In this 25 August Foreign Affairs essay reprinted on the China-US Focus website, Columbia University Professor Andrew Nathan and RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist Andrew Scobell preview their book China’s Search for Security. “China’s rise has led to fears that the country will soon overwhelm its neighbors and one day supplant the United States as a global hegemon,” they note. “But widespread perceptions of China as an aggressive, expansionist power are off base. Although China’s relative power has grown significantly in recent decades, the main tasks of Chinese foreign policy are defensive and have not changed much since the Cold War era: to blunt destabilizing influences from abroad, to avoid territorial losses, to reduce its neighbors’ suspicions, and to sustain economic growth. What has changed in the past two decades is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers.”
The authors go on:
In the Chinese view, Washington’s slow rapprochement with Beijing was not born of idealism and generosity; instead, it was pursued so that the United States could profit from China’s economic opening by squeezing profits from U.S. investments, consuming cheap Chinese goods, and borrowing money to support the U.S. trade and fiscal deficits. While busy feasting at the Chinese table, U.S. strategists overlooked the risk of China’s rise until the late 1990s. Now that the United States perceives China as a threat, these Chinese analysts believe, it no longer has any realistic way to prevent it from continuing to develop. In this sense, the U.S. strategy of engagement failed, vindicating the advice of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who in 1991 advocated a strategy of “hiding our light and nurturing our strength.” Faced with a China that has risen too far to be stopped, the United States can do no more than it is doing: demand cooperation on U.S. terms, threaten China, hedge militarily, and continue to try to change the regime.
Despite these views, mainstream Chinese strategists do not advise China to challenge the United States in the foreseeable future. They expect the United States to remain the global hegemon for several decades, despite what they perceive as initial signs of decline. For the time being, as described by Wang Jisi, dean of Peking University’s School of International Studies, “the superpower is more super, and the many great powers less great.” Meanwhile, the two countries are increasingly interdependent economically and have the military capability to cause each other harm. It is this mutual vulnerability that carries the best medium-term hope for cooperation. Fear of each other keeps alive the imperative to work together.
China has not earned a voice equal to that of the United States in a hypothetical Pacific Community or a role in a global condominium as one member of a “G-2.” China will not rule the world unless the United States withdraws from it, and China’s rise will be a threat to the United States and the world only if Washington allows it to become one. For the United States, the right China strategy begins at home. Washington must sustain the country’s military innovation and renewal, nurture its relationships with its allies and other cooperating powers, continue to support a preeminent higher-education sector, protect U.S. intellectual property from espionage and theft, and regain the respect of people around the world. As long as the United States addresses its problems at home and holds tight to its own values, it can manage China’s rise.
Watch this video of Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose interviewing Professor Nathan: