A widely held belief among many in China is that every US policy move affecting the country is part of a concerted strategy of containment aimed at preventing its reemergence. Thus, the US “rebalancing” in Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the US alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia are all components of a US effort to maintain US dominance at China’s expense. This view is wrong. Containment was US policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The USSR was a rival ideology, a competing anti-capitalist economic system aimed at expanding the Soviet empire. Containment was an effort to isolate Moscow economically and contain its military power.
This is decidedly not US policy toward China. Eight US presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama have pursued a policy of facilitating China’s economic modernization and integration into the international system.
Indeed, no country benefited more than China from the US security role that has underpinned stability in East Asia and the globalizing economy over the past four decades.
As China launched its reform and opening-up policies, its economy grew from some $202 billion in 1980 to roughly $7 trillion by 2012, as it joined global institutions from the WTO to the IAEA.
The US became China’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in 2012 reaching $536 billion. Cultural ties have also grown: Some 200,000 students attend US universities.
This reflects an economic relationship of deep interdependence. This is also why the TPP, rather than being a device to contain China, is a means of furthering economic integration in the Pacific.
Though the Obama administration has not explained it well, China could decide to join the TPP if and when it is willing to adopt the trade rules of the agreement.
As China’s new leadership pursues a new wave of economic reforms, Beijing will likely find that better protections for its intellectual property rights and other standards serve its interests.
But as China has developed its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities, the US has also pursued a geopolitical posture of hedging against strategic uncertainty. So too has China.
This duality of economic integration and strategic competition or hedging is the prevalent reality in the Asia-Pacific. It is why nations from India to Vietnam have increased security cooperation with the US and with each other.
This is counterbalancing, a time-honored approach to the game of nations. This is not to be confused with containment.
Long before the US “rebalancing” was proclaimed, before Obama became president, the US had been strengthening alliances and security partnerships in East Asia over the past two decades. The current US posture is the accumulation of those efforts.
Counterbalancing means mobilizing resources and partners to offset a perceived challenge to the existing strategic balance. The danger is that this can create a dynamic known as a “security dilemma” in international relations theory.
One state increasing its military strength because it feels vulnerable may produce an unintended reaction in another state which feels threatened, leading to a spiral of increased tensions and conflict. This is evident in US-China relations.
The US “rebalance” reflects a perception of a growing Chinese military power, a concern that a core US interest – maritime access – may be at risk.
And as Dr Wu Xinbo of Fudan University, a prominent strategic thinker, has written, “China has responded by continuing to develop its ‘area-denial’ and ‘anti-access’ capabilities so as to maintain a reliable deterrent against US forces within the so-called first island chain….”
This Pentagon-PLA mirror-imaging and reflexive competition lies behind the strategic distrust in US-China relations.
It is also why Obama and Xi agreed on the need to create a new type of relationship at the recent summit in California.
The challenge to both the US-China relationship and more broadly to stability in East Asia is how to move from strategic distrust to strategic reassurance.
The reality is that mutual vulnerabilities from economic and financial to cyberspace, outer space, and climate change are shared interests. This should lead to a more cooperative Sino-US relationship.
At the end of the day, whether US-China relations are more cooperative or competitive will be a major factor shaping the international order in the 21st century.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. This piece first appeared on Global Times.