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Home > Special Topics > Asia Report Last Updated: 15:13 03/09/2007
Asia Report #9: March 13, 2003

The Dragon and the Eagle: Fated Rivals?

Robert Sutter (Professor, Georgetown University)

This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.

The rapid rise of China's power and influence in world affairs, especially in nearby regions, prompts a steady stream of commentary, warning of its efforts to push the United States out of Asia. Several factors reinforce these arguments: China's enviable position as the locomotive of Asian economic growth; a growing web of China-centred trade and political arrangements with Asian partners; and the rapid build-up of Chinese military power.

According to this line of thinking, China's reluctance to support US pressure on Iraq and North Korea reflects its long-term strategy to weaken the US and open the way for greater Chinese power and influence in Asian and world affairs.

But China's behaviour, both in the region and in trying to improve relations with the Bush administration, seems to tell a different story. That may underscore the strong awareness by Chinese leaders of the difficulties involved in competing directly with the US superpower.

The Chinese government has worked to sustain regional stability and to develop greater economic advantage and political influence, without compromising core Chinese territorial, security or other interests. Its efforts encountered difficulties, notably in the early 1990s: neighbouring countries were alarmed by China's assertiveness over disputed territories along its eastern and southern flanks, and its bellicose posture during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996.

Since then, the Chinese government has followed a long-term strategy of pursuing objectives that avoid direct confrontation and conflict with US interests. At the same time, the objectives gradually broaden Chinese influence relative to that of the US in the countries along China's periphery.

The objectives include: securing China's foreign policy environment at a time when the regime is focused on sustaining economic development and political stability; promoting economic exchange that assists economic development; calming regional fears and reassuring Asian neighbours about how China will use its rising power and influence; and strengthening China's regional and international power and influence, and helping to secure an ambiguous world order.

Meanwhile, recently disclosed private deliberations of senior Chinese leaders revealed that Communist Party leader Hu Jintao recognised China's relative weakness in Asia in the face of US global dominance and the "accelerated strategic eastward movement" of US power. He and other senior leaders argued that US power and the US importance to China's development required a flexible and accommodating posture that would keep China-US relations on an even keel.

Mr Hu said: "[The United States has] strengthened its military deployments in the Asia-Pacific region, strengthened the US-Japan military alliance, strengthened strategic co-operation with India, improved relations with Vietnam, inveigled Pakistan, established a pro-American government in Afghanistan, increased arms sales to Taiwan, and so on. They have extended outposts and placed pressure points on us from the east, south and west. This makes a great change in our geopolitical environment."

The power and policies of the Bush administration did change the Asian situation in important and sometimes negative respects for Chinese interests, especially after the September 11 attacks.

Chinese leaders, nonetheless, reacted with restraint and moderation, helping to set the stage for a significant upswing in US-China relations. American specialists differ over what caused the favourable turn between 2001 and this year, but they tend to agree that the improvement has reinforced the Chinese government's moderate trend in policy toward Asia.

Some specialists - including this writer - believe that Bush administration policies prompted the mainland government to reverse course, seeking better US ties by offering concessions and removing irritants. Those US policies included the effective use of power and influence in Asia, the administration's firmness on Taiwan and other disagreements, and an initial downgrading of China's priority in US foreign policy.

A second view explains the improvement in US-China relations largely on the basis of a change in Bush administration attitudes. Under this view, it is argued that most US governments enter office promising a hardline policy towards China, only to adjust and moderate the policy in the face of the realities involving China's importance for vital US interests in Asian and world affairs. They assert that the September 11 attacks strengthened the Bush administration's imperative to work with Chinese leaders in the global war against terrorism.

A third school of thought acknowledges that Chinese moderation and accommodation in the face of the Bush administration's firmness played a key role in encouraging the upswing of relations. But they aver that Chinese leaders came to the judgment largely on the basis of greater confidence in China's regional and international position.

They were not deeply concerned over the Bush administration's firmness and manoeuvres. Their moderation and accommodation stemmed from the judgment that, amid strong economic growth and unchallenged political dominance, the Chinese government was making significant gains in its global standing, notably around its periphery in Asia. Relations with Southeast Asia and South Korea were particular bright spots, while relations with Russia, Central Asian governments and South Asia remained on a positive footing.

Other sources of satisfaction and confidence for the Chinese leadership resulted from the acceptance of Beijing as the site for the 2008 Olympics, China's relatively smooth entry into the World Trade Organisation and its status as the largest recipient of foreign direct investment last year.

These three different explanations - each in its own way - reinforce a common judgment that China will continue to follow a moderate and pragmatic approach towards its periphery, along with continued US-China co-operation in Asia. First, Chinese leaders see little to be gained from being assertive or directing pressure tactics against US interests in Asia. A better path for China is to endeavour to co-operate with the US, or bide its time.

Second, the perceived positive Bush administration shift towards China seems to work to China's advantage. As the US becomes more accommodating to Chinese interests, Chinese leaders are, presumably, in an ever more influential position in Asian and world affairs.

Third, a Chinese leadership that is confident of China's power and influence in Asian affairs appears unlikely to resort to an assertive or aggressive stance that could disrupt recent gains in relations.

Looking to the future, some optimists foresee a major breakthrough in China-US co-operation in Asia. But sceptics take fuller account of the many deeply rooted differences that Chinese and US leaders will continue to grapple with in the years ahead.

Most immediately, China is widely seen in the US as continuing to straddle the fence on Iraq, privately pledging not to block American military action, but siding publicly with France and others in calling for protracted inspections.

More broadly, though the US and China are developing more common ground in Asia, they differ strongly over Taiwan, how to secure stability in Korea, and ultimately which power will be paramount in Asia.

China remains the sole large power building an array of more modern military forces to attack Americans. Below the surface of amity also lies a wide range of contentious security, political, economic, and other difficult issues that make the US bilateral relationship with China by far the most contentious and complicated US relationship in Asian or world affairs.

If the Bush administration was to become bogged down in Iraq, the war on terrorism, or elsewhere, and/or it was to lose approval at home and abroad on account of Iraq or a major US economic downturn, Chinese leaders would feel compelled to revive pressure tactics to go back on recent advances in US policy in sensitive areas, notably Taiwan. Not to seek gains over Taiwan at times of US weakness or dependency on China would go against many decades of Chinese leadership practice in dealing with the US over this issue.

Meanwhile, the day-to-day interaction of US and Chinese military forces along China's periphery has not been without significant incident, even as the two powers endeavoured to resume more normal ties after the April 1, 2001, spy plane episode. An unarmed US Navy surveillance ship was harassed and rammed by Chinese boats in waters off the Chinese coast last year. US surveillance aircraft along China's periphery routinely encounter Chinese fighters, sometimes at close quarters.

The balance of considerations argues for a Chinese posture in Asia that will give more emphasis to the positive than the negative in China-US relations. Growing common ground in Asian affairs will help relations develop in agreeable ways and reinforce China's overall moderate approach to the region.

But the continuing clash of long-term US-China interests in the region are reflected in current differences over North Korea and Iraq, and particularly in the continued PLA buildup targeted at Taiwan and US forces that might help Taiwan. They suggest that a major breakthrough towards strategic co-operation is unlikely.

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