex­er­cise en­tre­pre­neur­ial and in­tel­lec­tual lead­er­ship in fa­cil­i­tat­ing the peace­ful set­tle­ment of the nu­clear cri­sis on the Korean Penin­sula. as a re­sult, a re­vival of the six-party talks seems nec­es­sary to ful­fil this lead­er­ship-shar­ing mis­sion be­tween the Us and other ma­jor pow­ers in the re­gion.

there­fore, the Us should con­sider wel­com­ing a ris­ing China to share some of the bur­dens and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of global gover­nance that it has had to bear alone in the past. China, on the other hand, can help iden­tify the ar­eas where it can play a value-added lead­er­ship role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing state co-op­er­a­tion, thereby en­abling it to ac­cu­mu­late the pres­tige it de­serves. With great power comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity. this is true for China, as well as for the Us. If Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing can share in­ter­na­tional lead­er­ship, they will not only avoid the “thucy­dides trap,” but also pro­vide public goods to the whole world. al­though these two coun­tries might not have equal ma­te­rial power, they can have the same level of pres­tige in the fu­ture. a bal­ance of pres­tige will play the same, if not a more im­por­tant, role as a bal­ance of power in en­sur­ing sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity in world pol­i­tics in the fu­ture. kai he is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional relations in the grif­fith asia in­sti­tute and Cen­tre for gover­nance and public pol­icy at grif­fith uni­ver­sity in bris­bane, aus­tralia. he is also cur­rently an aus­tralian re­search Coun­cil (arc) fu­ture fel­low (2017-2020). his re­cent book is China’s Cri­sis Be­hav­ior: Po­lit­i­cal Sur­vival and For­eign Pol­icy (Cam­bridge, 2016). huiyun feng is a se­nior lec­turer in the school of govern­ment and in­ter­na­tional relations at grif­fith uni­ver­sity, aus­tralia. she is the au­thor of Chi­nese Strate­gic Cul­ture and For­eign Pol­icy De­ci­sion-mak­ing: Con­fu­cian­ism, Lead­er­ship and War (rout­ledge, 2007) and the co-au­thor of Prospect The­ory and For­eign Pol­icy Anal­y­sis in the Asia Pa­cific: Ra­tio­nal Lead­ers and Risky Be­hav­ior (rout­ledge, 2013). this es­say is part of a project sup­ported by the john d. and Cather­ine t. Macarthur foun­da­tion.

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