The bilateral relationship between China and the United States is probably the most important of its kind in the world today and will remain pivotal to the course of world history for at least several more decades. Yet despite a high degree of economic interdependence and the exceptional political leverage both powers wield combined, there does not appear to be a well articulated American foreign policy with regard to China. This forces the United States to make ad hoc decisions when it clashes with China, is about to, or whenever there is an opportunity for rapprochement.
Whether America is truly in decline as a superpower or not, the reality is that other, large countries, including Brazil and India beside China, are on the rise, economically and, as a consequence, in terms of global influence. The present American administration realizes that the future world order will be a multilateral one but it is not clear what role the United States should play in this structure.
While America frets about tomorrow, China is confident that is has become an important part of the international system. “China cannot develop in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can the world enjoy prosperity and stability without China,” it proclaims. Its strategy is grounded, before anything else, in upholding national security and unity which means perpetuating economic growth in order to continue to legitimize Communist Party rule which, in foreign policy, means fostering a security environment that is conducive to China’s development.
China’s rising military expenditures and mounting assertiveness in maritime border disputes with fellow East Asian states should be understood in this light. Its economic growth in recent years has been driven largely by exports so its scramble for resources abroad is likely part of an attempt to secure China’s ability to manufacture for the rest of the world.
If China prioritizes continued economic growth and domestic tranquility before anything else and does not seek hegemony beyond East Asia, there is no reason for the United States to attempt a policy of containment. This would only confirm suspicions with Communist Party hardliners that the West is conniving to deceive China and keep it poor. Instead America should revive another Cold War strategy — a strategy of détente.
Learning from the Cold War experience, a new era of détente could mend two major shortcomings of the present Sino-American relationship. First, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks as well as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe brought America and the Soviet Union together in semi permanent platforms of dialogue and helped deescalate tension by reducing the arsenals of nuclear weapons held by both sides. While a structure exists for separate economic and security discussions between China and the United States, there is no institutionalized, regular high level dialogue for coordination of policy. Communication between leaders is critical and can avert major crises.
Another aspect of détente was its multilateral nature. France and Germany in fact initiated the process by respectively seeking foreign relations with the Soviet Union independent of the United States and normalizing relations with the East. Their rapprochement to Soviet Russia was initially regarded as a threat to transatlantic unity from Washington but during the Nixon Administration, policymakers had begun to realize that separate French and German ties with Moscow did not undermine but actually augmented détente.
As France continues to aspire to international prestige and China and Germany are both surplus economies, heavily dependent on one another, it makes sense for the United States to involve them in Sino-American diplomacy which could benefit that particular relationship and help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula and Iran.
Underpinning this scenario is a question of balance. What allowed détente to take place originally was that by the late 1960s the Soviet Union had reached nuclear weapons parity with the United States. Neither in terms of conventional nor nuclear weapons is China anywhere near able to rival the supremacy of the United States. This military imbalance could fuel an arms race in the Pacific.
To prevent the escalation of relatively minor border disputes between China and American allies, including Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, the United States have to simultaneously assure China that their alliance is purely defensive and make clear that aggression against either of these states, as well as South Korea, will be regarded as an attack against the United States.
For nearly half a century, the certainty that military adventurism in Europe would compel the United States to respond militarily prevented the Soviet Union from launching an attack against a member state of NATO. A similar guarantee could remove an existing and dangerous level of ambiguity about America’s commitments to the security of the democratic nations of East Asia.
Even if China’s military expansion is theoretically aimed at these nations there is no evidence that it has any offensive intentions. Rather China’s arms buildup is a response to the unparalleled prowess of the US Navy and the scores of bases and thousands of troops situated and stationed near Chinese territory. China is seeking balance. America has to remember that balance kept the peace during 45 years of Cold War.