Never have Americans faced a foreign policy challenge as complex as the one China now poses. For the first time since we became a world power, we face a rival with a far greater population and, soon, a bigger economy. China has a deep history, a martial tradition, and a growing military. It is not our enemy, but over the coming years and decades, its strategic ambitions will inevitably clash with ours. That clash will shape the 21st century.
The delicacy of the US-China relationship was clearly on view after President-elect Donald Trump’s recent telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. The call showed a level of intimacy with Taiwan that violated unwritten protocol. Trump may have been signaling a change in US policy toward China. Perhaps he only wanted to defy the odd diplomatic fiction that independent Taiwan does not exist. Or it was simply a gaffe resulting from ignorance. Whatever the explanation, the episode showed how fully this relationship is now shaped by strategic competition. Big-power politics has returned to the world’s center stage.
China and the United States face looming conflict on a host of issues. With wise diplomacy, many of these differences can be managed. More difficult is the psychological challenge that China’s rise poses to Americans. Nothing in our modern history or national psyche prepares us for anything but global dominance. Yet China’s share of world power is likely to continue growing while ours declines. Constraints on Chinese action are weakening. Trouble lies ahead if we cannot navigate creatively through these utterly unfamiliar psychic and geopolitical waters.
According to American strategic doctrine, the United States will be in danger if one country comes to dominate a large region of the world. China seems capable of doing that one day. Both our doctrine and our habit of command tell us we must limit its rise. That is a recipe for confrontation.
No war is likely soon. China’s military is far weaker than that of the United States. It is engaged in a long-term buildup that, if unchecked, will substantially increase its offensive power. This, in turn, will draw us — if we continue to insist on policing East Asia —
The United States began its rise by securing a continental empire, became an overseas empire by subduing weak island nations, and then began projecting power around the world. China might follow the same path. The Chinese, like the Americans, built a giant nation by suppressing natives and expelling outsiders. Now they are starting to push into the seas, as we did more than a century ago. If they secure that foothold, they could take another leaf from our book and use their island dependencies as a springboard to global power.
The recent American election was a mixed blessing for China. Hillary Clinton was a China-basher, but rational and predictable — qualities the Chinese like. Trump is volatile. Still, his election and the carnival campaign that led to it must convince at least some Chinese that our political system is weakening, our moment passing, and our country vulnerable to a historic challenge.
Long-term peace with China requires giving its rise our fullest political and diplomatic focus — and abandoning our self-defeating preoccupation with the Middle East, where the stakes are far lower. If we defer to the reality of China’s growing power, we may be able to shape a stable relationship. Americans are not used to deferring. That is why for us, the challenge of China is psychological as well as political.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and author of the forthcoming book “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.” Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.