Central Questions in U.S.-China Relations amid Global Turbulence
Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine is only the latest in a series of events that have shaken the global order and raised profound questions about the nature and frequency of state-to-state military conflict, the trajectory of globalization and technological innovation, and the utility of legacy multilateral institutions. The U.S.-China relationship, arguably the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship, has been impacted by these recent shocks, but has also itself been the cause of much of the uncertainty surrounding the international order.
To help make sense of recent developments and their impacts on the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship, the Brookings Institution and CSIS convened a group of 10 regional and functional experts with varied backgrounds and opinions for a two-day closed-door workshop on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The resulting discussion raised more questions than it answered.
In order to help give direction to future policy research, the Freeman Chair in China Studies summarizes four key questions that emerged in the course of the workshop, and that the authors believe the foreign policy community should directly grapple with in order to orient U.S. grand strategy on a more sustainable and effective path.
The Sustainability of the Current International Order
While the United States continues to declare support for the existing international order, U.S. action indicates a much more ambivalent, and at times hostile, attitude towards the web of multilateral bodies, organizations, and institutions that have shaped the post-WWII period. True, U.S. leaders broadly believe that this order has been universally beneficial in preventing great power conflict and improving livelihoods across the world since World War II, but frustrations with the slowness with which these organizations often work, and the compromises needed to sustain widespread buy-in, have eroded U.S. enthusiasm for the day-to-day work of global governance.
Chinese leaders are similarly dissatisfied with the existing international order, but for different reasons. For Beijing, the current order is ill-equipped to address twenty-first-century challenges on terms it agrees with, in large part because it views the status quo as overweighted to views and voices from the West. To address these perceived inequities, China strives to shape global governance institutions from within, while simultaneously creating its own set of parallel and overlapping initiatives.
There is a fundamental question underlying how the United States responds to China’s ambition to alter and in places revise the existing order: Which, if any, of China’s preferences and expectations for global governance can be addressed? Will the United States be more competitive and influential by holding the line and rallying efforts to resist all Chinese attempts to adjust the existing order? Or will the United States gain attraction and influence by demonstrating itself to be open to adjustments that give greater voice to developing countries and emerging powers, including potentially through reform to the structure of the UN Security Council? Pushing back against all of China’s actions might prove unrealistic, or at least unacceptably costly, both in terms of scare resources and strategic bandwidth. Additionally, the ability of the United States to assert its will on the international order has been diminished by power shifts in the international order well outside of U.S. control. Pure acceptance of China’s preferences, on the other hand, is not a realistic option. There is no purchase for such an approach in the United States, given that it would undoubtedly undermine U.S. leadership and erode core normative elements of the broadly liberal and rules-based order. Where should the balance be struck?
How experts approach this question is often informed by how they conceptualize U.S.-China rivalry—either as a struggle to preserve power preeminence on the world stage, or as a more fluid and global competition to attract partners and gain support for defined priorities. Regardless of which side of the debate analysts come down on, ambivalence is not an option. The international order is fluid. Without guiding principles about which elements of the existing order are most crucial for protecting U.S. interests and values, the United States will find itself backfooted and reactive to initiatives emanating from Beijing and elsewhere.
The Future of the China-Russia Relationship
It is broadly accepted in the U.S. expert community that Sino-Russian relations are likely to deepen in the coming years, assuming both President Putin and President Xi remain in power. Both leaders nurture similar grievances about the distribution of power in the international system and share a common perception that the West harbors ideological hostility toward them.
At the same time, important questions exist about the precise contours of the Sino-Russian relationship in the coming years and decades. How will their military partnership evolve now that Russia has proven itself far less adept at combat than previously expected? How will the growing power gap between Beijing and Moscow impact bilateral trust? What happens if Putin or Xi unexpectedly leave office?
Similar questions remain on what the appropriate U.S. response to this growing strategic alignment should be. Few analysts recommend that the United States attempt to actively drive a wedge between the two countries, as few think the United States would have the ability to do this with any degree of control. A hardening domestic view of both Russia and China likewise forecloses this as a realistic option.
Some see the Sino-Russian relationship as part of a broader strategic challenge to the United States, one that is best conceptualized as an emerging strategic front of autocracies. Here, the United States cannot afford to think of these two countries as discrete challenges, but rather “two-front” strategic competition. While trust between Beijing and Moscow may fluctuate, and even erode given Beijing’s growing power differential, a shared antagonism for the United States and the U.S.-led order is sufficient to sustain a meaningful relationship for the foreseeable future.
A countervailing view is that such framing risks generating self-fulfilling momentum for Sino-Russian relations and creates complications for the United States’ relationships elsewhere, given that few other countries outside of Europe support such ideological framing. While lumping the two powers together might comport with U.S. domestic politics, it narrows the United States’ options in the rest of the world, to say nothing of the narrowed path this would force the U.S.-China relationship.
Downplaying the geometry of the U.S.-China-Russia triangle might also expose opportunities for the United States to make progress in other aspects of its diplomatic portfolio. For example, China’s active embrace of Russia following its invasion of Ukraine has created fertile ground for greater transatlantic coordination to address challenges posed by Chinese behavior. Similarly, countries that previously had hoped to play China and Russia off each other may be losing bargaining leverage to do so, thereby opening opportunities for the United States to make inroads. This could present openings for the United States to strengthen its influence with Vietnam, in central Asia, and elsewhere.
