IN A recent essay Hugh White, a former Australian security and defence official, describes the following exchange with his American counterparts: “I put this catechism to them: ‘Do you think America should treat China as an equal if its power grows equal to America’s?’ The answer is always no. Then I ask, ‘Do you think China will settle for anything less than being treated as equal?’ The answer to that is always no, too. Then I ask, ‘So how do you expect the US and China to get along?’ I usually get a shrug by way of reply.”
That shrug is a measure of America’s difficulty in designing a China policy. America wants China to be a thriving market for its goods. It also wants China to become an active, responsible power in world affairs. Yet at the same time it feels threatened by China’s growing economic, industrial, diplomatic and military might. When America dislikes a position China has taken, it cries foul. This mix of partnership and rivalry is a recipe for confusion.
One way to resolve these tensions would be to put security first. America could aim to block China now before it gets any stronger. America won the cold war by isolating the Soviet economy and stalemating its armed forces. But trying that again would be a bad idea, as Robert Art explains in a recent issue of Political Science Quarterly. For one thing, the cost would be astronomical; for another, America might suffer as much as China. The two countries’ economies are intertwined and China owns more American government debt than anyone else. In war, nations override such factors out of necessity. If an American president tried to override them in peace out of choice, he would face dissent at home and opprobrium abroad.
Can America find the confidence to treat China as an equal?