Cooperation or Coercion: The Future of US-China Relations

The “Thucydides Trap” occurs when a rising power causes fear in an established power, leading to war. Thucydides’s documentation of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens challenged Sparta in Ancient Greece, gave foundation to a reoccurring trend in the evolution of the international system. Over the last 500 years, 12 of 16 past cases had the same outcome: war. When war was avoided, major adjustments by both the rising and established power had to be made to develop and sustain a new global security architecture. Reports by Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security and Jeffrey Bader of Brookings Institution describe today’s relational dynamic between the United States and China and provide frameworks for U.S. policy towards China. Although the United States has concerns over China’s domestic and foreign policy, areas of cooperation between the two countries exist and must be utilized to avoid Thucydides’s trap and instead develop economic ties, bilateral trust, and regional peace.

“Power and Order in the South China Sea: A Strategic Framework for US Policy” by Patrick Cronin describes a framework that references four quadrants: military power, diplomatic positioning, rules and architecture, and the “blue” (ocean) economy. While Cronin argues American policy toward China should exhibit a combination of the four quadrants to exercise comprehensive power, he believes that the most effective policies revolve around geoeconomics (made up of  the blue economy and rules and architecture quadrants); namely, renewing emphasis on economic instruments to defend the national interest and produce beneficial geopolitical results.[1]

The development of a geoeconomic framework is based on the assumption that China’s goals are economic rather than strategic. Because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees economic prosperity as the main catalyst for domestic legitimacy, Chinese policies strive for the creation and continuation of economic growth and development. Cronin believes the United States should tailor its policies to China’s economic ambitions with more geoeconomic emphasis to help limit competition and tension.[2] This requires the United States to adopt greater reliance on geoeconomic instruments of power, while also actively engaging in dialogue with China and Southeast Asian nations.

Jeffrey Bader, in his report “A Framework for US Policy Toward China,” similarly creates a framework to strengthen relations between the United States and China. Bader believes there are three long-term policy options the United States can choose to implement toward China.[3] The first is “accommodation,” where China’s rise is inevitable and should be accepted by the United States, which would lead to the diminishment of America’s presence in the Western Pacific. The second option is “containment, confrontation, or untrammeled strategic rivalry,” where China is seen as a regional threat and an American adversary, which would lead to aggressive U.S. policies to contain Chinese influence. The third option is “global cooperation, regional resolve,” which serves as the middle-ground between the first two options. Bader, a proponent of the third option, believes America’s relationship with China should not be reduced to pure rivalry, but strategic differences between the United States and China in the Western Pacific should not be overlooked either.

Unlike the geoeconomic framework presented by Cronin, Bader’s framework is based mostly upon strategic priorities, such as increased communication and clarity regarding alliance commitments, trilateral coordination between the United States, China, and South Korea on policy toward North Korea, and active U.S. Navy presence in the South China Sea. [4] Ultimately, Bader believes U.S.-China cooperation is possible without the United States needing to roll back on its role as the dominant power in the Western Pacific.

The urgency for a comprehensive and long-term U.S. framework toward China is based on 1) concerns about current Chinese policies, and 2) the assumption that China’s rise will continue at its remarkable pace.  Regarding the first point, the United States and other regional actors in the Western Pacific are concerned by China’s rapid military modernization, aggressiveness in the South and East China Sea, and lack of transparency. Combined, this makes it difficult to confidently anticipate China’s non-economic ambitions, and has put countries like Japan and Vietnam on edge, while pushing countries like the Philippines to bandwagon behind China. Nonetheless, China alone is not a military threat today, which is why the second point is significantly more important.

In his report, Cronin writes that by 2030, Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined, in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment.[5] But is such a trajectory inevitable? While Bader does not evaluate factors that could hinder China’s growth, Cronin outlines current and potential future developments that could radically alter America’s prevailing narrative about China.

For one, China’s economic growth – measured via GDP – has slowed considerably, questioning the accuracy of China’s economic growth projections. While it is not surprising to see underdeveloped countries achieve high rates of economic growth (a common occurrence among Asian tigers), scarcity in a country’s factors of production will naturally decelerate GDP growth.

Secondly, the prevailing narrative tends to overlook intra-regional rivalries that are posed to be a brake on China’s – and Asia’s – rise. For example, the vast majority of Chinese and Japanese distrust each other and clash over history.[6] From the South China Sea to the East China Sea to Kashmir, many countries have regional disputes with Beijing, including Japan, India, and Vietnam. There is also the small but concerning risk of a nuclear conflict breaking out between India and Pakistan.

Thirdly, it cannot be assumed that China’s domestic landscape will remain constant. Sporadic protests like the Umbrella Movement – organized by China’s youngest adult generation – challenge the legitimacy of the CCP. Furthermore, due to the one-child policy, China’s population pyramid is destined to become top-heavy, which will drastically alter the structure of the country’s labor force. Perhaps most importantly is the incompatibility between China’s pro-globalization policies and China’s system of governance. With globalization comes Westernization and the spread of liberal norms. Therefore, the CCP will realize – if it has not already – that the economic policies they seek as a source of political legitimacy may very well be the policies that orchestrate the Party’s downfall.

Regardless of China’s growth trajectories, the United States should still begin to increase cooperation with Beijing on global issues to develop regional stability and bilateral trust. One example is combatting climate change, which had been the focal point for cooperation between the two countries under the Obama Administration. Fighting against terrorism – such as preventing ISIS from gaining footholds in Asia – is another area where China and the United States can find common ground. Geoeconomic foreign policy toward China would strengthen opportunities to cooperate on trade and development. North Korea and cybersecurity are two more potential areas for cooperation, albeit much more complex as China is a fragile ally of North Korea and guilty of launching cyberattacks at the United States. While U.S. cooperation with China on North Korea and cybersecurity will take more time, it will serve as an opportunity for both countries to exhibit their commitment toward building stronger relations.

[1] Patrick Cronin “Power and Order in the South China Sea: A Strategic Framework for US Policy” CNAS November 2016

[2] Cronin

[3] Jeffrey Bader “A Framework for US Policy Toward China” Brookings Institution 10 October 2016

[4] Bader

[5] Cronin

[6] Cronin

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