A Lukewarm “Cold War”?

How American Military Hegemony Forces China to Harden Its „Soft Power“.

ImageThis is my very first political essay focusing on foreign affairs and written during my studies at the “Institut d´études politiques de Paris” (SciencesPo). It is also my final essay for SciencesPo´s “US Security” policy course. Hence, I am arguing from the US point of view. 

To understand China´s foreign policy towards the US, one needs to take into account at least two major developments. First, the country has recently made headlines around the world for causing aggression in the South China Sea1, its military spending is growing and hostility is more and more defining the relationship to Japan – one of America´s most important allies. Throughout the western world the impression has arisen that China wants to counter the US´s military hegemony in Asia.

But numbers tell a different story. In fact, China´s military capabilities are by far not comparable to the US´ strike power. Although growing, its troops are small and old. According to a 2011 Pentagon report, 45 percent of China´s submarine fleet, and more than 70 percent of its air forces are obsolete2. Right now, China behaves like a giant dragon, that is incapable of spitting fire: Its muscle-flexing is more an expression of its potential danger, rather than of its real current capabilities.

But while the world´s attention was focused on China´s “hard power” experiments – the second and maybe even more important major development in the country´s foreign policy has been neglected: soft power. This summer, I travelled to Rwanda to report on the authoritarian African country´s economic boom. But the real story was not Rwanda´s recent economic success itself – but instead China´s role in this development. In September, Rwanda´s president Paul Kagame said in an interview with the “Harvard International Review” magazine, China is “a new choice for African nations (…) (The Chinese) have clear objectives; they do not export their values together with assistance.” Kagame not only favoured China, but also accused western countries of being “more concerned with themselves”.3 The same week as the interview was published, Kagame secured a Chinese grant worth 25 million US Dollars.

Kagame is only one example for China´s soft power impact. With the Asian would-be-superpower´s rise, its demand for raw materials has rapidly grown as well. After decades of failed western attempts to bring prosperity to many smaller African and Asian countries, suddenly China offers an attractive alternative. According to a Pew Research study, most African countries see China´s influence already more positive than America´s.4 “Chinese actions simply speak louder than Western words”, summarized Stefan Halper from the University of Cambridge in his book “The Beijing Consensus”5. According to my own research in Rwanda and Burundi, especially regimes with authoritarian tendencies now prefer Chinese loans and financial aid over US help. China seems to prove them, that capitalism can work without democracy. Hence, the gigantic Asian country increasingly counters Western ideology.6

While the US is busy, securing its military “hard power” hegemony in Asia, it underestimates the impact of China´s growing “soft force”. Above all is not China as a military power that might threaten the US in the foreseeable future, but rather China as an ideology. If the US continues to try to contain China´s impact in Asia, the “old superpower” will enforce nationalist tendencies and aggression within the “superpower in the making”. Until now, China has used its “soft power” mainly to pursue economic interests. But if the US provokes, China´s new bonds throughout the southern hemisphere might cause tensions and instability. A Sino-US (US-Chinese) conflict would be no “cold war” in its historical sense because China is not a communist superpower. But a “lukewarm” cold war between both world-economies would re-define our current world order. A lot is at stake, as Henry Kissinger concludes: „A cold war between the two countries would arrest progress for a generation on both sides of the Pacific”. 7

Improved relations

Since the end of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the US, Sino-US relations have gradually improved. Repeatedly Chinese leaders have stressed their willingness to push forward a “peaceful rise”8. In 2010, Dai Bingguo – then China´s highest-ranking foreign policy official – wrote an article in which he stated his vision of a China that is “the most responsible, the most civilized, and the most law abiding and orderly member of the international community.”9 US politicians should especially re-read the notion “member of the international community”.

China has not always begged the international western-dominated community for membership.

But in fact, over the last decade, China has made several attempts to “democratize” its international relations. Until the end of the last decade, it strengthened its collaboration within the UN, joined several US-Sino dialogues (e.g. US-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum) and calmed down on conflicts with South Korea, Vietnam or the South China Sea. But Barack Obama´s fissured Asia-policy is about to turn the tides. The US President´s administration has made several economic convergences towards China´s politburo to improve diplomatic relations.

But while Obama´s economic record leans towards cooperation, his military activities in the region might turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes in US-Sino history. Obama reached armament deals with the Philippines, supported Japan in the recent island-dispute and succeeded in deploying US forces to Australia and the East Asian mainland10.

