Strategic distrust crossed with economic opportunity begets friction, as the infamous love-hate relationship between Washington and Beijing shows. As China’s influence in world affairs has grown, the U.S. has found it progressively more difficult to accommodate the interests of an ever more confident Middle Kingdom. Nevertheless, Chairman Xi’s incoming government may well prove more agreeable than Hu Jintao’s.
China's historical ally and traditional land buffer may have once protected the People's Republic from the American and South Korean forces on the other side of the 38th parallel. But as the decades have passed, new technologies and geopolitical considerations have rendered the Hermit Kingdom little more than a headache for Beijing. The recent signs of divergence between the two communist nations are partly due to an unusually inflammatory series of statements that Kim Jong-Un's regime has issued against the United States. But Zhongnanhai is also getting tired of Pyongyang's tirades. This impasse should be seen as an open door for Washington to step in closer to China. At this point, both parties have something to gain from bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Naturally, this is what North Korea wants and its delegation would no doubt demand the reversal of UN sanctions the moment they see their co-negotiators. But, with North Korea’s third nuclear test in February and China’s increasing concern over regional stability, the Obama administration should take advantage of the situation and begin a new strategic dialogue with the Chinese government on how to deal with the pariah state. When the alternative is potential regime collapse and the destabilization of the entire region with large migration movements and possible nuclear proliferation, perhaps what is necessary is simply a new negotiation strategy and lots of patience.
One of the most visible stories concerning China in recent months has been its economic slowdown. The debate over whether or not it will result in China's economic collapse rages on, but even Xi Jinping now agrees that the slowdown is all too real. He has even stated publicly that Chinese growth can no longer be expected to reach its previous break-neck, double-digit levels. In combination with a moderate but sustained American economic recovery, there is reasonable expectation that the once-yawning gap between Chinese and American growth will become more even. Chinese growth will continue to be greater than American growth for a long time, but no longer at rates that prompt Western declinist panic.
Another oft-cited reason not to worry about China's potential ulterior intentions is the GDP gap between the two economies. Many experts have pointed out in the past that the Chinese military is still decades away from catching up to the US regardless of how much their military budget grows. Opinions vary on the exact timeframe, but no one is forecasting an imminent transition into Pax Sinica. For many reasons, including China's population distribution, the U.S. will remain safely ahead of China in many fields for some time. The Sino-American economic gap combined with China's internal economic problems prevents China from overtaking the U.S. despite China’s historical mastery of economic crisis aversion.
For all the hype behind China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, its operational potential for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is not quite as impressive as the ship itself. The Liaoning will most likely serve as a learning platform for years to come, training personnel in marine aviation in China's near seas while the U.S. continues to develop its Littoral Combat Ships and Ford-class carriers, solidify alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific, and encourage Japan to normalize. While Beijing might be able to use the Liaoning to intimidate the other claimants in the East and South China Seas, the U.S. rebalancing strategy will most likely mitigate the deterrence effects of the PLAN, provided the U.S. Navy is able to provide credible reassurance to key allies in the region.
In addition, China's claims to a peaceful rise are beginning to fall on deaf ears in Southeast Asia. Since Beijing shifted its stance on the maritime disputes from bilateral consultation and reassurance to forceful harassment, regional decision-makers are finding it more difficult to take China's peaceful rhetoric at face value. It is no coincidence that the entire region appears to have developed a strong preference for American involvement in the disputes in recent years. This lack of Chinese credibility among its neighbors will ultimately play against China’s interests in international fora.
All things considered, Xi's government might prove less defiant and more cooperative in the near future. As China's economy slows down and its neighbors grow closer to the U.S., the Chinese government might find it more favorable to work more closely with America on matters like North Korea and regional stability than to continue to alienate regional players by pursuing its territorial claims with brute force.