China and the United States: Rivals, Enemies, Collaborators?

Commentary No. 321, Jan. 15, 2012

The relations of China and the United States are a major preoccupation of the chattering classes (bloggers, the media, politicians, international bureaucrats). The analysis is usually posed as the relation between the declining superpower, the United States, and the rapidly rising “emergent” country, China. In the western world, the relation is usually defined negatively, China being seen as a “threat.” But threat to whom, and in what sense?

There are some who see China’s “rise” as the resumption of a central position on the globe, a central position that they once held and are now resuming. There are some who see it as something very recent – as China’s new role in the shifting geopolitics and world-economic relations of the modern world-system.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the relations between the two countries have been ambiguous. On the one hand, in that era, the United States began to expand its trade routes to China. It began to send Christian missionaries. At the turn of the twentieth century, it proclaimed the Open Door Policy which was less directed against China than against other European powers. The United States wanted its share of the spoils. However, very shortly thereafter, it participated along with the other western countries in putting down the Boxer rebellion against imperialist outsiders. And back home in the United States, the U.S. government (and the U.S. trade unions) sought to prevent Chinese from immigrating to the United States.

On the other hand, there was a certain grudging respect for Chinese civilization. The Far East (China plus Japan) were the preferred locus for missionary work, placed above India and Africa, and justified on the assumption that China was a “higher” civilization. It may also have something to do with the fact that neither China nor Japan were directly colonized for the most part and that therefore there was no European colonial power to try to reserve its colonies for its own nationals as proselytizers.

After the Chinese revolution of 1911, Sun Yat-Sen, who had lived in the United States, became a sympathetic figure in U.S. discourse. And by the time of the Second World War, China was seen as an ally in fighting Japan. Indeed, it was the United States that insisted that China receive a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. To be sure, when the Chinese Communist Party conquered mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), China and the United States seemed to become ferocious enemies. In the Korean War, they were on opposite sides, and it was the active military participation of China on the side of North Korea that ensured that the war would end in a deadlock.

Nonetheless, it was but a relatively short time later that Pres. Richard Nixon famously went to Beijing, met with Mao Zedong, and established a de facto alliance against the Soviet Union. The geopolitical world seemed to turn upside down. As part of the accord with the PRC, the United States broke its diplomatic relations with Taiwan (although it continued to stand guarantor against a PRC invasion across the straits). And when Deng Xiaoping became the leader of China, the country entered on a process of slowly opening to market operations and to integration in the trade currents of the capitalist world-economy.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union rendered irrelevant any Chinese-U.S. alliance against it, the relations between the two countries did not really change. They became, if anything, much closer. The situation in which the world finds itself today is that China has a significant balance of payments surplus with the United States, much of which it invests in U.S. Treasury bonds, thereby underwriting the ability of the U.S. government to continue to spend vast amounts of resources on its multiple military activities around the globe (and particularly in the Middle East), as well as to be a good customer for Chinese exports.

From time to time, the rhetoric each government currently uses about the other is a bit harsh, but nowhere near the rhetoric of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Still, it is never wise to pay too much attention to the rhetoric. In global affairs, rhetoric is usually intended primarily to have a political effect within one’s own countries, rather than reflecting true policy towards the country at which it is ostensibly aimed.

One should pay more attention to the actions of the two countries. Notice the following: In 2001 (just before 9/11), off Hainan Island, a Chinese plane and a U.S. plane collided. The U.S. plane had probably been spying on China. Some U.S. politicians called for a military response. President George W. Bush did not agree. He more or less apologized to the Chinese, obtaining the eventual return of the airplane and of the 24 captured U.S. airmen. In the various efforts of the United States to get the United Nations to support its operations in various ways, the Chinese often dissented. But they have never actually vetoed a resolution sponsored by the United States. Caution on both sides has seemed to be the preferred form of action, despite the rhetoric.

So where are we? China, as all the major powers today, has a multifaceted foreign policy, engaging with all parts of the world. The question is what its priorities are. I believe that priority number one is its relations with Japan and the two Koreas. China is strong, yes, but would be immeasurably stronger if it were to be part of a northeast Asian confederation.

China and Japan need each other, first of all as economic partners and secondly to ensure that there be no military confrontation of any kind. Despite occasional nationalist flare-ups, they have been visibly moving in this direction. The most recent move is the joint decision to trade with each other using their own currencies, thereby cutting out the use of the dollar, and insulating them from the ever more frequent fluctuations in the dollar’s value. Furthermore, Japan is weighing the uncertainty that the U.S. military umbrella may not last forever and it needs therefore to come to terms with China.

South Korea faces the same dilemmas as Japan, plus the thorny problem of how to deal with North Korea. For South Korea, China is the crucial constraint on the North Koreans. And for China, instability in North Korea would pose an immediate threat to its own stability. China can play for South Korea the role that the United States no longer can. And in the difficult adjustments of China and Japan to their desired collaboration, South Korea (or a putatively united Korea) can play an essential balancing role.

As the United States perceives these developments, is it not reasonable to suppose that it is trying to come to terms with this kind of confederal Northeast Asia as it constructs itself? One could analyze the military posturing of the United States in Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia not as a serious military stance but as a negotiating ploy in the geopolitical game that is being played out over the next decade.

Are China and the United States rivals? Yes, up to a point. Are they enemies? No, they are not enemies. Are they collaborators? They already are more than they admit, and will be much more so as the decade proceeds.