Resurgence of Cold War in US Foreign Policy: Shift in Strategy on China

The area of power as well as the diversity of the United States and China’s bilateral relations have turned the managing such relations into a unique matter both in terms of importance and the challenges that it entails.
19 September 2020
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Mehdi Zadehali

The area of power as well as the diversity of the United States and China’s bilateral relations have turned the managing such relations into a unique matter both in terms of importance and the challenges that it entails. A study of this case reveals the efforts to find an answer to the old question that what would happen when a stabilized and a rising power confront each other. The history of development in US-China relations indicates that they had been trying to avoid confrontation as far as possible by late 2010s. But the domestic changes in the two countries and the international relations’ developments have forced the US to look for a decent answer to that question. This would mean a plan to maintain the superiority in the current international order without having to incur the heavy costs of a war. Discontinuance of the policy of appeasement towards China is the main result of such efforts.

The launch of appeasement strategy toward China dates back to the early 2000s, when on the one hand, the global economy needed to open new markets to get through the consequences of the 1998 economic crisis, and on the other hand, China’s peaceful development policy assured the world’s powers that China would adjust its relations with the world within the framework of the existing international order. In addition, the “Washington Consensus” as a fundamental idea in the western political economy notions that merge economic reform with democratization processes and political reform provided an ideal basis for global breakthrough with China. There was an assumption that the advantages of China’s involvement in the global economy and the far-reaching impacts of globalization would force China to accept democratic institutions at the domestic level and would result in China’s integration into the US-led world order at the international level in the long term. But the outcome of such process was far different from what had been expected.

China took first place in world trade and became the second world’s economy by tapping into the growing advantages of global free trade. Contrary to the forecasts, the signs of failure of the appeasement strategy toward China became clear in the early 2010s. Not only China’s political structure did not change so much, but, despite a rapid growth, the core of Chinese economy remained under the control of the government. Even though China still committed to the policy of peaceful developments at the international level, but it began to boost its capabilities in various fields, such as the military power. China’s military spending has increased at the same rate of its GDP. According to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, China’s military spending has risen from $20 billion in 1990 to $228 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, China has enhanced its naval presence in the surrounding areas, particularly in the South and East China Sea. The range of Chinese naval presence has been extended beyond the Indian Ocean after establishing a base in Djibouti. Reaching this level of capabilities has enabled China to go beyond its region and extend its influence in the world –especially Western Hemisphere- that could impact on the US interests.   

In the meanwhile, the Belt and Road Initiative was deemed to be an alarm. The initiative was proposed in 2013 and includes the construction of civil airports, railroad, routes, and ports connecting China to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. From a strategic viewpoint, the initiative is beyond an economic investment. If carried out successfully, the initiative would not only expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence, but will also bring about deep geopolitical impacts on the world, posing a challenge to the US-favored order.

The signs of failure of the appeasement policy made it necessary for the US to redefine its strategy toward China as of early 2010s. Two basic ideas were proposed in this regard in 2011. At first, Henry Kissinger in his book titled “On China” proposed that the appeasement policy toward China should be taken into account, this time toward an emerging power and at a higher level. According to this idea, the two sides would agree on building a “Pacific Community”, a region belonging to the US, China and other countries to collaborate on its peaceful development. In this order the US and China need to reach a compromise over issues such as Taiwan, territorial disputes with China’s neighbors on islands, as well as deploying military forces and defensive and offensive missile systems in the region, in order to establish the security balance agreeable to both sides.

The counterargument was Pivot to Asia Policy which was proposed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. She argues that the major part of history in the 21st century would be written in Asia, and the US’ growing interaction with this region would indicate the determination and commitment to have a role in the formation of such a common future. She believes that the Asia-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the rapidly changing world, and that it is necessary for the US to participate in its security architecture to preserve its leadership role, therefore, the US should stabilize its presence in this region with Pivot to Asia policy. This was the framework that practically turned into the main strategy in Obama’s foreign policy on China. As a result, the first steps to change the US strategy from appeasement to containment began during Obama’s presidency.

The main emphasis of the US strategy on China during Obama’s presidency was on containing that country not as a rising international power, but as a regional power. The foundation of all measures formulated in that period was based on the notion that China will be able to gain an international role and position as an international power only when it takes control of its region. According to this view, a regional power’s superiority in East and South East of Asia which may be rooted in the asymmetric distribution of the financial resources of the countries’ national power, would enable the regional hegemon to redefine the regional order according to its own interests and values with the purpose of the new order would cause proper efficiency in the regeneration of its power. In this course, that regional power would achieve the highest economic growth, enhance its capabilities beyond the region, and turn into a challenge to the dominant powers in the international arena in the long term.

In order to prevent China from achieving such a position, the US devised two strategic plans in the economic and security sphere with the purpose of adjusting the balance of China’s power in East Asia and began to carry them out. Under those two plans, the US’ main purpose in East Asia and the Pacific was to strengthen the position of its regional allies. As a result, the US was pursuing the strategy to establish more and stronger bases to create a more stable region with sustainable security for its bases situated in the allied countries of the region.

