Sino-American Relations: Conflict, Cooperation, and Theory

Image: Beijing’s Temple of Heaven stands out against the summer sky

Image courtesy jplenio from Pixabay

Jeevan Palaniyandy is a student at Tufts University

Analysts agree that US-China relations are the most important global bilateral relationship but disagree about whether the two states can peacefully coexist as China becomes a ‘great power’. While offensive realist scholars suggest China’s continued rise will inevitably lead to intense competition and conflict [1]. Liberals and defensive realists argue mutual insecurity rather than true competition may push leadership toward conflict [2]. Many liberals cite modern economic interdependence and international institutions as forces for Sino-American cooperation [3]. Factors including a credible commitment problem, fear of a ‘revisionist’ rival, potential Chinese regional hegemony, security dilemmas, and popular nationalism increase the likelihood of US-China conflict. Conversely, Sino-American cooperation is dependent on economic interdependence, international institutions, nuclear deterrence, and asymmetrical hegemony.

Sino-American relations suffer from a credible commitment problem steeped in historical grievances. In China, American policy is seen through cultural and Realist frames that emphasize distrust in American intentions [4]. To many Chinese, American exploitation began with the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and continued during the Cold War as the US effectively isolated Beijing for its benefit [5]. Subsequently, the US strategically held back on full support of Beijing in the ‘Three Joint Communiques’, maintaining defensive support with the ‘Taiwan Relations Act.’ China saw this as further American meddling in domestic affairs and exploitation of Chinese good-will. Today, Taiwan remains a strong factor increasing the likelihood of future conflict, as Beijing relentlessly seeks to reunify its ‘renegade province’ with the mainland.

American offensive realists assert that the meteoric rise of China is incompatible with American strategic interests, leading to an intense security competition [6]. They fear Beijing’s expanding ‘soft power’ with the ‘Belt and Road’ investment initiative and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Some conclude this and expansion in South China Sea are clear examples China seeks to undo American hegemony for a Sinocentric international system. Conversely, Chinese analysts believe China is merely responding to rising US military presence in East Asia, thereby reducing its own vulnerability [7]. They argue that Beijing does not seek to upend the post-WW2 power structure and ‘Liberal International Order’ but improve its relative international position [8]. Despite these explanations, both countries view their rival as an aggressive ‘revisionist’ power attempting to reshape the international system, and themselves as the innocent preservers of the ‘status quo’ [9]. This “revisionist vs. status quo” model can lead to conflict by facilitating unhealthy competition and hawkish policies as each state seeks to preemptively subvert their rival. 

Offensive realists argue China must achieve ‘regional hegemony’ in Asia to truly rival the US. For this to occur, China must culturally and economically dominate its neighbors South Korea, Japan, India, and Russia, while gaining absolute sovereignty over Taiwan [10]. These scholars assert China is mimicking the United States’ 1823 ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in hopes of dismantling US presence in East Asia [11]. Defensive realists refute regional hegemony as ‘unnecessary and infeasible’ due to the rising military capabilities of China’s adversaries, and China’s advancing international standing [12]. Instead in this view, unless relations sour, China will accept US presence in the region given the alternative of conflict. 

‘China’s rise may be peaceful’ provided American leadership does not overreact to Chinese military and nuclear advances. Structural realists assert American overreaction and hawkish policy may fuel China to respond accordingly, leading to an arms race [13]. This would foster an extreme security dilemma and intense competition as predicted by Offensive Realism [14]. However, structural realists argue a lesser security dilemma can be a stabilizing force ‘if a state believes that its adversary is driven only by a quest for security” [15]. This is because reduced insecurity reassures leadership and thus helps prevent combative policy. Some structural realists argue the US should renege on its defensive commitments to Taiwan, as the significant insecurity it creates for Beijing renders it a likely site of conflict [16]. In this view of structural realism, a mild security dilemma can provide opportunities for ‘restraint and peace.’

Popular nationalism rather than ideological differences intensifies the Sino-American rivalry and would heighten any conflict. Some suggest the US should not resist China’s rise, as unlike the USSR, it does not export its authoritarian political ideology abroad. Nationalism instead will be the major ideology in any Sino-American conflict [17]. Hypernationalism fostered by political demagoguery, chauvinism, and historical senses of ‘exceptionalism’, could inflame an existing security dilemma [18]. A post-pandemic surge of nationalism reinforces Beijing’s ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ and expansionary aims [19]. Excessive nationalism, however, hinders the CCP’s long-term goals by reducing international appeal, and Beijing may be forced to constrain the very nationalism it has fostered. 

