Are China and America Destined to Clash?

Jennifer Lind

Daryl Press

June 27, 2015

The paramount question looming over twenty-first century international politics is: will the United States and China get along?

Most national-security experts express guarded optimism. Although rising powers have historically clashed with their established rivals—adopting revisionist foreign policies to secure more influence, territory, or status—this time, people say, is different. China is a major stakeholder in the current economic order and has no reason to overthrow the very system that has allowed it to grow rich and powerful. The regional maritime disputes that do exist—over small uninhabitable islets—may arouse emotions but do not demonstrate a deep revisionist streak in Beijing. In short, a status quo Washington and a status quo Beijing need not clash.

But pondering the future of East Asia—and great power relations—in terms of whether China will adopt a “status-quo” or “revisionist” grand strategy obscures the real sources of Sino-American conflict. It ignores the range of options available to Beijing, and it pins the future on China’s strategic decisions alone.

In reality, the tenor of great-power relations in the coming decades will depend on the interaction of U.S. and Chinese foreign policies—which collide to a far greater degree than is frequently acknowledged. In fact, smooth relations between the United States and China will only be possible in the unlikely event that China adopts an extremely docile national-security strategy, or in the equally unlikely event that the United States cedes its dominant position in the Western Pacific.


Beijing has a broader array of options than the categories “status quo” or “revisionist” imply. What is striking, however, is that all but one of its options put Beijing and Washington on a collision course.

At one extreme, China might continue its rise as an economic powerhouse without substantially enhancing its military might, and without seeking to alter the international order in East Asia or the world.

The logic of this “Rich Nation, Weak Army” strategy is straightforward: China has enjoyed spectacular economic success for four decades while pursuing Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of strategic restraint—so why rock the boat now? Foreign-policy restraint has allowed China to focus on its homeland security, prioritize butter over guns, and benefit from the fact that other countries—particularly the United States—have borne the costs of protecting the global order. Continuing this modest strategy would help reassure Beijing’s wary neighbors, minimize the odds of conflict with the United States, and allow Beijing to concentrate on China’s many domestic challenges (social, demographic, environmental, and institutional).

According to this grand strategy, Beijing would pursue its foreign policy goals through multilateral institutions and posture its military for modest and internationally sanctioned missions such as peacekeeping, disaster relief and antipiracy operations. Its national-security policy and military would be akin to that of Australia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Skeptics might note that this strategy entails, de facto, relying upon the United States to ensure global order and protect China’s interests. True; but modern China has never been able to defend its airspace or coastal waters from the major military powers, let alone project military power far from its shores. And yet it has prospered.

Alternatively, Beijing might choose a strategy that reflects its emergence as the major regional power in East Asia. An accommodating version of a regionally focused strategy would seek to establish China as a major East Asian military power—while not changing the region’s political and economic order. China would not become expansionist, overturn the existing liberal economic system, or try to expel the U.S. military from the region. Rather, the goals of this strategy are modest and the logic is straightforward: although the current liberal order is good for Beijing—and should continue—it is natural that a great power such as China be able to defend itself and its interests in its own backyard.

In a more assertive version of this regional strategy, China would seek to become not just a major regional power, but also the dominant one. This would not necessarily be accomplished through conquest or coercion; instead, Beijing would simply generate so much economic influence and military might that it would become obvious to the countries of East Asia that there is one natural leader of the region—and it is China. China’s growing military capabilities would convince other East Asian countries that the United States could no longer reliably protect them. The goal: to ensure that the countries of East Asia begin to look to Beijing—even with gritted teeth—much as the countries in Eastern Europe look to Moscow, and those in Latin America look to Washington. In the long term, China would establish its own informal Monroe Doctrine: while of course other countries’ ships would be welcome to sail through regional sea lanes, foreign military bases operated by regional outsiders would be as unwelcome in East Asia as they are now in the Americas.

To implement either version of this regional strategy, China would build the air and naval forces to control the airspace and waters out to a few hundred miles from the Chinese coast, and to project military power throughout maritime East Asia. Beijing would likely seek allies in the region to host Chinese military forces. The more assertive version would require the same sort of military forces—just more of them.

