Eli Wallach, JHU SAIS Nanjing:
This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to the United States. During this visit, he stopped in both Seattle and Washington D.C. to meet with some of America’s highest government and business personnel. While the tour kept a festive tone, filled with promises for cooperation and popular-media infused rhetoric, Xi’s arrival comes at a time of a rapidly changing world order, in which China is emerging as a second world superpower. As Xi’s visit comes to an end, it is time for the US to decide how to react to this new global order.
While China’s rise as an economic power has captured the fascination of the American public, little attention has been given to China as a global military superpower. That is because before Xi assumed office in 2012 China was not.
Among the many historically-significant initiatives Xi has set about, when it comes to international security politics, none are as important as China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. What OBOR lays out is a strategy and framework to enhance trade in Eurasia and Africa. Included in OBOR are plans to create a Silk Road Economic Belt, which includes creating land trade routes throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as a Maritime Silk Road, which would enhance trade throughout Southeast Asia, Oceania and Africa.
The OBOR initiative is a worthwhile plan. Creating new trade routes makes sense for China, a country whose economy has thrived off a bursting trade sector. However, the establishment of OBOR has also necessitated a huge increase in Chinese military and naval investment. Trade routes need protection, right?
It is clear that Xi is bringing about a very significant shift in the way China deals with other countries. The turning point can be seen in South Sudan, a resource rich country founded in 2011 and plagued by civil war. In January of this year, China sent a contingent of 700 troops to join a UN peacekeeping mission in the country to resolve the turmoil. While China’s economic stake in the matter is clear, this move is important since it breaks from China’s previous policy of not intervening in another state’s internal affairs.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea follows in this vein. Over five trillion dollars worth of goods flow through that area and, to the dismay of many neighboring countries, China will not hesitate to flex its military power to assert control over those trade routes.
As for a country that held a large empire in the Pacific less than a hundred years ago, the US has had surprisingly little to say in response to China’s military rise. In fact, after the costly Korean and Vietnam wars, the US’s role in the region has been in rapid relative decline. However, in what has been termed America’s “pivot” towards Asia, Obama has taken a more active role than his predecessors in East Asian affairs.
In an effort to balance China’s rising power, Obama has promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive trade agreement between several Pacific rim countries. This agreement does not include China. On the other hand, China has its own Asian free-trade agreement it is pushing called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Many see these two trade deals as competing in the region. Furthermore, the US has built a 12 billion dollar military base on the South Pacific island of Guam in 2010. While these foreign policy moves are substantial, they dwarf in comparison to the effort the US put out to contain the rise of the USSR, the last world superpower to attempt to establish a bipolar world system.
The reasons why the response is different are numerous. First of all, there is not the same ideological competition as there was before. But, more importantly, the US and China’s economic relationship is too strong. Fallout between the two countries could potentially mean a global depression not seen since the 1930s.
In essence, world issues will not be resolved through US-China competition, but rather by cooperation. The US has a lot to lose if countries feel that they have to choose between the US and China. Furthermore, the whole developing world could benefit from more coordination in developmental assistance between the US and China in regards to regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where cooperation has been scarce.
So as Xi comes to America and extends his hand in an effort to gain American support for the ambitious “Chinese Dream,” I think we ought to take it.