In the Spring of 1998 I sat nervously in a conference room at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. This was the day that I would defend my dissertation and enter the ranks of the scholarly.
Professor Charles Doran, my thesis advisor entered into the room, pointed to the food at the table and said “Better eat up! In about an hour you will have no appetite!” The topic of my dissertation was “Peaceful Transfers of Foreign Policy Roles in International Systems“, a mouthful then as it is now. But in short it was about how major powers could work with rising challengers to jointly manage the international system.
History does not provide many positive examples of such successful international cooperation. In fact, the record is downright abysmal. In most instances hegemonic powers, those powers who dominated the international system, set the rules, and punished countries who violated them, and rising challengers, those countries who seek to revise the status quo and seek to enhance their stature and position in the system, tend to enter into major conflicts with each other leading to systemic wars. This topic of hegemony leading to conflict is well studied, most notably by Robert Gilpin and his Hegemonic Stability Theory, by A.F.K. Organski and Jacek Kugler and their Power Transition Theory, and by my thesis advisor Charles Doran and his Power Cycle Theory.
The study of an established power going to war with its rising challenger even pre-dates modern man with Thucydides’ observation that Athens went to war with Sparta largely because the former was concerned with the latter’s increasing military power–the so-called “Thucydides Trap”.
In spite of the many examples where two such powers could not accommodate each other, there are a few examples where a Hegemon and its challenger were ultimately able to work with one another to smoothly manage and ultimately transition the system. The most obvious example of this was the transition of the international system from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana. Other scholars and journalists have discussed this historic example and so I won’t belabor it here.
I bring up the issue of power transitions because this issue is directly relevant to two current events: the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue or S&ED and the negotiations having to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. By now numerous editorials have been published on the economic pros and cons of the TPP, and a few editorials have emerged giving a score card on the issues being negotiated between China and the U.S. in the S&ED. The reader seeking to understand the specific benefits and drawbacks of these initiatives should go to these links to enlighten themselves. This blog post is meant to make the argument that these initiatives are vital for the long-term management of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and the increasingly cooperative and coordinating behavior required for joint management of an international system.
My 1998 dissertation argued that given the example of the American relationship with Great Britain and the successful joint management of the international system and eventual power transition in the early to mid-twentieth century, four elements appear to be needed for a collaborative relationship between Hegemon and its rising challenger: (1) the absence of a containment or power restraining strategy; (2) enhancing the role and stature of the challenger in conformity with its growing power; (3) broadening the relationship economically, politically and culturally; and (4) the ability of the two powers to negotiate and horse trade their differences in policy preferences. I argue that over the past twenty years since China watchers and U.S. strategists have taken note of China’s rise, the United States, both by accident and by design, has largely followed a policy conducive to an eventual successful joint management of the international system and possibly a peaceful transition with a strategic competitor.
No Containment: Chinese editorials to the contrary, the U.S. has not pursued a containment strategy with China. A containment policy during the Cold War entailed the U.S. cutting off ties with the Soviets, every agency in the U.S. government pursued policies meant to cut off benefits at every level to the Soviet system, and laws were passed in Congress directly stating that the purpose of these laws was to counter Soviet gains if not the outright destruction of the Soviet empire. The U.S. policy to China right now may be marked by suspicion and caution, and is an approach best described as “hedging one’s bets”, but it is by no means marked by a policy of containment. The U.S. is strengthening its ties with its allies in the region and has generated plans to revitalize its role in Asia–the so-called “Rebalance to Asia policy”, but the objective is to reassure its friends and partners in the region, hedge against a China that may be acting aggressively, and protect its economic and political interests in Asia; its purpose is not comprehensive containment as we remember was the case with U.S. policy towards the USSR.
Match Stature to Power: Ever since Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick under the George W. Bush Administration coined the phrase “responsible stakeholder” when referring to U.S. expectations for Chinese foreign policy behavior, U.S. China policy had basically found its philosophy which was to encourage the Chinese to act in responsible ways conforming to its greater power status. Thus, American policy makers and strategists have had no problem with China taking on anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, even if that means the Chinese are projecting power outside of East Asia. American strategists have no problem with Chinese peacekeeping forces operating in Africa, or a Chinese hospital ship conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in places outside of East Asia. Consequently, because the Chinese appear to have taken the first steps toward greater global responsibility, the U.S. and its partners in the international system, insofar as they have any say in the matter, have not had an objection to expanding China’s stature in the system: awarding China the right to host the 2008 Olympics; giving China a prominent role in the Six Party talks with North Korea and the other countries in northeast Asia; inviting the Chinese Navy to participate in the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise; and consistently according China’s presidents State dinners and other symbols of great power status.
Expand and Deepen Non-Strategic Ties: Today the U.S. and China have intertwined economies, recession in one country will lead to recession in another. The two countries have thousands of its young citizens studying in universities of the other country. As a young student in China in the mid-1980s I could not have conceived of the opportunities young Chinese have to study in the U.S. and the many different types of opportunities American students have to study in China. Culturally, the Chinese have been exposed to a wide array of American food including McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, while American palates have been introduced to a wide range of Chinese cuisines. Most interestingly, political elites have deeper ties with the counterpart country as well. Several of China’s top leaders have children in American universities, and American political elites including former U.S. officials (Jon Huntsman, Timothy Geitner) have lived or studied in China and can even speak the language.
The Ability to Negotiate and Horse Trade: Of all of the factors which will determine if China and the U.S. can jointly manage the emerging international system, the ability to negotiate differences in policies is by far the most important. Last month’s meeting in Washington for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue or S&ED will tackle such issues as climate change, cyber security, currency manipulation, bilateral investment, maritime territorial disputes and the South China Sea, and a range of sensitive bilateral issues between the two countries. Although these issues are slow to be resolved, the fact that the two powers sit down on annual basis and seek to resolve them through negotiation can only be seen as a good thing. The S&ED despite its “three ring circus” quality to it, must be seen as a contributor to the two sides’ ability to work with one another to resolve bilateral problems.
The same must be said of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. The ability of the United States to continue to lead the international system in spite of political pressures coming from a rising economic, military, and diplomatic competitor will rest largely on its ability to convince other countries (and including its main competitor) that the system of rules, norms and processes that the U.S. has largely erected in the aftermath of the Second World War is not only beneficial to the larger system of international economic relations but also in everyone’s narrow interest. In the case of the TPP this means getting a majority of Asian nations to agree that new rules must be agreed upon to address protection of foreign investment and intellectual property rights, lowering tariffs in traditionally protected sectors of Asian economies, liberalization of services essential to the new global economic order and the new reality of global supply chains (telecommunications and transportation services), creating a more balanced playing field to deal with some of the unfair advantages of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), to name but a few challenges to the international trading order. This is especially important because if the United States fails to convince its allies, partners, and interested parties in the region that American designed rules and norms governing trade in the region are not in their and everyone’s best interest, then this substantially reduces U.S. bargaining power and leverage when dealing with its main strategic competitor. As my research revealed some seventeen years ago, when countries can’t pursue their interests vigorously through negotiations and horse trading, they start relying more on other instruments of power (most notably military power and coercion) to advance their interests–and obviously that is not conducive to peaceful power transitions.