The relationship between China and the United States has grown more complex with greater tensions in a number of areas over the past three decades. Powerful domestic and international factors, especially in the military and security realms, increasingly influence actions and reactions.
How can the two countries address these issues to avoid an arms race or confrontation? Jim Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon show the need for deliberate policies on both sides in their book, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve. Steinberg, who is Dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and former Deputy Secretary of State, discussed with VOA’s Jim Stevenson the issues between the rising and established powers.
STEINBERG: We face both a very traditional problem of managing relationships between a rising power and an established power, but a very specific content of the problem of the United States and China. It is exacerbated by the fact we have very different political systems and we have very different views about how we should govern ourselves and how we should interact with the world. This creates a very volatile and difficult circumstance. There is no doubt that we have these differences that are not just differences of perception. They are differences of values, they are differences of the way we see the world. And yet we both understand that if we can find a way to manage these differences without coming into conflict, each of us will be better off.
STEVENSON: We in the West would consider ourselves the established power, at least for the past century. China historically believes it is actually not the rising power but the historic power.
STEINBERG: And that certainly is part of the overlay here. China which has a glorious history, one of which it is quite proud, but also recent history which is been more troubled. Particularly during the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, the experience of China with the outside world was one of invasion, of occupation, of a sense that the country was humiliated by the outside. So much of China’s own strategy is influenced not only by its memories of its great period of glory, but also this period of humiliation. I think it has been encapsulated in the most famous epigram from Mao Zedong, which was that “China has now stood up.”
STEVENSON: China views many of our actions as a containment policy. Are we in fact trying to contain China or are we managing the situation?
STEINBERG: They certainly say that they are concerned that U.S. policy is a containment policy. I am sure there are some who genuinely believe that in China. But I also think it is part of a political strategy which is an attempt to influence us and others by characterizing the American policy as a containment policy. They try to back us off a little bit. So I think we have to take those official statements from China with a bit of grain of salt.
At the same time I also think it is very clear that is not the U.S. policy. I think one of the hallmarks of U.S. policy is a belief that it is actually in the U.S. interest to have a successful China as a partner, as an engine of growth and an engine of stability.
STEVENSON: China tends to take a unilateral approach. They like to engage countries one-on-one. What challenges does that pose for the rest of the region?
STEINBERG: That is a very interesting observation and certainly true. China does not have a long history of alliances or partners. China believes alliances are a relic of the Cold War and a part of the containment strategy. We believe we can have alliances without them being directed at anybody else of having an enemy in common. I think that is one of the real challenges in managing the relationship.
STEVENSON: The Chinese are in a heated dispute with Japan over a group of islands that are uninhabited in the South China Sea. Should there be some sort of inadvertent clash between those two, what kind of a position does that put us in?
STEINBERG: Each side needs to be conscious of the fact that however strongly they feel about their respective positions on sovereignty that there is a bigger stake here. China and Japan have incredibly deep ties, strong economic interests. I think the big lesson of the last year is that whatever the differences are between countries, unilateral exercises of force or coercion are simply unacceptable in the 21st century. The United States has a very specific commitment with Japan through Article Five of our security treaty which recognizes that Japan does have the administration of these islands and the United States has the responsibility under its treaty to support Japan in defense of its administration of those islands.
STEVENSON: How much does the economy and China’s economic relations factor into perhaps muting any potential military conflict?
STEINBERG: Well, I think that is the big question. The optimists believe that because of the strong economic stake that China will be restrained and will avoid unnecessary conflict. On one level of rational analysis, that makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately what we have seen through history is often times that despite what seems like a standoff, objective perspective - each country acting rationally – that somehow individual decisions work against that. The most poignant case, clearly something we are reminded of on this 100th anniversary of World War I, is that despite the strong economic ties that bound many of the countries of Europe in 1914 that war still broke out.