Game of rivals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am


If anything, the recent Brookings Institution-Peking University report on the strategic distrust between the United States and China points to a difficult period ahead for the world's two most powerful countries.

The highly regarded report, given prominent coverage in the American media, provides an honest and insightful assessment of the fundamental obstacles to the establishment of enduring trust in each other's long-term intentions. The most important conclusion drawn by the report is that US-China strategic distrust is corrosive and self-reinforcing: distrust drives the adoption of policies that further deepen distrust.

Given the fundamental differences in values, sources and structure of power, decision-making process, and threat perception between China's one-party state and America's liberal democracy, it is virtually impossible to establish strategic trust between these two countries. While the ruling Communist Party of China will always regard the United States as its greatest political threat, in the United States, the Democrats and Republicans alike, see China's Communist Party as an illegitimate regime whose pledge of 'peaceful development' is strategic deception.

Of course, two additional factors - the narrowing gap of power between the two countries and the defence policies adopted by each to hedge against the other - have further inflamed the distrust among each country's elites.

Under normal circumstances, strategic distrust does not necessarily lead to conflict. But that is no longer true for the US and China. For all practical purposes, the two countries have, partly by choice, but mainly because of circumstances not of their own making, become strategic competitors.

In the eyes of some observers, 'strategic competition' is merely a euphemism for another cold war. This is not true. While the ongoing US-China strategic competition does resemble the great power rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union, it notably lacks the intense ideological hostility, the dominant focus on military superiority, the global scale, and absence of deep and extensive economic and social ties that marked the cold war.

Today, the US-China strategic competition is primarily regional, not global, in nature. Its focal point is Asia, where the US attempts to preserve a balance of power and prevent the rise of a dominant power. Although this strategic objective serves American interests, it is seen by China as essentially an attempt to constrain China's legitimate influence in the region. This is the basic logic driving US-China strategic competition.

Elsewhere in the world, the US and China will compete, but the stakes are smaller and less dangerous. Mostly, they will jostle for economic and diplomatic advantages. The two countries' competition for natural resources, such as energy and commodities, will continue to raise eyebrows. But, because such competition is mediated through third parties (other sovereign states) and well-developed global markets, it is unlikely to unleash lethal dynamics.

The US and China will also increasingly find themselves at odds over the issue of democracy and human rights. As the world's largest and most powerful one-party state, China has an intrinsic interest in ensuring the survival of similar regimes around the world. Of course, to the extent that its autocratic developmental model is successful, China hopes that it can inspire and guide other authoritarian regimes to follow the same path.

The United States, the world's democratic superpower, has the opposite interest. Although Washington's double standard on democracy has limited its options for regime change in a handful of critical countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan, by and large the United States has favoured the replacement of autocracies by new democracies whenever possible. This ideological competition, though less vicious than that between Soviet communism and liberal democracy, nevertheless has become a key feature of Sino-American relations. The simmering tension between Washington and Beijing over Burma's incipient transition towards democracy is but one example.

Managing US-China strategic competition is difficult, but not impossible, in the context of strategic distrust. The most effective policy response is not to address the issue of strategic distrust because it is so deeply embedded in the nature of the political system of each country. Unless and until China makes the transition to democracy (since no one can imagine that the US will become a one-party state), this competition will be a permanent feature of world politics.

Instead, the focus should be on managing the competition itself. In retrospect, both the Soviet Union and the United States gradually learned to manage their conflict despite the lack of trust during the cold war.

So China and the United States should draw some of the useful lessons from the last episode of great power competition. Of these lessons, three stand out: one, despite the lack of trust, both parties understand the vital interests of the other and refrain from directly challenging those interests; two, setting the rules of the game in this competition is critical; and, three, competition does not preclude honest, professional, and substantive dialogue.

Given the American experience in managing strategic rivalry, Washington is better equipped in handling this competition than Beijing.

The real challenge is China's response to such strategic competition. Its national security decision-making structure and process is more fragmented. Its capacity for understanding and evaluating American policies and capabilities is more politicised and less sophisticated. Strategic distrust is not symmetrical - Chinese elites, being less secure, are more distrustful of their American counterparts.

However, these are surmountable obstacles. No Chinese leader wants to see a total collapse of US-China ties. So when China's pending leadership transition is completed in the coming year, the most urgent foreign policy priority for Beijing is for its own reset of US-China relations.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College