Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), China’s incoming president, made his first visit to the US in May 1980. He was a 27-year-old junior officer accompanying then-Chinese vice premier Geng Biao (耿?), who was also China’s leading military official. Geng had been my host the previous January, when I was the first US secretary of defense to visit China, acting as an interlocutor for then-US president Jimmy Carter’s administration.
Americans had little reason to notice Xi back then, but his superiors clearly saw his potential. In the ensuing 32 years, Xi’s stature rose, along with China’s economic and military strength. His cohort’s ascent to the summit of power marks the retirement of the last generation of leaders designated by former leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) — though they still retain influence.
Despite China’s greater influence in world affairs, Xi faces internal strains that make China more fragile than is generally understood. China’s export-led economic model has reached its limits and the transition to domestic-led growth is intensifying internal frictions. Managing unrest through repression is more difficult than in the past, as rapid urbanization, economic reform and social change roils a country of 1.3 billion people. Ethnic conflicts in outlying regions will also test Xi’s political control.
China’s foreign policy is another cause for concern — especially for the US. History teaches us that rising powers inevitably compete with “status quo” leading powers and that this conflict often leads to war.
For now, the large bilateral trade imbalance has exacerbated US-China tensions and can be safely reduced only by changes in behavior on both sides — or, unsafely, though a dangerous crisis-driven correction.
More immediately, China’s territorial claims — particularly in the South China Sea, but also regarding its border with India — and its efforts to expand its influence over neighboring countries will force the US to navigate two overarching risks.
The first is confrontation, which could occur directly or as a result of the US being drawn into conflicts between China and its neighbors.
The other risk is that Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand or Myanmar could fall into China’s strategic orbit. Many of these countries will look to the US as a strategic counterweight should China seek to assert local dominance.
However, some may conclude that it is safer to steer closer to China than away from it because their economies depend so strongly on Chinese trade.
As recent events in the East and South China seas show, China sometimes attempts to strong-arm its neighbors. The US will need to defend its allies and interests by pushing back, but with actions modulated to limit Chinese concerns.
One way to do this is to understand China’s motives.
China’s drive for economic and political leadership in East Asia, along with its increased military capability there, are inevitable.
However, the world can be confident that the US will remain stronger, wealthier and more influential in global affairs than China even in 2030.
That argues against US overreaction, which could fuel the kind of self-reinforcing downward spiral in bilateral relations that occurred between Great Britain and Germany prior to the conflagrations of the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the best way to avoid confrontation is to cooperate on shared external threats, most notably nuclear proliferation, global climate change and Islamic extremism.