China is assertive! This has been the talk in Washington for quite some time. The most-noted Chinese assertive acts are, of course, the newly proactive and at times tougher-than-before stands toward the United States. China’s upgraded and forceful moves in the East and South China Seas have also raised many eyebrows. Alongside those highly-contested turns are China’s self-assured pushes for change in regional and global affairs.
Why has China become assertive? In a fundamental sense, China’s change of behavior is not a planned act in a long march to overthrow the United States, but a natural outgrowth from its expanding national power. Its assertiveness is a manifestation of typical behavior at the second stage of the power transition ostensibly taking place between China and the United States.
At the moment, China is still somewhat perplexed about its own assertiveness and the consequences. The United States in the meantime is also struggling with the proper ways to deal with rising China. The nations in the Asia Pacific, and eventually the world, are watching attentively the unfolding U.S.-China power transition and will adjust their policies accordingly.
Power transition is set in motion by the rise of a previously underdeveloped big nation, dissatisfied with the existing international system and its powerful stakeholders. As its national power grows and expands, this rising “big fellow” has the impulse to make changes, intentionally or compulsively, to the rules of the system that purportedly works against its interests. Changes of this kind challenge the existing international order. If the challenger and the status-quo powers cannot come to terms with the changes peacefully, they often settle their differences on battlefields.
Thucydides was perhaps the first to observe that power transition carries the seeds of war. In his account of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC, Thucydides asserted that the growth of Athenian power and the fear generated on the Spartan side had trapped the two powerful nations into a war for 27 years.
While the power transition theory is still subject to scrutiny, the world is witnessing China’s rise, with its unprecedented scale, speed, and complexity. Given China’s precarious relations with the existing international order and its present leader, the United States, it begs the question whether a power transition is in the making and whether U.S.-China relations will fall into the same trap.
U.S.-China Power Transition, Stage I (1978-2008)
By many measures, the rise of China in the U.S.-led international system has indeed triggered a U.S.-China power transition. In retrospect, this power transition started when China embarked on its modernization mission in 1978. It caught world attention when signs of China’s rising emerged in the early 1990s and accelerated in the early 2000s.
In the midst of this titanic change, a “China threat” concern has also emerged to overshadow China’s relations with the outside world and for good reasons. First, China played no part in the making of the existing international order and sought its destruction for decades prior to 1978. China was in no position to challenge the U.S.-led system then, but instead desperately needed to become part of it, especially in the economic world. However, there was still deep-seated concern that a more developed China would find ways to topple the existing order in due time.
Second, China’s contemporary misfortunes aside, it has a resilient cultural, socio-political, and strategic tradition that is perhaps the only qualified match to that of the dominant Western civilization. For better or for worse, this China is a prospective threat to the West, for, as the late Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington put it, when China becomes more powerful, the Chinese will feel that they are entitled to remake the world in their image.
Third, rising China is controlled by an authoritarian party that refuses to accept widely, if not universally, shared democratic values and standards.
The Chinese, however, find the China threat allegations insulting. They argue that power transition is a Western experience and the Thucydides Trap should not apply to China’s relations with the United States. Yet Chinese leaders have nevertheless come to see that China’s rising power is generating forces beyond their control.
U.S.-China Power Transition, Stage II (2009-2050)
By 2009, the U.S.-China power transition had entered a new stage, stretching most likely to 2050.
What is special about this second stage? Among many other things, the narrowing of the gap in overall national power between the system leader and the rising power is perhaps the most defining factor of this stage. It gives rise to two typical behavior patterns in these two key players in power transition. On the one hand, the system leader develops a strategic anxiety, feeling more uneasy with the rising power and its consequential impact on the international order. The system leader still wishes to shape and manage the rising power. At the same time, although its supremacy has eroded, it still has the power to take a strong stand against the upstart, or even launch a preemptive strike to derail the rising power.
The rising power, on the other hand, has become more confident about itself and starts to act more assertively and uncompromisingly. During the first stage, when it is much weaker and in need of the system leader’s leniency for its development, the rising power had to put up with the system leader on many issues. Now, with added power, the upstart is no longer willing to take the pressure without significant pushback.
The rising power may hope to avoid confrontation. Indeed, if it is only a matter of time before the upstart surpasses the system leader, why ruin its cause with a fight? Yet the emerging reality may force the upstart to defy this cool-headed calculation; as the old saying goes, one’s intention is proportional to one’s capability.
For the above reasons, the second stage is a time for the Thucydides Trap to spring.
Game Changer: U.S. Strategic Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific
The United States has been concerned with the rising China since it showed signs of emergence in the early 1990s. However, “burning issues” elsewhere had kept the United States busy in other parts of the world and unable to develop a coherent response to China’s monumental challenge until the Obama Administration took office in 2009.
Obama’s response was the U.S. strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. By all measures, this is a typical move by the system leader at the second stage of the power transition. It seeks to preserve and strengthen the U.S.-led economic, security, and political order in the Asia-Pacific. It is a response to the shift of international geostrategic power and a game-changing act in U.S. foreign policy that relocates U.S. emphasis from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.
Indeed, although radical Islamic terrorists make trouble everywhere, they cannot overthrow the U.S.-led international order. Even the defiant Iran and North Korea are not in any position to do so. However, China’s challenge is systemic, and its growing power can affect the destiny of the Asia-Pacific (and the world, for that matter). Because of this, as a 2012 Department of Defense document put it, the United States “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”
Seven years into the rebalance, it is fair to say that the Obama Administration has made some headway. However, the gains have come at a heavy price—the United States has come to the forefront to confront China and the two big powers are rushing toward a premature showdown.
Game Changer: An Assertive China
While the United States was busy with the strategic rebalance, China was also making fundamental changes to its foreign policy approach toward the United States. The most significant one is China’s turn to assertive diplomacy, orchestrated by China’s assertive president, Xi Jinping.
