Are the Hiccups in US-Chinese Relations an Introduction to a Serious Global Confrontation by Timo Kivimäki

29. Apr 2010

Timo Kivimäki,
Professor of Asian Security, University of Copenhagen



The exit of the American media giant Google from China, the controversy about US weapons sales to Taiwan, US and European criticism of China’s human rights record in Tibet and in Xinjiang, China’s perceived trade protectionism and manipulation of the value of its currency, the new, more affirmative policies in the South China Sea, and the US accusations of China’s support to rogue regimes, like the ones in Burma and Iran, sabotaging western sanctions, are all developments that some scholars have been expecting to see. They are symptoms of a change in the global political order – a change that, according to many of them, could eventually lead to a major war between the United States and China. A war, even if across the Pacific Ocean, could seriously threaten the world order let alone that it would be disastrous to both of these nuclear powers, and vitally important trading partners of Denmark.


The main argument of the alarmist voices about China is that the process when a challenging power (in this case China) grows more powerful than the world’s leading power (this time the USA), is a precarious one. It is not often that this happens, though. In a recent publication in Global Asia journal, Jia Qingguo and Richard Rosecrance claim that this has happened only seven times during the past 600 years. However, within the next few decades China will overtake the USA in overall economic power. Jia Qingguo and Richard Rosecrance revealed that in six out of seven cases of a hegemonic challenger overtaking the world hegemony, the result has been a major conflict. A famous American professor, John Mearsheimer says that this does not have to be because the challenger attacks the hegemon, but there could also be a temptation for the United State to try to use force to prevent China from taking over the role of global leader. In fact, Mearsheimer suggests that the United States should do what it can by using political and economic means to prevent China from rising too much already, before that can only be done militarily.


Denmark has good reasons to hope for a more peaceful development of the relations between China and the USA, and there are experts that focus on the characteristics of China’s strategic culture who claim that despite the global transformation, peace can be maintained. It seems that China’s transformation from a revolutionary power that exported insurgency regionally and internationally, into a responsible nation that recognizes the sovereignty and non-interference principles in its international cooperation, took place after a domestic power battle rather than after a global power political change. China became more peaceful and responsible at the end of the 1970s, and it would be difficult to pinpoint any major international event that could have contributed to this change. The ending of the Cold War no longer much affected China’s behavior, and neither did the beginning of the war on terror. This is why a prominent China scholar, Jia Qingguo and some others say that any change in China’s orientation towards peace and war will not be much affected by external inputs, but will be more dictated by the domestic developments. These scholars suggest that China’s inherent unwillingness to lead globally will cushion the effects of the transition to a world where China might be the most powerful power, but not necessarily a power that wants to lead in the same manner that the United States has lead first the western world and later also most of the rest of the world. Furthermore, more optimistic scholars also point to the fact that the United States still is and will be superior as a world power for the next few decades, and thus the hiccups in US-Chinese relations that we are seeing now cannot be part of the great transformation yet.


A way to combine both the domestic and international inputs into a more sensible, not too optimistic but neither too pessimistic world view, would be to look at how the expectations of an international change could mobilize the domestic forces and how that, together with the direct international influence would reframe China’s global role. The growing worries of the United States will already directly change China’s foreign policy environment, and this will naturally make China look more defensive. At the same time China still needs to grow, and growth is still the main priority of Chinese leadership. Thus it would be unlikely, aside from issues related to competition for energy supply, that China would like to risk any major confrontations with the US, whose markets will continue to be so important for the Chinese economy. At the same time, the Chinese population seems to be reacting to the growth of China and a healthy nationalism is on the rise. This could push China to policies in some issue areas that would seem more assertive than before. However, the priority of development will be likely to reduce China’s interest in offending its main trading partners too much. Still, positive developments would require some new approaches and more explicit tackling of some of the issues that continue to irritate China’s main international partners. The resolution of these issues would not be easy if China feels pressured by powerful nations. Instead, it seems that, for example, the problems with China’s press freedom, especially in sensitive questions of Tibet, Xinjiang and the democracy issues could be best tackled from outside the framing of power politics. In these issues China can reform itself only from the inside, reacting to internal rather than international pressures. Yet, it would make sense for the international community to highlight the agenda, and thereby make it easier for democratic forces to bargain with their government. The profile of Denmark as a defender of media freedom could be useful, especially as Denmark should prove to the Muslim world that it is for media freedom rather than against Islam. At the same time, as a moral authority rather than a major political or military power, Denmark would not be seen as threatening to China, or as part of a power battle against the rising great power. Denmark could have another mission for press freedom.