If Beijing chose to pursue a revisionist regional strategy, it would engage in diplomacy aimed at ousting the United States from the region. It would use various forms of influence and leverage to try to break up America’s key alliances. China’s diplomacy would seek to convince its neighbors of two things—first, that they can be just as rich, free, safe, and independent within a Chinese-led order as they are within the current order. Second, Beijing would seek to convince them that allying with powerful outsiders against China is a dangerous option—because eventually those outsiders will leave, and when they do, the neighbors will be left next to an unfriendly and regionally dominant Beijing.

Critics might protest that China would not want to topple the economic order that has promoted its rise—but there is nothing about even the more revisionist version of this strategy that would do this. This strategy would promote free trade and investment, and seek peaceful relations among the countries of East Asia, but would do so without the intrusions of a distant great power. Like Russia’s dominance in Eastern Europe, and U.S. preeminence throughout North America, this strategy would establish China as the dominant player in East Asia.

A third overarching option for China: look beyond its region to become a global political and military power. China has global interests. It is a leader in international trade, a key player in currency and bond markets, a major target and sender of international investment. Its economy depends on access to distant energy supplies. And Chinese firms and people have spread across the world from Suriname to Iran, from Kazakhstan to Angola. Yet Beijing has limited ability to influence events around the world. In Europe, the members of the EU and the United States (through NATO) make the key decisions; the Persian Gulf is dominated by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and their U.S. partners. While China has a stake in all of these regions, it is marginalized. Under a global strategy, China would seek the global influence commensurate with power and global interests.

In a more benign version of a global strategy, China would merely seek greater influence around the world to ensure that its interests are respected. It would not try to remake the Persian Gulf or Latin America, or to push the United States out of any region. Rather, China as a status-quo global power would merely seek a portfolio of interests—which because of economic globalization now span the globe.

China might alternatively adopt a more revisionist global posture. (This is generally what people have in mind when they contemplate China as a “revisionist” great power.) This strategy would seek to reorder international politics and to minimize American power and influence around the world, by luring countries out of the U.S. orbit and by providing an alternative to opponents of the United States (through political support, trade agreements, security guarantees and arms sales). It would give cohesion to countries—such as Iran and Venezuela—that oppose the U.S.-led world order, yet are regionally dispersed and lack the coordination to effectively oppose Washington.

Pursuing either version of a global strategy would require increased defense spending—though perhaps merely maintaining China’s current spending as a percentage of GDP, as Beijing’s GDP increases—to develop global power-projection capabilities. A revisionist China would likely purvey an ideology or narrative that justified its own global authority and discredited American leadership. Fundamentally this strategy would be about shaping the world in a way that is most conducive to Chinese influence, by building alliances and a network of friends across the globe. Even the revisionist version of a global strategy is not necessarily aggressive or violent; it is about leadership—the same kind of strategy that the United States has followed for the past twenty years.


Peaceful U.S.-China relations depend not merely on Chinese decisions, but on how they interact with the American national-security strategy. Like China, the United States has a menu of strategic options; unlike China, however, the United States has a well-established grand strategy, which includes longstanding alliances in East Asia.

Since the end of the Cold War, across four successive administrations, the United States has pursued a strikingly consistent national-security strategy—variously called “hegemony,” “global leadership,” or “deep engagement.” While the specifics fluctuate, the core principles—exercising leadership and promoting stability through a global network of alliances—have remained constant.

To be sure, disagreements about implementation arise regularly. Liberals tend to favor humanitarian intervention, value broad international coalitions, and prefer to work through international institutions. Conservatives are more inclined to use force to prevent the spread of WMD, and worry less about passing a “global test” (as Secretary of State John Kerry famously commented as a presidential candidate) when they contemplate using force. But tactical disagreements should not obscure the underlying bipartisan consensus: the United States will exercise global leadership, and ensure stability, through a network of alliances and powerful military presence in critical regions.