It seems as if the US policy towards China follows the concept of economic engagement and military containment. But this is not the right way forward: A growing super-power faces domestic and diplomatic constraints by nature. As China´s power expands, US-Sino relations are increasingly tense and Chinese nationalist sentiments for example against Japan are high. Instead of bringing about stability, the US´ undeclared military containment policy threatens to destroy years of progress and raises suspicion within China.

The current US actions will heavily impact China´s political future. The large Asian country is already trapped in a “National Destiny Debate” that is increasingly distancing itself from the idea of following America´s democratic example. If these nationalist sentiments continue to grow, Chinese “soft power” in other developing countries might soon “harden up” and force smaller developing nations that are eager to profit from China´s boom, to minimize their good diplomatic relations to the US.11

The “Washington Consensus”

Although Obama´s recent visit to Burma mark a first step into the right direction, most of Washington has not noticed this development, yet. This is partly due to the absolute superpower-status it gained after the end of the Cold War. Since then the “Washington Consensus” has been established as a predominant political theory amongst US legislators12. According to this “Consensus”, capitalism will naturally turn political systems into democracies after some time.

But the question is: What happens if the “Washington Consensus” turns out to be out-of-date? What happens if China does not follow the western path of democratization domestically? Nationalism and the arising “National Destiny” debate are no good signs for hegemonic US thinking.13

In fact, the obstacles for a direct cooperation between the US and China are high. China tries to influence developing countries because it knows it is not ready for a direct confrontation with the US. China itself has long understood, that it is America which is mainly going to define US-Sino relations within the next decade. Critics of this theory might argue that the US is already too dependent on China because 70 percent of the Asian power´s hard currency reserves are in US dollar-denominated bonds – making it a “key stakeholder in the US economy”14. But on the other hand this dependency could benefit the US in the long-term. “If you owe China a billion dollars, China owns you; but if you owe China a trillion dollars, you own China.”, Newsweek´s Barrett Sheridan once argued. Furthermore the US is China´s biggest export market and dependent on US-dominated oil-supply mainly from the Middle East. By 2020, China will have to import two thirds of its oil15 while the US is believed to be energy-independent at that point of time. The domestic challenges China is facing, are enormous, too: According to the UN, 150 million Chinese live in poverty, its population is aging rapidly, and the number of protests against corruption and social injustice is increasing. A conflict with the US would weaken China and threaten its rise. The politburo-members in Beijing are well aware of this.

Consequently there are at least three scenarios that might arise. First, the US choses to engage and cooperate with China. Second, the US choses to contain China in order to preserve its own power. And third, which might be a consequence of the second scenario: Chinese politicians are forced to react on rising nationalist sentiments by confronting the US.

Scenarios two and three might theoretically lead to a deep split between China and the US. Although neither side wants to provoke a “Cold War” situation, mutual provocations could cause an economic battle between China which tries to expand its impact towards resource-rich countries and the US that wants to to prevent its adversary from gaining such influence.

Only if the US and China try to find common interests and manage to strengthen them, the first – and best – scenario can be successful. A policy overly consisting of engagement instead of containment would be profitable for both sides. A strong Chinese economy helps the US, while a strong US economy can stimulate further growth in China. This economic dependency is based on several common interests that could be the foundation of a successful partnership.

Critics of such an “engagement”-policy claim that the overly US-domination of oil- supply and -transportation between China and the Middle East through “sea lanes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and Southeastern Sea”16, will inevitably lead to conflicts.17

Furthermore, the US is not in control of all vital sea lanes. One of the world´s most important pinch points has already become a critical geopolitical core point because all oil transport to US-ally Japan18 has to go through the Strait of Malacca19. More than 15 million barrels of oil per day have to pass through a 600-kilometer long strait that is roughly 65 kilometers wide and squeezed between Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. If China would decide to gain full control of the Strait, for example in response to a US oil boycott, Japan would be cut off the world oil-supply. Such a scenario could easily escalate within a short time.

But neither the US and its allies, nor China, can be interested in such a conflict which would hit both conflict parties. In a globalized age in which economic success is massively inter-connected, it is in the interest of the both giant powers to maintain a cheap and secure energy-supply, as well as secure transportation routes.20

Instead of evoking an alarmist “Cold Oil War” theory, US politicians would do much better in reaching their hands out towards China and thinking about concrete ways to collaborate. China is not interested in a conflict, and its relationship to the US is still dominated – by the US.

It is time for US politicians to realize that they have not lost their military hegemonic position yet or anytime soon. But they are about to lose something that might turn out to be even more valuable in the long-run: its position as a role model.

