China Power

China’s Potential Pitfalls #5: The United States

U.S. China policy remains a challenge for Beijing, but it’s not the South China Sea that will cause major issues.

China’s Potential Pitfalls #5: The United States
Credit: Screenshot from White House video

After enjoying rapid development for nearly 40 years, China is at a turning point in terms of both economic growth and social development. In this series, Dr. Xue Li examines the five most critical challenges and potential pitfalls China faces today. See his previous pieces on Pitfall #1, Pitfall #2, Pitfall #3, and Pitfall #4 as well.

China’s final potential pitfall is the foreign threat, which comes principally from the United States. Westernizing China remains the long-term goal of the United States, and the medium-term goal of dragging China into the current world order is also a westernization tactic.

Over the short term, Americans are working hard to establish win-win cooperation with China. But if China should fall into difficulties, the U.S. will adjust its policy goals. If economic stagnation and mass social unrest should appear in China, the forces aiming to divide the mainland will grow stronger, and those in the U.S. who want to westernize China (and fundamentally obliterate China’s capacity to challenge the United States) will see their goals as more realistic.

Ever since China began its reform and opening policy, the principal strategy of the United States has been engagement first and hedging second. Since 2014, however, this has been trending toward hedging first and engagement second. As hedging becomes more important, the South China Sea issue is now the touchstone for the United States in its monitoring of trends in Chinese foreign policy. Meanwhile, the U.S. has become more and more directly involved in the South China Sea issue. It is now one of the main players.

However, the principal goal of the United States in acting this way is not to contain China (as it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War), but instead to maintain the regional balance of power, maintain regional stability, and to protect its interests. In order to do this, the U.S. needs to have a fairly clear understanding of China’s policy goals in the South China Sea. Therefore the U.S. finds it hard to accept China’s ambiguous policies. However, the South China Sea is not a core interest of the United States and so it is unlikely to fight a war with China over the South China Sea.

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In fact, neither China nor the United States have any intention of fighting a war in the South China Sea. The disagreement about the South China Sea is actually being controlled effectively by both sides. China is also adjusting its own South China Sea policy in order to facilitate the accomplishment of its “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” strategy. China and the United States need to maintain communication about the South China Sea issue so that they will be able to reach more understandings and to avoid miscalculations.

If China is able to successfully respond to the five challenges I’ve listed in this series, it will not stumble on the threshold of becoming a developed country. China could continue to develop until it becomes the most powerful country in the world — this is the goal of the Chinese renaissance. However, if China is not able to respond effectively, these challenges could become pitfalls on the road to China’s rise.

Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Translation courtesy of Gao Dawei.