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The challenge of US-China relations placed in broad perspective

By: Michael E. O’Hanlon and James Steinberg

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from: A Glass Half Full? Rebalance, Reassurance, and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship.

Beyond the fundamental, structural reality of a rising power pushing up against an established power, there are also specific dimensions to the relationship between the United States of America and People’s Republic of China (PRC) that add particular texture, complexity, and potential difficulty to the inherent tensions between a rising and an established power. As we wrote in Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, the interaction between these two great powers, China and the United States, is colored by their distinctive histories and strategic cultures, which we characterize as the Middle Kingdom meeting the Shining City on a Hill.

The sense of exceptionalism begins with each country’s belief in the virtue of its own form of government. In the United States, this is rooted in the special providence that led to the founding of the American democracy and has sustained it for nearly 250 years. For China, it is the Confucian tradition of the mandate of Heaven, married to the Marxian conviction of the mandate of the Communist Party, that restored the glory of the ancient dynasties while lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.

Moreover, unlike Western countries, which are seen as aggressive and imperial, China sees its overall role in the world as more peaceful and restrained, based on Confucian values and a history of waging relatively few wars of aggression or ambition.

Even more consequential is how this sense of exceptionalism extends to each country’s views about international order and national security. For many Americans, the blessings of liberty are not solely for the benefit of the United States, but should be championed universally. China, too, has a sense of a unique civilization with a privileged role and destiny to be the natural dominant power (at least within East Asia) benevolently providing order to lesser, even tributary, states. As the source of many of East Asia’s cultures, languages, religious traditions, and other distinguishing characteristics, it does not lack for confidence. Moreover, unlike Western countries, which are seen as aggressive and imperial, China sees its overall role in the world as more peaceful and restrained, based on Confucian values and a history of waging relatively few wars of aggression or ambition. As such, it feels no particular sense of deference toward the United States or Europe.

More concretely, each country’s current strategic outlook is shaped by recent events that color how it seeks to achieve security — the product of powerful and extremely painful lessons that they aim never to repeat. For the United States, the experience of the two World Wars undermined the dominant, relatively isolationist narrative of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in favor of a belief that U.S. security could be achieved only through sustained global leadership and engagement. Manifesting resolve and avoiding deterrence failure became the top priorities. Worries about inadvertently contributing to needless wars, or fueling the flames of international conflict in showdowns with other powers, have been seen as less pressing. President Trump’s election may foreshadow a more restrained approach, building on President Obama’s own skepticism about the scope of U.S. engagement and intervention abroad, including forward-deployed military presence.

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For China, a century of humiliation, beginning with the Opium Wars in 1839 and culminating in the Japanese invasion and occupation, instilled a conviction in the PRC’s leaders to build China’s strength in ways that would never again make China vulnerable to foreign coercion. This sentiment is reflected in Mao’s assertion that China “has stood up,” and more recently in Xi Jinping’s evocation of the China Dream and the past glory of previous great Chinese dynasties.

Thus Chinese and American conceptions of their exceptionalism and their unique role in establishing international order further exacerbate the inherent structural tensions between the powers.

Thus Chinese and American conceptions of their exceptionalism and their unique role in establishing international order further exacerbate the inherent structural tensions between the powers. Despite the lack of contested borders or territorial claims and the vast distances that separate them, there is an element of rivalry in the relationship. That dynamic need not lead to conflict. The two countries have important shared interests. They are major trading and investment partners with each other. They both have nuclear weapons, adding an extra element of caution to temper expressions of rivalry and complement their mutual dependencies and self-interest in cooperation. Despite their different political systems, and despite America’s convictions that democracies are better partners than autocracies, modern China is more open and pluralistic than the China Kissinger and Nixon first approached in the early 1970s in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution. And even at their most ambitious moments, Americans rarely promote “regime change” in China.

Despite these ameliorative factors there are risks that the relationship could become more prone to conflict. The U.S.-China economic relationship, while close, is increasingly contentious. Key American allies, especially Japan, have complicated histories and fraught current relationships with China. And of course, disputed islands, waters, and sea beds in the western Pacific maritime regions provide a possible casus belli that could, in a worst case, lead to small battles with the possibility of escalation. China might well seek to employ its newfound muscle to impose its will by force. Since the United States is so firmly committed to the liberal international order it has helped build since 1945, including the regional security architecture of East Asia, it will have a strong inclination to resist even modest aggressions, believing much more than small islands or isolated seas are at stake. While it is possible to overstate the parallel to Thucydides’ Trap, by which Sparta and Athens went to war due to forces that seemed to some beyond their control, it is clear that the relationship is surely fragile, and the potential stakes are very high.

Learn more about and order A Glass Half Full? Rebalance, Reassurance, and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship, available on May 30th from the Brookings Press.