At the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, held last October, President Xi Jinping (64) ensured his leadership for the next five years. With his domestic power base thus secured, he is now ready to face the world.
The significance of his “coming out” for another five years reverberates around the world because the international stage of the first half of this century will be dominated by the U.S.-China relationship. I see this relationship as falling along a continuum of the three C’s of conflict, competition and cooperation. Over the next 10 years, I weigh these C’s as conflict registering a likelihood of 20 percent, competition 55 percent and cooperation 25 percent.
Conflict. The possibility of conflict stems from China’s avowed goal of becoming a regional power by 2035, perhaps by pushing the United States out of the Western Pacific. If this aim becomes more explicit, according to retired Army Gen. Jack Keane (the architect of the successful military surge in Iraq in 2007), this puts Washington and Beijing on a collision course. For the United States, this poses the risk of a “shadow of the future” in that, in seeing the economic and military rise of a challenging power like China, a status quo power like the United States, in any given crisis, might be tempted to launch a military strike before parity is achieved by the challenger.
A companion analogy to Keane’s prognosis is the 19th century challenge by German to British naval power by diverting its steel production from building railways to constructing elite Dreadnought class battleships in a frontal threat to British military power that, in part, triggered the horrors of World War I. Threatening the core of an adversary’s national power is a sure fire way to provoke conflict. Today, China by diverting its previous military focus from its land forces to a massive maritime build-up in the South China Sea, raises a similar nineteenth century threat to the U.S. Navy.
Competition between China and the U.S. is the far more likely scenario. China is not a strategic threat to the United States. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was. We were locked in a deadly arms race in which the Soviets outspent us on defense and had a larger military establishment. In waiting them out, the Soviet economy collapsed, and the Cold War ended. In contrast, we have much larger, and higher quality, air and naval forces than China, and our defense expenditures are triple theirs.
With China, our relationship is a competition in trade, not a race to military mastery. Indeed, the value of this trade and its extent is so interlocking that neither side can separate its destiny from the other. Its value is $600 billion every year, and is the largest two-party trade in the world. The U.S. absorbs more of China’s industrial exports than the rest of the world combined, while China holds more U.S. dollars than any other entity besides our own Federal Reserve. Thus, we keep the Chinese economy growing even as the Chinese dollar holdings provide investment funds for the growth of our own economy. Neither party can break away from this interdependence for the distraction of a war.
In this competitive relationship, a recent conference of American China scholars at the Brookings Institution concluded that even though the U.S. cannot stop the economic rise of China, other than continue to outgrow it, it can restrain China’s potential bid for regional hegemony by rallying the so-called “Democratic Quad” of the United States, Japan, Australia and India to insist that the Asia-Pacific remain a region of partnered powers.
Cooperation. In this mix, the likelihood of cooperation seems a distinct outlier. But there is a path to it; and, strange to say, it lies in the Korean peninsula. China and the United States both have deep historical interests in preventing any renewal of war here — having fought a bloody war over Korea in the 1950s. Both know that any use of force in such a tinder box could ignite an unstoppable conflagration.
The better path would be the signing of a formal peace treaty that would demilitarize the entire peninsula, freeing it from nuclear weapons and all foreign troops. The treaty would be monitored by a joint U.S.-Chinese compliance force. In addition, the two economies of the Korean peninsula would be integrated, as political reunification would proceed in managed stages. This may be a pipe dream, but I give it a 25 percent chance.
In any case, serious challenges lie ahead for the United States in this century of competition with China. We will need to get our domestic house in order first — as the Chinese did last October.