Much like the Obama-Clinton “rebalance to Asia” drive, Xi Jinping rallies the Chinese with his “China Dream” drumbeat. Unlike the Obama team, which came to the White House in a nation exhausted by two costly wars abroad and hard-hit by the financial meltdown at home, Xi took the reins over a nation with more than 30 years of phenomenal economic development, as the newly-crowned second largest economy and No. 1 trading nation in the world, and an emerging frontrunner in many other world-class competitions. Confident in China’s ascendance, Xi tells the Chinese people that restoring China’s rightful place in the world is within their reach and urges them to “strive to do more” (“奋发有为”) in international affairs to facilitate China’s advance.
With these marching orders, China bids farewell to its long-practiced low-profile and reactive foreign policy (低调反应型外交) and turns to a proactive and agenda-setting diplomacy (主动筹划型外交). Thus, instead of responding to outside pressures and reactively seizing opportunities for its development, China has started to take the initiative in international affairs, set agendas on important issues of the day, and create opportunities for its continued national development.
These assertive orientations have given rise to “a great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” Examples include China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the push for a Chinese role in global governance, and yes, China’s increasingly assertive stance on maritime disputes.
An Uncharted Journey
The U.S.-China power transition differs in many ways from past power transitions. It is understandable that there is no guidebook for China and the United States in the unfolding second stage. Given the uncertain and contentious nature of this titanic change, what are we to expect from these two big nations in the next 30-some years?
First, while the ultimate success of China’s modernization cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion, the likelihood of it completing most of the major developmental measures by 2050 is reasonably high. China’s rising trend is not stoppable by outside forces; only the Chinese can defeat themselves (or more pointedly, only the Communist Party of China can screw up China). For better or for worse, the CPC holds the key to China’s alternative futures. For the time being, and the years to come, the CPC is well-positioned to continue its one-party authoritarian rule and carry out the mission as planned.
Second, with China’s continuing rise as a plausible given, one should see that sometime during the second stage of the power transition, China’s national power will reach parity with that of the United States.
Chinese leaders are eager and prepared for this eventuality. They claim that their “new model for major country relations” is the answer to this uneasy change. President Xi has also repeatedly reassured the United States that China is different from all past great powers; it has no intention to overthrow the existing international system or replace the United States as a world leader; cooperation is the only choice for the United States and China; there will be gives and takes down the road; zero-sum mentality should go away; and only win-win solutions can get the United States and China out of the Thucydides Trap and move the two nations forward.
The United States, however, cannot take China’s promises with good faith. After all, there is no genuine trust between the two nations regarding each other’s intentions. Particularly, China is concerned that the United States has no respect for the CPC government and seeks its eventual demise. The United States is suspicious that China intends to uproot the United States and change the U.S.-led international order. China’s cooperation with the United States can only be a matter of convenience because it is mostly based on dubious perception of common interests but not on trustworthy common values. This distrustful relationship will continue to trouble the two nations no matter how much the CPC tries to downplay the significance of the ideological differences or how many ties China has with the United States.
Avoiding the Thucydides Trap: Give China the Benefit of the Doubt?
Although China’s challenge to the United States is becoming global and across the board, accommodation between the two in many areas may very well be negotiable, given some time. However, the two nations’ maritime contest in the Western Pacific is a different story. It is intense and developing very fast; before the United States and China have had a chance to figure out proper responses to each other, the two are rushing toward a premature showdown in the troubled waters. The recent “face-offs” between Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his Chinese counterparts over the South China Sea at the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue are alarming.
However, compared to the never-ending bloody struggles in the Middle East, what has happened in the South China Sea is almost harmless. All can still afford to take a step back and pursue a peaceful and fair solution to the disputes.
The Chinese have been saying all along that they have the wisdom and ability to resolve the disputes with their maritime neighbors peacefully and fairly. China points to its track record of settling territorial disputes with its land neighbors this way. In the last several decades, China has settled disputes with 12 of its 14 land neighbors (the only ones outstanding are India and Bhutan). Of special note is the case with Vietnam, a rival claimant in the South China Sea. China has settled all the land borders with Vietnam, with Vietnam getting 52 percent of the disputed territory, most notably at the segment where the two nations fought a war in 1979. China and Vietnam have also divided up the Gulf of Tonkin in two equal halves, fair to Vietnam. China has shown that there was no bullying its smaller neighbors. China holds that if it could settle the land border disputes peacefully and fairly in the past, it can do the same with its maritime neighbors in the future.
Of particular note is China’s nine-dash line around the South China Sea. One has to see that it is the product of the age-old great power post-war conduct of the past. China’s drawing of the nine-dash line is practically no different from the European colonial powers dividing up spheres of influence everywhere in the world. The Chinese are themselves to blame for not securing these “spoils” in the “lingering age of the jungle”—the time before fundamental changes took place in world affairs, moving the world away from the time where the powerful did whatever they wanted and the weak nations suffered whatever they must.
The nine-dash line is not legal according to the Law of the Sea. But its historical relevance cannot be dismissed. China understands that it cannot turn what is inside the nine-dash line into a Chinese lake. For all practical purposes, China is upholding the line as a bargaining perimeter. It is bound to compromise with the other claimants.
Recently, China has proposed a two-track approach for the South China Sea affairs. On the one hand, the territorial disputes should be left to the disputants only. On the other hand, China and ASEAN will work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.
China’s proposal appears to be a workable solution. The United States should give China the benefit of the doubt in keeping its promise and resolving the disputes peacefully and fairly. This change of mindset and strategy may reverse the downward spiral of the U.S.-China relations and steer the power transition in a positive direction.
David Lai, Ph.D. is Research Professor of Asian Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.