Whether or not the United States is changing its anti-China strategy has become a focal point in the international strategic community. Every indication is that the discussion calling for rejection of the rise of a tough and tight China is getting more of an audience in American political, academic and media circles. The direction of China-U.S. relations has undoubtedly attracted more attention.
There have been three main scholarly U.S. discussions revolving around an anti-China strategy for more than half a year. In chronological order, they are: David Shambaugh's Chinese “crackup," strategic revisions by the Council on Foreign Relations and David Lampton's "tipping point."
On March 6, Shambaugh, professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, published a long article in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Coming Chinese Crackup.” When China’s National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference were held in Beijing — and Shambaugh has always been regarded as a “China-watcher” or Sinophile — this theory, revolving around the argument that China faces economic and political collapse, caught every social circle by surprise. Soon afterward, the U.S. started a major debate that lasted months. Meanwhile, Asia Society Policy Institute President and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd publicly denounced Shambaugh as “dead wrong.”
As the saying goes, before the first wave subsides, a new wave rises. The Council on Foreign Relations, the most influential diplomatic policy research organization in the U.S., published a special report in April called “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China.” Unlike Shambaugh’s “crackup,” what this report emphasizes is the China threat theory, asserting that “China represents and will remain the most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come” and that “the likelihood of a long-term strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington is high.” The authors of this special report are Robert D. Blackwill, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, and Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The study group behind this report consists of 43 scholars from think tanks, academia, enterprises and media, including Shambaugh.
The point of this report is to call on the U.S. government to change its current anti-China policy. This would address dangers to U.S. interests in Asia and around the world caused by China’s economic and military expansion. Aimed at China’s goal to “replace the United States as the primary power in Asia,” the report provides a series of specific policy recommendations, including implementing policies to accelerate the U.S. economy, sign new Asian trade agreements that exclude China, introduce stricter anti-China science-technology export policies, establish strategic relations with Japan, Korea, India and Southeast Asia, as well as closer relations with Taiwan, etc. It also calls on bigger, stronger and more active Air Force and Navy forces in the Asia-Pacific.
On May 6, Lampton, professor and director of China Studies at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, also known by Chinese scholars as a “China-watcher,” published his “tipping point” article. Lampton, formerly president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, stated at the first U.S. World Forum on China Studies in the Carter Center: “Things unfortunately have changed dramatically since about 2010. The tipping point is near. Our respective fears are nearer to outweighing our hopes than at any time since normalization. We are witnessing the erosion of some critical underlying supports for predominantly positive U.S.-China ties.”
“Today important components of the American policy elite increasingly are coming to see China as a threat to American ‘primacy.’ In China, increasing fractions of the elite and public see America as an impediment to China’s achieving its rightful international role and not helpful to maintaining domestic stability.” Lampton stressed. Lampton is not the only scholar worried about the U.S. and China entering a freeze. As Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, wrote in the Financial Times, when Nixon went on a path-breaking trip to China in 1972, “the two countries were then just emerging from a long interregnum of outright hostility.”
Looking at more than 30 years of China-U.S. diplomacy from afar, the U.S. strategic community, according to its different theories, has been divided into two major groups: idealism (favoring liberal democratic values) and realism (favoring control of international power). According to the urgency of anti-China policies, they can be further divided into offensivism, defensivism, offensive idealism, defensive idealism (aka neoliberalism), offensive realism and defensive realism, thus constituting four quadrants of the U.S. strategic community’s anti-China policy. Quite a long time ago, the neoliberal theory, which combined China’s economy and politics into today’s international order, and the defensive realist theory, which obstructed China’s development, appeared one after the other. However, after 2008, especially in recent years, facing China’s unstoppable rise, U.S. academic and political circles have expressed their restlessness, whether it be disappointment that China did not become a stakeholder under America’s responsibility or worry about America’s Asia-Pacific interests at stake. Hope for quick success is gradually taking the lead in anti-China strategies, and offensive idealism and offensive realism can progress accordingly. Between them, “offshore balancing,” embraced by John Mearsheimer, a representative scholar of offensive realism, directly influences specific operations of the U.S. Asia-Pacific “rebalancing” strategy.
The accelerating reconstruction of Asia-Pacific geopolitics and geo-economics adds heat to the United States’ concern about China’s rise. In March 2015, with several of its allies following the United Kingdom’s lead in changing sides, the U.S. has no resistance. Preparatory work for China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is going smoothly, and a formal charter will be signed by the end of June. The establishment of the AIIB is undoubtedly a milestone in China’s promotion of its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. Needless to say, “One Belt, One Road” is an attack on the entire reconstruction of international geopolitical and geo-economic order — or rather, as Taiwanese political commentator Nanfang Shuo calls it, the attack of Eurasia’s “Eastern hemispherism” on America’s “Western hemispherism.” As for the South Sea issue, Western strategists had envisioned all sorts of possible outcomes, but no one ever thought that China would rely on superb pioneer engineering technology to advance its artificial island construction in the South Sea before the United States' very eyes, essentially changing the strategic situation.
In the first half of 2015, when the U.S. raised this issue as part of the core agenda of China-U.S. relations and increased tensions, a new layout of South China Sea strategies was in place. The establishment of the AIIB and artificial islands in the South Sea have shocked the U.S. strategic community, which, alas, is an important setting for stimulating the current anti-China strategy discussion. Whether it is the U.S. Treasury or Obama's chief economic adviser, everyone acknowledges that the concern of China’s rise and America’s decline, of the U.S. losing dominance in the global economic system, of losing leadership of global trade rules, is growing. More importantly, the U.S. has begun its election cycle. China has once again become every candidate’s consumption target, and former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Clinton is using everything in her arsenal.
This concern is not only spoken about, but has been demonstrated as well. The revised Japan-U.S. Trade Promotion Authority was adopted under Obama’s encouragement, Japan joined Exercise Talisman Saber, and Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen was given deferential treatment in the United States. From security to economy, from Japan to Taiwan and then to Australia, the United States is stepping up its Asian “rebalancing" strategy.
China-U.S. relations are facing numerous problems and challenges. Beijing’s layers of decision-making are permanent reminders. A new defense white paper was issued in late May, Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Fan Changlong visited the U.S. in early June, and there was a strategic and economic dialogue by the end of June — not to mention a series of initiatives in Beijing — all to join hands in building trust and erasing doubts in the hopes of properly handling China-U.S. differences.
China started its economic reform almost in sync with its establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S., and its implementation was a strategic choice to join the U.S.-led international system. Even though it faced restrictions from the West during its entire reform, what China seeks is not to challenge matters outside the international system, not to start from scratch outside the international order, but rather, it seeks room for development in the international order and a bigger role in the overall system. Entering the 21st century, China’s rise has become an increasingly clear and evident trend. At the same time, China plays an increasingly important role in the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and many other international organizations. China's AIIB and “One Belt, One Road” strategy are initiatives to provide public goods for the world, to assume more responsibility as a country of influence and an effort to seek international space to which China is adaptable.
The direction of China-U.S. relations and the game they will play will depend on President Xi Jinping’s visit in September.