US belief of American supremacy endangers its relations with China
When Barack Obama campaigned for the US presidency in 2008, one of his most effective rallying calls was 'Change we can believe in'. A significant part of the change he proposed was in foreign policy, which he believed had been misguided by a neoconservative movement within the Republican party, leading to disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan which had also ruined America's economy and its world standing.
Surprisingly, since assuming office, Obama has slowly transformed himself into a neoconservative fan. Neoconservative ideology, which believes in the absolute superiority of the American democratic system and values, underpins the administration's foreign policy, and nowhere is it more evident today than in Obama's China policy.
Jeffrey Bader, the former head of East Asian affairs in Obama's National Security Council, recently published a book claiming that the highly publicised US 'return to Asia' was really designed for 'stabilising' Sino-US relations. But this rhetoric convinced no one. What Bader is trying to say is clear: if not exactly searching for a new enemy, the Obama administration certainly does not believe in a world without one. Bader does not explain that the US has, in a very short time, turned a proposal for a G2 into a new cold war.
Indeed, the US government has undone the basic premises of Sino-US relations that had held fast for almost four decades and launched a clash of civilisations.
The central premise of Obama's foreign policy is that China is trying to challenge the status quo. It is seen as a rising power with a grudge against the US-dominated international system. A duel across the Pacific is thought to be crucial for shaping world politics.
When the neoconservatives dominated George W. Bush's foreign policy in 2001, the predominant theme about China was expressed in an analogy of a democratic Britain's struggle with a rising, authoritarian Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. It is alarming today to hear Obama's officials making the same arguments.
Does the Obama team have its China policy right? First, the US and China seem to have a totally different understanding of the meaning of strategic 'stability'. Obama and his team are firmly grounded in the idea that only unipolar hegemony by the US can guarantee stability of the international system; such a simplistic strategic vision reflects a distinct neoconservative ideology and reading of human history. Ideologically, it looks forward to a liberal democratic order dominating the globe. The administration assumes that China, like Imperial Germany, will challenge America's leadership. Hence, a hard-power-based containment strategy takes priority.
To the Chinese, stability starts with basic strategic trust. They have proposed 'strengthening' mutual trust for years, but, with the US 'pivot' towards Asia, they have discovered that the 'trust deficit' is too huge and perhaps unbridgeable without a new path of engagement.
The neoconservative leanings within a Democratic presidency has raised another concern. Obama is known as a foreign policy 'realist' but, at the same time, continues the Democratic tradition of promoting universal values. Such a combination bodes ill for future relations with China. On the one hand, Obama will try his best to maintain America's hegemonic position, and Washington's tenacity in looking for challengers to its position will intensify. On the other hand, a universalist foreign policy can provide the perfect cover for hiding America's decline and justify the traditional policy of relying on military power to hold onto its 'second to none' status.
This could also mean that US-China relations have entered their most risky phase since the 1970s. The irony is that the US thinks that it is defending the status quo, hence a 'defensive offence' is the only choice. For China, territorial integrity remains the top priority, so it has no alternative but to continue its traditional 'offensive defence', buttressed by military modernisation. Common strategic ground cannot be built when their psychological reasoning is not on the same wavelength.
China and the US are different in many fundamental ways. China is the last remaining cultural and ethnic empire held together by a continuous history and a common language. The US is the newest multiracial empire held together by a set of political values.
Providing political stability to promote economic growth in China has been a daunting challenge. China needs time and benign external conditions for its own transition to a more stable and pluralistic form of government. But the long-term stability of the US depends on a sustained popular faith in the myth of American superiority.
Any analysis of current US-China relations should focus on how to avoid misreading the other side's intentions. Stability in any relationship can be achieved in two different ways: through hegemony built primarily on military priority; and, through trust based on diplomacy. When the trust deficit is too big, priority should go to confidence-building.
There is no good reason why the oldest and youngest empires have to go to war with each other.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. This commentary was provided by the China Energy Fund Committee