To implement this strategy in East Asia, the United States pursues three benign-sounding objectives. First, assurance: the United States seeks to assure its friends that it will protect them in time of crisis or war, and that it can do so effectively. The goal of assurance is to convince U.S. allies to forego independent steps to protect themselves (e.g., building powerful conventional military forces or nuclear weapons)—because such steps could trigger arms races and upset the region’s political and economic order.

A second American objective is deterrence. The United States seeks to dissuade potential adversaries from turning disagreements into crises, and to deter them from turning crises into wars.

Finally, the United States seeks to promote political and economic cooperation—thereby turning allies and potential adversaries into stakeholders in a mutually beneficial, peaceful and prosperous region.

None of these goals sound provocative—who would argue against promoting stability and cooperation? The potential for trouble lies in the strategy’s military requirements.

Because of the structure of the U.S. alliance system, and the nature of modern naval warfare, the benign-sounding U.S. policy toward Asia requires not merely U.S. military presence in the region, it requires a substantial degree of military dominance. Depending on China’s future national-security choices, U.S. military dominance may cause considerable friction with Beijing.

Two pillars of the U.S. strategy—assuring allies, and deterring potential adversaries—rest upon U.S. military dominance in the Western Pacific. Allies can only feel safe outsourcing their security to the United States if they are confident that in time of crisis or war, Washington will be able to defend them effectively. This means that U.S. allies must be sure that the U.S. military will be able to cross five thousand miles of ocean with enough military power to decisively defeat whoever is menacing them. If allies begin to doubt U.S. power projection capabilities, they will, quite reasonably, feel compelled to develop more military power of their own. Similarly, the U.S. strategy requires that adversaries have no practical means for keeping American power projection at bay. If adversaries believe that they can keep U.S. reinforcements out of the region, deterrence will be undermined. The cornerstone of the U.S. strategy in East Asia is thus the ability to bring decisive force to bear if needed.

The changing nature of warfare makes power projection across vast oceans increasingly difficult. Modern sensors—satellite-based, ground-based, on unmanned aerial vehicles, and underwater—make tracking ships at sea easier than ever before. Furthermore, long-range strike systems, such as ballistic missiles and antiship cruise missiles, make it easier to destroy lumbering ships once they’ve been located. The United States has other means of projecting power into East Asia—for example, using forward air bases—but those bases are also easy targets for missile strikes, and increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems threaten to keep U.S. aircraft far from enemy coasts. The central role of power projection in U.S. national-security strategy—and the growing threat to ships and forward bases—explains the U.S. Defense Department’s focus over the past decade on the “antiaccess” threat, especially China’s growing capabilities.

The U.S. military’s answer to this problem (known as “AirSea Battle”) is straightforward: be prepared to defeat antiaccess forces by blinding enemy sensors, degrading their command and control systems, and destroying their most capable conventional strike systems (e.g., those that target U.S. ships and airfields). The point is that in the age of advanced sensors and lethal long-range missiles, projecting overwhelming power across an ocean requires the ability to blind, disrupt, and disarm one’s enemies at the opening stages of conflict.

Critics accuse the U.S. military of exaggerating the China threat. These critics protest that China has only a fraction of U.S. military power, and they decry expensive new weapons to defeat antiaccess capabilities as provocative and unnecessary. But regardless of the aggregate balance of military power between the United States and China, the U.S. Navy and Air Force are correct that U.S. strategy in Asia hinges on the promise to bring overwhelming force to bear—despite the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the growing threat to power-projection forces. If China can substantially impede U.S. access during a war, the U.S. strategy toward the region will unravel.


Given Washington’s national-security strategy, the only Chinese policy that will not conflict with U.S. national-security goals is the most docile option—the strategy of “rich nation, weak army.” If China pursues any of the other options—including the more defensive ones—U.S.-China relations are likely to grow much more conflictual. Even if Beijing merely wants to be Washington’s peer in China’s own backyard, that would threaten the U.S. ability to move military forces to and around East Asia, undermining the core of Washington’s regional strategy. Those analysts who argue that a status-quo China need not conflict with the United States underestimate the extent to which Chinese and American grand strategies are on trajectories that collide.