The main axis of the Obama Administration’s plans in the economic sphere was redefinition of the economic relations in East Asia and parts of the Pacific region under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The primary purpose of the agreement was to create an economic balance between China and a set of neighboring regional powers, in a way that those neighbors would gain the power to compete with China’s economy and overtake its superiority in economic growth in the medium/long term.

At the security level, the main axis of Obama’s strategy was what Clinton had already described as Pivot to the East. This strategy entailed an American effort to create some sort of long-term security commitments and inclusive presence in East Asia region in order to restrict China’s regional ambitions, to expand its security umbrella in the region for taking advantage of the security dependence countries’ in East Asia to preserve its favorable regional order in this region, and to maintain the major international regimes, including the nonproliferation regime. Such strategy of the Obama Administration translated into the necessity for stronger American military-security presence in East Asia. The United States had plans to deploy 60 percent of its naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. This strategy was supposed to massively reduce the US’ security-military commitments and even physical presence and intervention in the other regions, including the Middle East. However, the continuation of such a strategy encountered a domestic challenge in the US.

Trump’s rise to power was the beginning of a different approach and the new US administration’s different policies led to a change in the American defense-security strategies. Accordingly, the policy formulated during Obama’s tenure was scrapped. The US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations was the most notable result of that change. As the Pivot to East policy was abandoned, a serious vacuum was left in the US’ national security strategies on China. Efforts were made to fill the vacuum with a new strategy.

A change in the policy and the administration of the United States was also coupled with a change in the US’ strategic interpretation of China. Unlike the Obama Administration, the new security team at the White House defined China as an international and emerging power, not a regional power anymore. Such a shift in interpretation necessitated a change in the previous policies on China. Therefore, the main axis of the US policy on East Asia changed from constraining-balancing to constraining-forcing back China in East Asia. Contrary to the past when the US pushed to create a regional balance in the face of China, Washington adopted a two-level policy under the new plan. At the regional level, the US sought to establish a new framework for its security strategy by broadening the geopolitical definitions in the Indo-Pacific concept. At the international level, the US itself turned into a challenger of China trying to push it back.

The Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy was the major sign of such strategic shifts in the US policy on East Asia. The strategy cites the Indo-Pacific as one of the three regions (also including Europe and the Middle East) in which unfavorable changes must be prevented. A review of the strategy and focusing on its operational dimensions at the regional level reveal that the United States has devised special security architecture to restrain the three challenging actors (China, Russia and Iran). The most important and most extensive security architecture relates to East Asia and the region referred to by the US as the Indo-Pacific. Under this regional order, the United States is organizing two types of order with the purpose of restraining China. The first order is the political and security one based upon creating a strategic alliance of the US, India, Australia, and Japan --a potential alliance of like-minded democracies. This order has been strengthened by the US’ strategic ties with Thailand and the Philippines. Those two countries, together with Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, complement the political and security order in the Indo-Pacific in the form of strategic partnership with the US within the framework of political and economic cooperation. At the international level, the US has focused on its trade with China -known as China’s Achilles’ heel in the relationship with the US- and has challenged it in the form of trade/technology war in an effort to carry out the policy of restraining China by pushing it back in certain strategic fields, specifically in the new technologies sphere.

The US’ involvement in the challenge of China in the field of trade and economy marks an official end to the policy of appeasement toward China. In the past, the United States tolerated a certain degree of intellectual property theft and unequal access to the markets of one another, because China was thought to move towards a free market and the rule of law. The White House administration believes that there is no reason anymore for the United States to refrain from adopting harsher policies against China after it disregarded the liberal reforms. Apart from what is happening at the international level, the orientation of China’s 2025 development plan to the development of fundamental technologies has seriously concerned the US. China's investment in the robotics industry, artificial intelligence, and advanced technologies as well as its efforts to acquire modern sciences in those fields could in the long term pose a challenge not only to the US’ superiority in technology and economy, but also in the military sphere.

The policymakers in Washington have come to the conclusion that countering the emergence of China at the international level would have vital significance for them at the current circumstances, so that they have made a detailed revision of the US policy on China in order to separate the efficient parts from the general strategy of the US relations with China. In addition to such strategic revision, the major shift in the US’ policy on China is that Washington has no compunction anymore about angering China in various fields, from economy to international politics. Such evolution of policies made the US strengthen the alliances with its partners in East and South Asia, try to deal with the security issues such as freedom of navigation joint operations in the South China Sea, provide substitute investment resources for the countries with strategic ports, support Taiwan against China, and support the efforts from the other Asian states to boost their military power in the South China Sea.

The purpose of all of these measures is to provoke China into entering a Cold War or an early military competition with the US. While there is a significant gap between the American and Chinese economies, China will have to pay a price for entering such competition which would be a reduction in its power in the process of national development and a delay in the plans to redesign and update its economy. This would guarantee the US’ unrivalled superiority against China in the long term.


(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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