China’s American success storyAmerica’s strategy in Asia for more than a century has sought a stable balance of power to prevent the rise of any hegemon. Yet the United States, according to its official National Security Strategy, is also committed to accommodating “the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and that cooperates with us to address common challenges and mutual interests.” So America’s Asia policy has in some ways been at war with itself.
In fact, the United States has played a key role in China’s rise. For example, rather than sustain trade sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, it decided instead to integrate the country into global institutions. But U.S. foreign policy had been notable for a China-friendly approach long before that.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, who hosted the peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after the Russo-Japanese War, argued for the return of Manchuria to Manchu-ruled China and for a balance of power in East Asia. The war ended up making America an active participant in China’s affairs.
After the Communists seized power in China in 1949, the United States openly viewed Chinese Communism as benign, and thus distinct from Soviet Communism. And it was after the Communists crushed the pro-democracy movement in 1989 that America helped to turn China into an export juggernaut that has accumulated massive trade surpluses and become the principal source of capital flows to the United States.
America’s policy toward Communist China has traversed three stages. In the first phase, America courted Mao Zedong’s regime, despite the 1950-53 Korean War, China’s annexation of Tibet and domestic witch hunts, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Courtship gave way to estrangement during the second phase, as U.S. policy for much of the 1960s sought to isolate China.
The third phase began immediately after the 1969 Sino-Soviet military clashes, with America actively seeking to exploit the rift in the communist world by aligning China with its anti-Soviet strategy. Although China clearly instigated the bloody border clashes, America sided with Mao’s regime. That helped to lay the groundwork for the China “opening” of 1970-71, engineered by U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who until then had no knowledge of the country.
Since then, the U.S. has pursued a conscious policy of aiding China’s rise. Indeed, President Jimmy Carter sent a memo to various government departments instructing them to help in China’s rise - an approach that remains in effect today, even as America seeks to hedge against the risk that Chinese power gives rise to arrogance. Indeed, even China’s firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 did not change U.S. policy. If anything, the United States has been gradually loosening its close links with Taiwan, with no U.S. cabinet member visiting the island since those missile maneuvers.
Seen in this light, China’s spectacular economic success - including the world’s largest trade surplus and foreign-currency reserves - owes much to U.S. policy from the 1970s on. Without the expansion in U.S.-Chinese trade and financial relations, China’s growth would have been much slower and more difficult to sustain.
Allies of convenience during the second half of the cold war, the U.S. and China emerged from it as partners tied by interdependence. America depends on China’s trade surplus and savings to finance its outsize budget deficits, while China relies on its huge exports to the U.S. to sustain its economic growth and finance its military modernization. By plowing more than two-thirds of its mammoth foreign-currency reserves into U.S. dollar-denominated assets, China has gained significant political leverage.
China is thus very different from previous U.S. adversaries. America’s interests are now so closely intertwined with China that a policy to isolate or confront it is not feasible. Even on the issue of democracy, the United States prefers to lecture other dictatorships rather than the world’s largest autocracy. Yet it is also true that America is uneasy about China’s not-too-hidden aim to dominate Asia - an objective that runs counter to U.S. security and commercial interests and to the larger goal of securing a balance in power in Asia.
China’s growing power actually helps to validate U.S. forward military deployments in Asia, maintain existing allies in the region and win new strategic partners. Indeed, an increasingly assertive China has proven a diplomatic boon for the United States in strengthening and expanding its Asian security relationships.
The lesson is clear: The muscle-flexing rise of a world power can strengthen the strategic relevance and role of a power in relative decline. Barely a decade ago, America was beginning to feel marginalized in Asia, owing to several developments, including China’s “charm offensive.” But now America has returned firmly to center stage. South Korea has beefed up its military alliance with the U.S.; Japan has backed away from an effort to persuade America to move its Marine base out of Okinawa; Singapore has allowed the U.S. Navy to station ships; Australia is hosting U.S. Marine and other deployments; and India, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others, have drawn closer to the U.S. as well.
But no one should have any illusions about U.S. policy. Despite America’s “pivot” to Asia, it intends to stick to its two-pronged approach: seek to maintain a balance of power with the help of strategic allies and partners, while continuing to accommodate a rising China.
* The author is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and the author of “Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
by Brahma Chellaney