How the US Views China’s Rise


How the US Views China’s Rise

An Extract from P.62 of an LSE IDEAS Publication, May 18, 2016

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No other power excites debate about emerging powers among American policymakers and academics quite like China. Its incredible economic growth and military modernisation has increasingly defined American foreign policy in the post-Iraq space, promoting an increasing preoccupation with Asian and maritime security. It has raised both day-to-day policy challenges, as well as deeper theoretical challenges on the peaceful rise of powers in history. This debate has often pitted those within the realist tradition against neoliberal institutionalists.

The history of China in American policy has an interesting arc. Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Sino-American ties underwent a deep freeze. Despite this, the George H.W. Bush presidency (1989-1993) encouraged the resumption of high-level political ties and vetoed attempts by Congress to link the political relationship to progress in human rights. There was a belief that economic liberalisation would lead to political liberalisation. Until that time, American policy would hedge against two outcomes: a friendly, liberal China and a strong, challenging China.

This binary reveals itself in the varying articles about China in the early 1990s. Was Asia ripe for rivalry?’ Aaron Friedberg’s pessimistic 1993 International Security article thought so. Others, like David Shambaugh, wondered if the US should enact an engagement policy or containment policy. Some like Patrick Cronin, Kenneth Lieberthal, and James Shinn have argued for various forms of engagement, which deeply coloured Clinton policy on China. Others like Arthur Waldron, Gideon Rachman, and Gerald Seagal recommended ‘constrainment’ or varying forms of containment. This debate spilled over into the policy community, in what became known as the ‘Red Team/Blue Team’ debates. ‘Blue Team’ members included congressional sta ers, journalists, and policy academics who were hawkish on China, while ‘Red Team’ members preferred engagement and accommodation. Blue Teamers painted the 1996 campaign finance controversy (in which the Chinese government attempted to influence US domestic politics through donations to political campaigns) as a sign of growing Chinese influence in Washington. In Congress, they publicised accounts of Chinese defence-related espionage – as described in the 1999 Cox Report – and sought to show how growing Chinese military capabilities would make it a threat one day, requiring from 2000 annual reports from the Defense Department and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The 1995-6 Taiwan Crisis and 1999 Belgrade bombing seemed to raise China’s threat profile, though trade was delinked from security issues.

The incoming G.W. Bush administration in 2001 was deeply sceptical of China, seemingly justifiably after their first crisis; the P-3 Incident off of Hainan Island (in which their was a mid-air collision between a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese Navy fighter jet). The administration’s attitude softened in its second term as Robert Zoellick attempted a charm offensive from the State Department, initiating the ‘responsible stakeholder’ approach.

In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Obama administration seemed to follow the Zoellick approach, with James Steinberg emphasizing the management of tensions as China underwent what Chinese President Xi Jinping called ‘the great revival of the Chinese nation.’ However, there was a growing perception in Washington and regional capitals that Chinese ‘assertiveness’ had risen in the face of accommodation, which led to a backlash in the second term.

The Rebalance to Asia, or ‘Pivot’, rolled out in 2011 is intended to invigorate American leadership in the region and while it is not aimed at China, there is no doubt that China’s rise plays a part in its conception. It’s built around the three pillars of economic, security, and political engagement, and have seen a large uptick in activities between the US and its allies, between the US and China, and between the US and ASEAN member-states.

American writing on China has increased immensely, commiserate with its standing as the world’s next largest economy and military power. Writers have tended to come from two groups: China-watchers and IR scholars/security experts. China watchers like Iain Alastair Johnston, Harry Harding, David Lampton, David Shambaugh, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael Pillsbury have tended to adopt culturally nuanced approaches to policy, basing their analyses on cultural, linguistic, and network familiarity within China. Their tone varies widelybetweenShambaugh’s,‘TheTangled Titans: the United States and China’, and Pillsbury’s warning, ‘One Hundred Year Marathon’. Others ponder the efficacy of American policymaking, like Harry Harding’s ‘Has US China Policy Failed? Those who have a more general IR background focus on the US-China relationship or rising power debates. This includes a wide range of academics and practitioners, including Henry Kissinger, Henry Paulson, James Steinberg and Evan Medeiros, who advocate a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Others like Aaron Friedberg, John Mearsheimer, Ashley Tellis, Robert Kaplan and Peter Dutton predict or seek to explain growing tensions and competition.

Over the past decade, much of the debate has been on whether the engagement policy vis-à- vis China has been successful in the long-term. Harry Harding’s Washington Quarterly piece, ‘Has US China Policy Failed?’, traces the reasons for American disappointment in China, looking at Washington’s hopes for political liberalisation inside China as well as the expectation that Beijing would become an active supporter of the international system. The fact that under Xi Jingpin, political control has been tightened over the media, over universities, and NGOs has played into this disappointment. As for a global role, China’s willingness to create regional organisations like Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the AIIB are seen as challenging to American interests, while its maritime disputes with American allies Japan and the Philippines are dramatically increasing regional insecurity.

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