Rising China and the Grand Chessboard: Cooler Heads Much Prevail

There seem to be parties in both the U.S. and the PRC that would like to provoke a confrontation.  It is not in the interest of either, but what are defense establishments for (they really should be “offense establishments.”).  I fear that a confrontation is very likely, given the political environments in both countries.  In the U.S., the notion that the U.S. must remain “Number One” is deeply held, with warnings that “Number Two” (whatever that means) would condemn the U.S. to a future of domination by “Others” who are not like us. 

This is hardly a new theme–the Cold War was rife with such arguments. On China’s side, the CCP is deeply fearful of anything that might undermine its domination of the country, and this includes all kinds of supposed “threats” that are not threats at all (see, e.g., Hong Kong).  The most likely scenario is an accidental confrontation over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, since China declares them to be theirs and the United States is committed to preventing China from establishing control over those areas.  Cooler heads much prevail.

I think the Chinese leadership would like to “displace” U.S. influence in the surrounding countries (just as Putin asserts Russia’s right to be surrounded by friendly states).  But it is difficult to see China becoming a global power like the U.S.  After all, it is very costly and what are the gains?  The U.S. sees fit in getting involved in every little fight and issue as “vital to national security.”  Of course, the U.S. economy is so dependent on the maintenance of global power and the industries that benefit from it, that any reduction in capacity and projection could have quite unanticipated impacts on the U.S.

There is an old saying–from the last century, so not that old–that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail (maybe you are familiar with it–it’s attributed to Abraham Maslowe).  The U.S. has many hammers and sees myriad nails. So, rather than engage in real diplomacy, in which interests are clearly defined and trades and concessions are made, military power has become the main tool in the diplomatic toolbox.  Moreover, the U.S. seems to think that diplomacy is for weak countries. I fear the U.S. will come to rely heavily on military power, which will make confrontation all the more likely.

The United States should avoid unnecessary antagonism; not try to undermine China’s honor or embarrass it. I think U.S. policies and actions probably cannot significantly influence China’s trajectory and behavior as it emerges as a great power. China has demonstrated that it is willing to take actions that might hurt it economically, so sanctions to try to influence China are unlikely to have much impact (cf. Iran on this point, and now Russia).  The U.S. ought to accept and accommodate China’s rise and find a way to live with it.

The U.S. has come to rely on China’s industry and products to supply cheap goods to Americans. This means that people can afford to spend money on things that would be much more costly if made in the United States. That also puts downward pressure on wages and the cost of living, which means more profits for corporations. The trade relationship has also made the dollar more immovable as the international currency since China cannot afford to dump its dollar holdings.

Furthermore, China probably wants to expand domestic markets for goods and products which means less for exports which become more expensive. If China were willing to demonstrate in concrete terms what its ambitions in Asia were, and could reassure its neighbors and the U.S., that might contribute to a “sustained cooperative relationship.”  But would the Chinese leadership be willing to appease the world at the cost of domestic support (such as it is).

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