Written by Dingding Chen.
The critical assumption behind the U.S. pivot/rebalance strategy in Asia is that the U.S. needs to maintain its hegemonic position in Asia and China is increasingly challenging the U.S. hegemony. Worried that the U.S. might be marginalized in Asia by China’s seemingly unstoppable rise, the U.S. has made great efforts since 2011 to strengthen its military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties with allies and partners in Asia. However, very few policy makers and analysts in America ask a simple question about one key assumption: Does China really want to push the U.S. out of Asia? Needless to say, an overestimate of China’s malign intentions will lead to overly aggressive policies on the part of the U.S. or even lead to preventive war if the U.S. really wants to maintain its hegemony.
This explains why Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang’s recent comments on Sino-US relations have stirred up a debate online (here and here). Wang Yang stated that “have neither the ability nor the intent to challenge the United States”. Partly because it is rare for a senior Chinese leader to make such soft remarks with regard to Sino-US relations and partly because Wang’s remarks are seemingly inconsistent with China’s recent assertive foreign policies, there has been a fierce debate about the true meaning of Wang’s remarks in the U.S. Most American analysts, however, are skeptical toward Wang’s conciliatory remarks and continue to believe that China’s ultimate aim is to establish a China-centric order in Asia at the expense of the U.S. influence. In other words, China seeks to replace the U.S. as the new hegemon.
The reactions from the US side, again, show the deep mistrust in China with regard to China’s long term goals. But such concern and skepticism is misguided and even dangerous to Asia’s peace and stability if left uncorrected. Why? Because Wang Yang was sincere when he said that China does not have the capabilities or desire to challenge the U.S. We can analyze each dimension in more detail.
First let us look at China’s capabilities, which are necessary if China wants to challenge the U.S. Although China’s comprehensive capabilities have been growing rapidly for the past three decades, most analysts in and outside of China agree that there is still a huge gap between China and the U.S. in terms of comprehensive capabilities, particularly when the U.S. is far ahead of China in military and technological realms. China’s economy might have already passed the US economy as the largest one in 2014, but the quality of China’s economy still remains a major weakness for China ahead. Thus, it would be a serious mistake for China to challenge the U.S. directly given the wide gap of capabilities between the two. American power will remain strong, thanks to its advantages in military technology, financial dominance, dynamic education system, and healthier demographics. Even if one day China’s comprehensive capabilities catch up with the US, it would still be a huge mistake for China to challenge the U.S. because by then the two economies would be much more closely interconnected, creating a situation of mutual dependence benefiting both countries.
Beside limited capabilities, China’s also has limited ambitions. This has not been properly understood by many US analysts. It is true that China’s grand strategy is to realize the ‘China dream’, a dream that will bring wealth, glory, and power to China again. But this, by no means, suggests that China wants to become a hegemon in Asia, or to create a Sino-centric tributary system around which all smaller states must obey China’s orders. Indeed, it is just impossible these days to rebuild the tributary system as ideas of equality and sovereignty have been internalized by other smaller countries in Asia. The past of Asia is long gone, as renowned scholar Amitav Acharya has pointed out. This is why no serious scholars in China today advocate the return of the tributary system. It might be true that some in China want China to play a more active role in global affairs, but this is far away from recreating a China-centric regional order in Asia.
Perhaps many US analysts have unconsciously let ultra-realist thinking slip into their minds, and therefore believe sincerely that states are constantly engaged in ruthless pursuit of power and influence. But the structure of international politics has fundamentally changed since the end of the cold war, rendering any serious possibility of world hegemony ineffective or even impossible. In essence, the costs of hegemony outweigh the benefits of hegemony in this new era of international politics, thanks to rising nationalism, nuclear weapons, and increasing economic interdependence between major powers. Chinese leaders understand this new and changed structure of international politics, and based on such assessments they have decided not to seek hegemony, which is a losing business in this new era.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is still obsessed with the concept (or illusion) of hegemony, as Reich and Lebow have pointed out recently. The hegemony mentality is precisely the reason why the US has declined (slowly) in the post-cold war era. Wrongly believing that a stable global order needs U.S. hegemony, American leaders have adopted a grand strategy of ‘liberal intervention’, which has only caused self-inflicted wounds for the US economy and its global status. The tragedy, however, is that within US elites circles, this misperception about US hegemony (see for instance here and here) is unlikely to go away for a long time absent a significant failure.
Thus, unless the U.S. policymakers seriously reexamine the flawed assumption behind their ‘rebalance’ strategy, a huge mistake will be made with regard to China’s future intentions. A likely result would be that growing U.S. suspicions of China’s capabilities and intentions lead to serious diplomatic, economic, and even military tensions with China. This would truly be a tragedy. To avoid such an outcome, both countries need to clearly signal their peaceful intentions to each other through more confidence-building measures as well as cooperation in all areas. There is still time for the two countries to do these. But first the U.S. side needs to correct their misunderstandings of China’s ambitions.
Dingding Chen is an assistant professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau. He tweets @ChenDingding. A version of this piece was originally published on The Diplomat. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Embassy The Hague/Flickr.