Understanding Recent US-China Dynamics in a Theoretical Context

Kajari Kamal, PhD student, University of Hyderabad.

The Pentagon recently submitted its 2016 Annual  Report to the US Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’[1], hitting hard at China’s military growth and drawing attention to China’s efforts to enhance its reach and power, especially evident in the territorial and maritime sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas. China retaliated by condemning the report and calling it a deliberate distortion that has severely “damaged mutual trust.” This geopolitical cut and thrust witnessed in the last few days was a rather enigmatic sideshow to the larger strategic contest that has been playing out ever since the Obama administration’s famous strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia, was announced.

In October 2011, Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, explicated the term “pivot” in an article in the journal, Foreign Policy. She said, “harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama. Open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of key players.”[2] While the American policymakers have clarified that the “pivot” is not targeted at any third party, China has viewed it with skepticism and abundant caution. This upgrading of Asia in American strategic thinking is bound to have varied reactions from the smallest to the most powerful of the Asian states.

China’s “One Belt One Road” strategy, referred to as China’s “westward march”, is touted by many as a response to the U.S “pivot” or “rebalance”. Strategic experts believe that with the Silk Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment bank, China has inaugurated its own grand strategy to change the region’s geopolitical map with its own Asia pivot. China’s maneuvering in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, in terms of building artificial islands by reclaiming land to host military facilities, is seen as a definite attempt to expand its sea frontiers.The somewhat hostile undertones of the recent exchanges, between the world’s sole super power on the one hand and the largest economy in the world on the other, deserve a serious examination in terms of their motives, both ideational and strategic. International Relations theorists have worked hard over several decades to come up with a formula which would help explain why states behave the way they do in an international system. The Neorealists would  argue that states act according to the logic of self-help in an anarchic international order where the driving force of survival is the key factor influencing their behavior. In such a scenario, relative power becomes crucial, which brings in issues such as lack of trust between states, encapsulated in the term ‘security dilemma’. Since the US and China, in this view, are contesting for primacy, they would vie to maximize their relative power and through internal and external balancing, check the power of states or alliances.

China has a long historical tradition of dealing with internal and external problems and threats and can rightfully boast of a deep civilizational heritage, which has to a large extent shaped societal culture in its own unique way, quite distinct from the West. The importance of strategic tradition as a variable in understanding a state’s strategic behavior becomes especially pronounced in this case. In May 2015, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China published a White Paper on China’s Military Strategy. In the preface, it was mentioned that in the “endeavour to realize the Chinese Dream of great national rejuvenation, the Chinese people aspire to join hands with rest of the world to maintain peace, pursue development and share prosperity”. The strategic concept of “active defense” was stated as the “essence of the CPC’s military strategic thought. This essentially means, “adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense; adherence to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike; and adherence to the stance that “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” The White Paper stated that China has unswervingly followed the path of peaceful development and has pursued an independent foreign policy of peace, and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and opposes hegemonism and power politics of any kind, and is committed to never seek expansion.

However, this is in stark contrast to the assessment of the Pentagon’s Annual Report : “In tandem with the modernization and reorganization of the PLA, Chinese leaders are increasingly leveraging tactics short of armed conflict to advance China’s interests. Their approach seeks to enhance China’s reach and power through activities calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Asia-Pacific region into open conflict”. “Chinese leaders in 2014 demonstrated a willingness to tolerate a higher level of regional tension as China sought to advance its interests, such as in competing territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea”. China has the fiscal strength and political will to sustain increased defense spending, supporting the continued modernization of the PLA into a more professional and capable force. Using 2015 prices and exchange rates, the DoD estimates that China’s total military-related spending for 2015 exceeded US $180 billion. Essentially, the Report appears to suggest that China is breaking away from its stated strategic objectives.

It further amplifies that China has been conducting its activities methodologically, consistently and by some estimates, coercively. Its stated military strategy and foreign policy disposition is cleverly framed to put all anxieties at rest. It points out that in “historical and contemporary PLA texts, Chinese military theorists routinely emphasize the importance of secrecy and deception for both the protection of personnel and infrastructure and the concealment of sensitive military activities”.

The assessment of the Pentagon report throws into sharp relief the explanation of China’s international behavior, offered by Alastair Iain Johnston (Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, 1995). Johnston identifies the existence of two strands of strategic culture in China – Realpolitik/parabellum and Confucian/Mencian. While he holds the realpolitik strand to be the dominant one, he differs  from other Realists (who use ‘structure’ to  explain/predict offensive behavior) in that  Johnston draws a connection between Chinese parabellum strategic culture and its realpolitik disposition. He labels this as “Cultural Realism”. He also contends that the Confucian/Mencian strand (symbolic and idealized set of assumptions), “for the most part, is disconnected from the programmatic decision rules governing strategy, and appears mostly in an habitual discoursed designed, in part, to justify behavior in culturally acceptable terms.”[3] This offers one possible explanation for the discrepancy in the objectives stated in the White Paper and the analysis of the Pentagon Annual Report.

While the claims of the report are in sync with the theoretical explanation, it is good to remind ourselves that China has been a shrewd player in the international system and has honed its strategy over centuries of practice. It will staunchly defend its stated objectives – and will strongly refute charges of being described as an aggressor. The Report also states that “during periods of tension, official statements and state media seek to frame China as reacting to threats to its national interests or to provocations by outside actors. China often uses a progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed territories and avoid escalation to military conflict.” China thereby remains aligned to its commitment to world peace, at least in form. While the duality is apparent in Chinese strategic culture and therefore makes its study more complex, America’s “pivot” can undoubtedly be ascribed to its growing insecurity vis-à-vis China’s expanding influence, both economically and strategically, in the Pacific Rim.



[1] http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf

[2] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”, Foreign Policy, October 2011. (http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/10/11/americas-pacific-century)

[3] Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, Princeton University Press, 1995, pg x (preface)

2 thoughts on “Understanding Recent US-China Dynamics in a Theoretical Context

  1. Well written, Kajari. Keep it up. “It is good to remind ourselves that China has been a shrewd player in the international system” says it all. Would like to see more such pieces from you.

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