Regardless of how one comes down on the issue, the Russia-China strategic alignment poses important questions for the direction and contours of U.S. foreign policy that cannot effectively be answered with previous frameworks, historical analogies, or simplistic heuristics.
China: Peaking or Ascending?
Participants in this workshop were evenly split on whether China is ascending or peaking in overall national power. The results were similar when asked whether China’s power is peaking or ascending relative to the United States. While acknowledging the limits of insight into Chinese leaders’ thinking on these questions, all participants felt that China’s leaders believe their country is ascending in overall national power and in relative national strength vis-à-vis the United States.
No participant in the workshop forecast any scenario of precipitous Chinese decline in overall power. There was broad consensus, however, that the increasingly ideological bent of Chinese policymaking, including in greater state involvement in the economy, was limiting opportunities for self-correction and economic growth. This dynamic is weakening the economic underpinnings of China’s global power. China’s increasingly nationalistic diplomacy also is limiting its appeal abroad.
On the other hand, China’s military strength is growing in absolute terms. The country remains capable of mobilizing vast resources and concentrating them on national priorities. China is world leader in a growing number of fields, e.g., 5G telecommunication technologies, facial and voice recognition, commercial drones, solar cells, and mobile payments. With one-fifth of humanity and a central position in many global value chains, China will remain a formidable power for the foreseeable future. China also employs different tools to build influence overseas. It promises policy continuity and focuses on cultivating relations with elite actors in other countries. Beijing’s capacity to build influence overseas should not be underestimated, even if metrics such as public opinion polls and Belt and Road Initiative project funds are trending downward.
How U.S. policymakers and analysts conceptualize the directionality of power capabilities is of incredible significance. If time and momentum are on China’s side, as Xi Jinping frequently asserts, then Beijing might be willing to adopt a more farsighted and patient foreign policy. If, on the other hand, the Chinese leadership sees its window of opportunity on issues ranging from Taiwan to its ability to deliver breakthrough technologies as shrinking or even collapsing, then Beijing might act out of forced urgency.
Given the importance of these assessments, more work needs to be done to understand the strengths and weaknesses of China’s political and economic system, as well as how perceptions of power are often driving analysis more than the measured calculation of national capabilities.
Beijing’s Evolving Strategy toward Taiwan
There appears to be a cognitive gap in how members of the U.S. policy expert community evaluate Beijing’s actions toward Taiwan. One group views Beijing as opportunistic and impatient in its pursuit of cross-strait unification. Another group sees Beijing as disinclined to wager China’s future on a cross-strait conflict unless its back is up against the wall and Beijing sees no options other than war to protect or advance its interests. Where one sits on this starting point assumption colors how they interpret Chinese actions relating to Taiwan.
For those inclined to see China as an opportunistic actor, China’s investments in new military capabilities signal future intent to employ force to compel unification. Each air incursion into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone or naval operation around Taiwan is part of a rehearsal for a future military operation. For those inclined to see Beijing as remaining committed to seeking to “win without fighting,” China’s military maneuvers around Taiwan are designed more so as deterrent signals to Taiwan and the United States and shows of strength to China’s domestic audience.
The documentary evidence does little to decisively clarify Beijing’s actual intentions. Authoritative statements from Xi Jinping on a timeline for unification are vague or sufficiently long-term that they lose any precise utility. On the other hand, official statements declaring that China seeks a “peaceful reunification” do not square with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) frequent and aggressive saber-rattling.
Beyond these cognitive gaps, four other issues were raised in the dialogue. First, Beijing does not appear to have a sellable approach for generating support from the Taiwan public for unification. Beijing’s “one country, two systems” framework has lost political viability following Beijing’s trampling of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Without a viable strategy, Beijing could grow dangerously reactive to events. Second, there is a bias in U.S. debates on Taiwan toward presentism. Thinking is underdeveloped for how the United States will navigate cross-strait relations post-2024, when China will have completed its leadership transition, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen will be term-limited out of office, and the United States will have completed its presidential election. Third, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened alertness to Chinese military campaign preparations. This heightened alertness could limit Beijing’s ability to pursue incremental upticks in pressure because any uptick could become viewed as a precursor to another Ukraine. Given how normalized Chinese military pressure on Taiwan has become, there is need for fresh thinking on thresholds that, if crossed, would signal the start of a Taiwan Strait crisis. Fourth, China has ample capacity to impose pain on Taiwan, but has few options for doing so without harming itself in the process. Even in scenarios short of conflict, such as restricting naval passage through the Taiwan Strait, Beijing would risk causing maritime insurers to withdraw coverage for commercial cargo. China’s export-dependent economy would be the first casualty of any such scenario.
As the questions raised in this analysis illustrate, the U.S.-China relationship presently is navigating a period of profound fluidity. While there are few indicators of any foreseeable lowering of tensions on the horizon, the situation is not so bad that it cannot get worse. These four fundamental questions reinforce the imperative for policymakers and members of the policy community to interrogate assumptions and build durable, empirically driven models for understanding events inside China and interpreting Chinese activities abroad. The more precise an understanding policymakers and the policy community can develop around these questions, the higher the likelihood that the United States will prove capable of pursuing effective policies for protecting itself and its allies and promoting its interests on the world stage.
Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair at the Brookings Institution.
This commentary was made possible with support from the Ford Foundation.
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