Liberals emphasize economic independence and international institutions as causes of peace while Realists tout nuclear deterrence. By providing markets, capital, and technology, the US helped to modernize China’s economy and fostered economic interconnectedness [20]. Liberals argue as long as both the US and China find this economic interdependence indispensable it will disincentivize competition despite added political friction [21]. Offensive realists reject this, suggesting ‘political calculations trump economic ones’ as conflict can occur against economic interest [22]. Many liberals argue international institutions provide a strong framework for diplomacy and negotiation, ensuring the Sino-American relationship will remain peaceful. Some liberals disagree, arguing international institutions must check authoritarian regimes like China that violate human rights standards, as seen in the Xinjiang re-education camps [23]. Despite participating in the UN, WTO, WHO, and World Bank China believe the US uses international institutions and ideological weapons such as democracy and human rights, to rubber-stamp its security interests [24]. Realist scholars build on this, claiming the deterrence of nuclear weapons may prevent conflict. The Nuclear Peace Theory asserts the unthinkable consequences of mutually assured destruction will force future cooperation and peace [25]. Some Liberals suggest the power structure of ‘asymmetric hegemony’ China seeks to foster is good for global stability [26]. Offensive realists refute this stating ‘war is more likely in multipolarity than in bipolarity’ as the increased number of hegemons breeds competition [27]. Ultimately, economic independence, international institutions, and nuclear deterrence may serve as causes of peace.

In summary, offensive realism, structural realism, and liberal thought help to frame factors contributing to Sino-American conflict and cooperation. China’s meteoric rise has brought unprecedented security challenges to the United States. While Sino-American competition will undoubtedly grow in the decades to come, only time will tell if this will result in conflict.

Citations

  1. Charles Glaser, “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?,” Foreign Affairs (Council on Foreign Relations, ` September 15, 2015), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2011-03-01/will-chinas-rise-lead-war, 2.
  2.  Ibid,. 3.
  3.  Ibid,. 2.
  4.  Michael Beckley, (December 4, 2020).
  5.  Ibid.
  6.  John J. Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 14.
  7.  Wu Xinbo, “The China Challenge: Competitor or Order Transformer?,” The Washington Quarterly 43, no. 
  8.   Ibid,. 13.
  9. Jennifer Lind, “Asia’s Other Revisionist Power,” Foreign Affairs (Council on Foreign Relations, August 19, 2019), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2017-02-13/asias-other-revisionist-power, 6.
  10. Mearshiemer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” 7.
  11.  Ibid,. 13.
  12.  Glaser, “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” 9.
  13. Ibid,. 5.
  14. Mearshiemer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” 14.
  15. Glaser, “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” 4.
  16. Ibid,. 11.
  17. Jessica Chen Weiss, “China’s Self-Defeating Nationalism,” Foreign Affairs (Council on Foreign Relations, July 16, 2020), 
  18. Mearshiemer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” 27.
  19. Chen Weiss, “China’s Self-Defeating Nationalism,” 6.
  20. Michael Beckley, (December 1, 2020).
  21. Wu Xinbo, “The China Challenge: Competitor or Order Transformer?,” 4.
  22. Mearshiemer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” 33.
  23. Michael Beckley, (December 3, 2020).
  24. Wu Xinbo, “The China Challenge: Competitor or Order Transformer?,” 11.
  25. William C. Wohlforth, “5-41,” in The Stability of a Unipolar World (Abu Dhabi, UAE: The ECSSR,   2001), 14.
  26. Wu Xinbo, “The China Challenge: Competitor or Order Transformer?,” 12.
  27. Mearshiemer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” 2.

Bibliography

Beckley, Michael. “China 1.” Lecture, December 1, 2020. 

Beckley, Michael. “China 2.” Lecture, December 3, 2020. 

Beckley, Michael. “China 3.” Lecture, December 4, 2020. 

Glaser, Charles. “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign   

Relations, September 15, 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2011-03- 01/will-chinas-rise-lead-war. 

Lind, Jennifer. “Asia’s Other Revisionist Power.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, 

August 19, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2017-02-13/asias-other-revisionist-power.

Mearsheimer, John J. “Can China Rise Peacefully?” Essay. In The Tragedy of Great Power 

Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. 

Weiss, Jessica Chen. “China’s Self-Defeating Nationalism.” Foreign Affairs. Council on 

Foreign Relations, July 16, 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-07-16/chinas-self-defeating-nationalism. 

Wohlforth, William C. “5-41.” Essay. In The Stability of a Unipolar World. Abu Dhabi, UAE: 

The ECSSR, 2001. 

Xinbo, Wu. “The China Challenge: Competitor or Order Transformer?” The Washington Quarterly 43, no. 3 (2020): 99–114. https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660x.2020.1813402.