The best hope for amicable U.S.-China relations rests on Beijing adopting a highly restrained grand strategy, but it would be historically unprecedented if it did so. China would be choosing to live within a security order managed by another great power—one with whom it has tense relations. While some countries have pursued docile grand strategies (one thinks of Australia, Canada and Japan), they have done so under the protection of a friendly, like-minded ally, the United States. In fact, two of America’s closest cold war allies, West Germany and Japan, took docility only so far. They built potent conventional military forces and, in Japan’s case, a nuclear hedge in the form of a giant stockpile of plutonium. Great powers have not entrusted their security to this degree to another great power unless they had little choice or unusually warm relations.

Indeed, a look at China’s national-security policy—its pursuit of antiaccess capabilities, its territorial claims, and discussions of claims to “second island chains”—suggests that it is (at a minimum) aspiring to be a regional great power. The remaining questions are the extent to which Beijing will confine its ambitions to East Asia (as opposed to pursuing a global strategy), and the extent to which it will tolerate U.S. global leadership or seek to undermine U.S. influence.

And the United States? In theory, Washington, like Beijing, has a number of strategic alternatives and could choose to adopt a strategy (such as “offshore balancing”) that would not require U.S. military dominance in the Pacific. But this appears unlikely. There is little support for this move within the American foreign-policy establishment, the U.S. military or the globalized American economic elite. Offshore balancing would be a radical departure from the way that the United States currently operates in East Asia; from how it plans to operate in the region in coming decades; and from how it has organized U.S. security in the region for the past sixty years.

Some might argue that by demonstrating greater humility and modesty the United States can continue its current strategy while still reassuring China. Summits can be held; regional institutions can be strengthened; Beijing can be empowered with leadership roles. Liberals criticized George W. Bush for aggressive policies that were offensive to U.S. allies and adversaries alike. They argue that more diplomatically savvy, consensus-building leaders can reassure allies and soothe others that We Come In Peace.

But evidence from the past five years does not support this view. American grand strategy under a Democratic administration has not noticeably changed—if anything, U.S. policy is even more assertive in East Asia. Though a supporter of the policy, Asia scholar Michael Green characterizes the Obama administration’s rebalancing effort as aimed at China’s “soft underbelly” in Southeast Asia—deepening military ties with the Philippines and Singapore; stationing 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia; and even flirting with America’s Cold War adversary Vietnam (which dwells on the Chinese border). The very dynamics we describe—China fearing the United States and acting to counter it; the United States fearing those countermeasures and then responding in turn—have not only occurred but have accelerated during the Obama administration.

In some sense, the greatest danger for the United States is the illusion that the current strategy of “leadership” or “deep engagement” is benign and unthreatening. China’s pursuit of a policy of “deep engagement” in Latin America or the Caribbean would be viewed by policymakers in Washington as outrageously provocative. As China’s power grows, Beijing’s leaders are likely to develop similar intolerance of American aircraft flying near their shores, U.S. warships plying nearby waters and the network of U.S. military bases that surrounds China.

The fundamental problem in U.S.-China relations—the engine of conflict between the two countries—is neither America’s grand strategy nor Beijing’s. China would be entirely reasonable in wanting the ability to defend its airspace and coastal waters from foreign powers. It is also perfectly reasonable for the United States to want to uphold its sixty-year-long security commitments to the region by retaining the ability to move powerful air and naval forces there.

Of course, perhaps a U.S.-China clash will never occur—after all, as with the much-hyped rises of the Soviet Union and Japan, China’s economy may languish or implode; a “Chinese Spring” could also derail its future prosperity. But assuming China’s economy continues to grow at a healthy rate, unless the United States departs from six decades of foreign-policy precedent, or unless China elects to pursue extreme foreign-policy meekness, America’s and China’s reasonable national-security interests will collide. This is how the tragedy of great-power politics unfolds.

Jennifer Lind is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell, 2008)


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