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America Has Never Faced a Power Like China

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The article is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the 2nd International Symposium on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region, hosted by the China Institute for International Strategic Studies in Beijing.

BEIJING -- There can be no doubt that the biggest question today about Asia's future order revolves around the relationships among three nations -- the United States, China and Japan. If a solid and durable foundation can be found for cooperative relations among the three powers, building a sustainable new order in Asia will not be difficult. If rivalry among them escalates, it might become impossible.

STATUS QUO VS. A NEW ORDER

The differences between their separate visions are not hard to see. America wants to preserve the status quo in which its leading position remains the keystone of the regional order, and the Chinese acceptance of U.S. leadership is the basis of U.S.-China relationship. While it is willing to consult more closely with China on a wide range of issues as China's power grows, it does not envisage any fundamental change in the nature of their relationship, or of China's role in Asia, over the coming years.

Americans argue that this status quo has worked very well for Asia -- including for China -- for many years, and they believe that it remains the best basis for regional stability in the future.

China, on the other hand, wants to change the status quo. President Xi Jinping has made this quite clear in his repeated calls for a "new type of major-power relationship." By this, he does not just mean that he hopes the U.S. and China can avoid the rivalry that throughout history has so often escalated between rising and established powers.

He also means that to avoid escalating rivalry, America and China should agree on a new basis for their relationship, different from the basis that was agreed between Chairman Mao Zedong and former U.S. President Richard Nixon back in 1972. Clearly, China does not believe that Chinese deference to the U.S. leadership is any longer an acceptable basis for U.S.-China relations.

From America's side, there seems to be increasing concern that China's real aim is to push America out of Asia and establish its own version of regional primacy. They point to China's assertive diplomacy over regional maritime sovereignty questions as evidence of China's malign intentions, and its willingness to use force to shape the regional order in its favor.

From China's side, there is an equal but opposite fear that America's real aim is to contain China's rise in order to preserve U.S. primacy. China points to U.S. President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia," including its highly-publicized military elements designed to bolster U.S. combat power in Asia, as evidence of America's mala fide intentions and its willingness to use force to achieve them. These suspicions clearly make it much harder for the two sides to contemplate serious accommodation with one another.

Many Americans seem still to underestimate just how much China's wealth and power have grown, and how strong China's ambitions have become. They do not yet take China's challenges to the status quo in Asia seriously.

On April 30, London-based Financial Times had a front-page banner headline that read, "China to take over from U.S. as top economic power this year." The story beneath the headline reported the World Bank's latest comparative survey of the size of national economies in 2011 based on their relative purchasing power.

It showed that on this measure, China's economy in 2011 was 87 percent the size of America's, and was trending to overtake it this year. Perhaps it has already done so.

The word "historic" is often applied rather freely, but this really is a historic moment. As the Financial Times noted, America overtook Britain to become the largest economy in the world in 1872. For almost 150 years U.S. economic preeminence has been the foundation and the source of American power, and the American power has done more than anything else to define a whole era in world history, and shape the world as we know it today.

It would be a profound mistake for America not to see what this means. It does not mean that America is in decline. Nor does it mean that China will necessarily replace America at the pinnacle of global power that it has occupied for so long: China will not "rule the world."

But it does mean that China today is a country that is fundamentally more powerful than any that America has ever had to encounter before. It is also a country that has a stronger sense of its place and status than any country in the world except perhaps America itself.

Both need to rid themselves of the assumption that the other cannot be a trusted partner in such a deal. There is no reason at all to assume that a mutual accommodation cannot be reached between them. America will not accept the establishment of Chinese primacy over Asia, but it might well be brought to accept that it should share the leadership in Asia with China, thus according China far more status and influence in Asia than it has enjoyed for centuries.

As Japan considers how far it can rely on U.S. assurances of support for its position on the disputed islands, it is also wondering how far it can continue to rely on the U.S. for Japan's overall security as America's relative power and influence in Asia decline.

Likewise as America considers how far it should go in supporting Japan in the East China Sea dispute, it is also thinking about the consequences for the U.S.-Japan alliance, and for the whole U.S. position in Asia, of any failure to fulfill its alliance commitments.

The stakes therefore could hardly be higher for all three countries, which is what makes the situation rather risky. And it suggests that to reduce those risks, it will be necessary not just to reach some agreement on the islands themselves, but to address the underlying questions about the roles of the U.S., China and Japan in Asia's new order.