The New Era of U.S.-China Rivalry. By Aaron Friedberg
Beijing's leaders have concluded that the U.S. is in decline and that now is the time to seek more global influence.
WSJ, Jan 17, 2011
When he meets with President Barack Obama this week, China's paramount leader Hu Jintao will probably be looking to soothe concerns over his country's recent behavior. The last two years have seen a marked increase in tensions between the two Pacific powers, as well as between China and many of its Asian neighbors. In the past 12 months alone Beijing has:
• Shielded North Korea from tough international sanctions, despite Pyongyang's unprovoked sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and deadly shelling of a small island;
• Intensified its long-standing claim to virtually all of the resource-rich South China Sea by suggesting that the region was a "core national interest," a term previously used to refer only to areas (like Tibet and Taiwan) over which China is willing to go to war.
• Declared publicly that, when it comes to resolving competing claims over this region "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."
• Threatened for the first time to impose sanctions on U.S. companies that participate in arms sales to Taiwan.
• Conducted unprecedentedly large and complex naval exercises in the waters of the Western Pacific.
• Revealed the existence of a new stealth fighter aircraft.
• Begun initial deployments of a new antiship ballistic missile targeting U.S. aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific.
Not surprisingly, all of this activity has stirred anxiety across Asia, and it has begun to provoke responses from the United States as well. President Obama's recent swing through Asia included stops in India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, but it pointedly excluded Beijing. American and Japanese defense officials have since announced their intention to devote more resources to counter China's rising power, and the U.S. and South Korea have enhanced their military cooperation. Despite a history of animosity, Seoul and Tokyo have taken steps in the same direction.
Beijing's behavior has thus triggered reactions that could make it harder to achieve its long-term goal of re-establishing China as the dominant power in East Asia. A well-timed campaign of "smile diplomacy" could help.
But how meaningful will any of this week's theater be? The answer depends in large part on what lies behind China's recent assertiveness. Some Western analysts have sought to explain it away as an incidental by-product of political infighting in the run-up to the planned 2012 leadership succession, or a passing outburst of belligerence by some elements of the People's Liberation Army. Cooler heads have now prevailed, we are told, and they are now trying to put the country back on the less confrontational path it has followed for the past three decades.
Unfortunately, the problem is more deeply rooted than these reassuring assertions suggest. While Chinese leaders may disagree on questions of tactics and timing, there is no reason to believe they differ over fundamental questions of strategy. Beijing may be willing to dial back its rhetoric, but it is not going to abandon its goal of regional preponderance.
Since the start of the 2008-09 financial crisis, many Chinese strategists have concluded that the U.S. is declining, while China is rising much faster than expected. Belief that this is the case has fed an already powerful nationalism that appears to be increasingly widespread, especially among the young.
In this view it is time for China to "stand up," to right some of the wrongs suffered when the country was relatively weak, and to reclaim its rightful role in Asia and the world. Such sentiments are not the exclusive preserve of the military, although it may seek to tap them for its own ends. The rising generation of Chinese leaders cannot afford to ignore these views, and they may well share them.
If this assessment is correct, then the last two years are not a temporary deviation but a portent. Rather than signaling the start of a new interval of cooperation and stability, Hu Jintao's visit may mark the end of an era of relatively smooth relations between the U.S. and China.
Mr. Friedberg is a professor at Princeton University. His new book, "A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia" is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.