Critical Human Rights situation

Critics of an “engagement”-theory often state that a Sino-US economic cooperation should be determined by China´s willingness to improve its human rights situation. But the Obama administration was right in realizing that this argument is narrow-minded. Shortly after Obama´s inauguration, Hillary Clinton emphasized that “pressing China on other issues like Tibet and human rights can´t interfere with the global economic crisis.”21 Let us be clear: Human rights are amongst the most important values on earth – but if the US wants to secure them, it should realize that the last chance to integrate China into the western world is by cooperating economically and calming down militarily. It is the only way to ensure that nationalist tendencies that proclaim a new “Chinese world-order” do not gain ground. Such tendencies could cause a split between the western and the eastern world. In this case, the “Chinese alternative” of capitalism without democracy, would succeed not only in China – but also in many other developing countries. If US-Sino relations crumble, it is questionable whether developing and Asian nations would still follow the US role model. From 2002 to 2007 the enthusiasm about “American Ideas about democracy” has decreased worldwide. In Indonesia alone, support went from 51 percent down to 28. American ideological “soft power” has decreased nearly everywhere, according to the Pew Research Center.22 But if democracy loses its influence, hopes for an improving human rights situation will be lost as well.

Therefore, it would be much wiser, if the US decides to concentrate on its own “soft power” efforts and to counter the Chinese´s progress.

For nearly one century, the US has thriven through international ties, allies and admiration. This is, what China has now started to challenge.

Of course, the superiority of the US military remains without alternative at this point. But the competition between the two nuclear powers US and China will not be decided in a direct armed conflict. The battle will be far more complex and battle-fields might include countries such as Rwanda.

This is the US-Sino paradox: In order to win the upcoming competition with China, the US has to support the Asian country and to foster soft, instead of hard military power.

Otherwise, there is not going to be a winner at all.

1“Q&A: South China Sea Dispute.” BBC News. BBC, 27 June 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349&gt;.

2Ross, Robert. “The Problem With the Pivot.” Foreign Affairs November/ December (2012). Print.

3“Kagame: “Permanent Aid Can Make a Person Become Useless”” News of Rwanda RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://newsofrwanda.com/breaking/13550/kagame-permanent-aid-person-useless/>.

4Pew Research Center, „Global Unease with Major World Powers,“47-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, Pew Global Attitudes Project, Washington, DC, June 27, 2007, 45, http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/256.pdf.

5 Halper, Stefan A. The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-first Century. New York: Basic, 2010. Print. Page 236

6Eisenman, J., Heginbotham, E. And Mitchell, D. (eds.) (2007) China and the Developing World: Beijing´s Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, Armonk: Sharpe

7Kissinger, Henry. On China. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print. Page 522

8Bell, D. (2008) China´s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

9Dai Bingguo, „Persisting with Taking the Path of Peaceful Development“ (Beijing: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People´s Republic of China, December 6, 2010)

10Ross, Robert. “The Problem With the Pivot.” Foreign Affairs November/ December (2012). Print.

11Hilton Root, The Alliance Curse: How America Lost the Third World (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008)

12 Halper, Stefan A. The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-first Century. New York: Basic, 2010. Print. Page 39

13Michelle Bachelet, „Ending the Washington Consensus,“ Newsweek, April 25, 2009

14Breslin, Shaun. Handbook of China’s International Relations. London: Routledge, 2010. Print. Page 4.

15Breslin, Shaun. Handbook of China’s International Relations. London: Routledge, 2010. Print. Page 8.

16Breslin, Shaun. Handbook of China’s International Relations. London: Routledge, 2010. Print. Page 72.

17Beng, P. And Li, V. (2005) „China´s Energy Dependence on the Middle East: Boon or Bane for Asian Security?“, The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly

18Bush, R. (2009) China-Japan Rensions, 1995 – 2006: Why They Happened, What To Do, Washington DC: Brookings.

19 “Interactive Movie – Oil: Danger Zones – New Scientist.” Interactive Movie – Oil: Danger Zones – New Scientist. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://www.newscientist.com/movie/mg19826621500-oil-danger-zones&gt;.

20Downs, E. (2000) China´s Quest for Energy Security, Santa Monica: Rand.

21 Halper, Stefan A. The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-first Century. New York: Basic, 2010. Print. Page 26

22Pew Research Center, „Global Unease with Major World Powers,“47-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, Pew Global Attitudes Project, Washington, DC, June 27, 2007, 45, http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/256.pdf.

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