In November 2011, on his third official trip to Asia, US President Barack Obama announced a series of initiatives: a plan to station marines in northern Australia, the first steps towards reopening long-suspended diplomatic relations with Myanmar, and the launch of negotiations for a new free trade area designed to strengthen economic ties among the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam. The president also promised that, despite cuts in defence spending, the US would not merely maintain but actually increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
While they declined publicly to describe them in this way, administration spokespeople did nothing to discourage the perception that these measures were part of an effort to counter China's growing power. Beijing was quick to express its displeasure. If "Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests", warned one newspaper editorial, "then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire". Co-operating too closely with the US could carry steep costs: "Any country which chooses to be a pawn in the US chess game will lose the opportunity to benefit from China's economy."
These developments are the most recent manifestations of a struggle for power and influence between the US and China. This contest first began to take shape in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although their American counterparts were somewhat slower to see China as a potential threat, Chinese leaders became convinced that, having dispensed with one communist foe, the US would now turn its attention to them.
The Sino-American competition has accelerated markedly since the turn of the century, to the point where each nation now regards the other as posing a serious potential challenge to its security. Despite what many commentators seem to believe, this burgeoning rivalry is not the result of easily erased misperceptions or readily correctable policy errors; it is driven instead by forces that are deeply rooted in the shifting structure of the international system and in the divergent domestic political regimes of the two powers.
Throughout history, relations between dominant states and fast-rising challengers have been uneasy and often violent. Established powers want to preserve their place atop the international pecking order and see emerging states as threatening to displace them. Those on the rise feel constrained, even cheated, by the status quo and struggle against it to take what they believe is rightfully theirs, always fearing that the current main players want to block their ascent and perhaps even to crush them before they grow too strong. Thus, at the turn of the 20th century, imperial Germany's leaders became convinced that Britain and the other established colonial powers were intent on denying them their "place in the sun".
These age-old geopolitical dynamics are clearly visible today in the interactions between the US and China. But there is more than power and prestige at stake; ideological differences add a crucial extra measure of mistrust to an already volatile mix. Many Americans see the current regime in Beijing as a one-party dictatorship that suppresses dissent, forbids meaningful political competition, is secretive about its intentions and may be dangerously prone to aggression.
While China's rulers no longer regard themselves as the leaders of a global revolutionary movement, they nonetheless believe that they are engaged in an intense ideological struggle. And although they dismiss Washington's professions of concern for human rights and individual freedom as cynical and opportunistic, China's leaders have no doubt that the US is also motivated by genuine ideological fervour. As seen from Beijing, America is a quasi-imperialist nation that will not rest until it has imposed its way on the entire planet.
Against this backdrop, since the end of the Cold War the two Pacific powers have pursued polices towards one another that are notable for their stability and persistence. America's strategy is a blend of two elements. With some shifts in rhetoric and emphasis, successive administrations have sought to engage China through trade and diplomacy while at the same time taking steps to maintain a favourable balance of "hard power" in East Asia. Towards this end, the US has bolstered its own military capabilities in the region, strengthened strategic cooperation with traditional treaty allies (especially Japan, South Korea and Australia) and built what might be called "quasi-alliance" partnerships with other countries (like Singapore and India) that share its concerns about China's growing power.
The goal of the balancing half of US strategy is to deter aggression or attempts at coercion directed at America's Asian allies. Meanwhile, through engagement, the US aims to "tame" Beijing, encouraging it to become what the George W Bush White House termed a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. American policymakers hope that trade and dialogue will ultimately help transform China, easing it along the path from authoritarianism towards liberal democracy.
Beijing's basic approach to dealing with the US was set in the early 1990s, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although there are some signs that it may be starting to change, China's US strategy has had three components since that time. First, Beijing has generally sought to avoid confrontation with the US or the other major Asian nations. Starting from a position of relative weakness and potential vulnerability, Deng Xiaoping and his successors believed they needed time in which to build all the elements of China's "comprehensive national power", a composite of economic might, scientific and technological prowess, military strength and diplomatic clout. Although they usually prefer patience and caution, Chinese policymakers have hardly been passive. Instead, they have sought to advance incrementally, extending and strengthening their influence wherever possible, while working quietly to weaken Washington's position.
China's rulers do not discuss their objectives openly but their top priority is clearly to preserve the Communist Party's exclusive grip on domestic political power. Believing that Washington aims both to contain their country's rise and to subvert its regime, Beijing seeks to constrict America's presence in East Asia by driving wedges between it and its traditional allies, to diminish its influence by building new regional institutions in which the US is marginalised or excluded, and eventually to displace it as the preponderant regional power. Acutely aware of the potential dangers, Chinese planners are eager to avoid direct confrontation with the US and aim instead to "win without fighting", the outcome that the ancient philosopher Sun Tzu considered the acme of the strategist's art. This will require Beijing to lull and reassure its opponents, dividing and discouraging them from joining forces to counter China's rise. In time the balance of power will shift so far in China's favour that resistance to its wishes will appear futile. Any assessment of the current state of Sino-American competition must yield a mixed and incomplete verdict.
The US has certainly not succeeded in transforming China, at least not yet. Despite many changes in Chinese society, and many challenges to internal order, the Communist Party remains firmly in control. By comparison, over the past 20 years, Beijing has been quite successful in shaping American perceptions and policies. It has done this in part by cultivating ties with influential players in business, academia and government. These people are driven by a mix of motives, from the idealistic hope of cultivating friendship between two great nations, to the pragmatic aim of avoiding a devastating conflict, to the more narrowly self-interested desire to preserve access or earn profits. Taken together they form a loosely integrated pro-engagement "lobby" whose members favour preserving good relations with China at almost any price. As a corollary, engagement's strongest proponents generally oppose military or diplomatic measures aimed at bolstering the balancing half of America's mixed strategy on the grounds that these might antagonise Beijing.
In the global arena, the extent to which the US has "tamed" China is open to serious question. In the past two decades Beijing has joined or signed up to all manner of international institutions from the World Trade Organization to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty but there is little evidence that this experience has produced any fundamental shift in the way China's leaders interact with the rest of the world. Where China has chosen to embrace existing norms of international behaviour it appears often to have done so, not out of conviction, but rather as the result of a cold-blooded calculation about its interests and its relative power. Thus Beijing's defence of traditional concepts of sovereignty and its opposition to the arguments advanced in recent years by western liberal democracies in favour of "humanitarian intervention" to prevent human rights abuses are largely a product of its own feelings of comparative weakness and vulnerability. As it becomes stronger and less fearful, China will likely find justifications for interventions of its own.
The expectation that, in time, Beijing would come to see its interests on an array of important issues as convergent with those of the US has yet to be borne out by events. As regards non-proliferation, China has not been nearly as helpful as many in Washington had hoped. In the face of repeated appeals, Beijing has declined to use even a fraction of the leverage at its disposal to try to persuade first North Korea and now Iran to abandon their nuclear weapons programmes. This is not necessarily because China's leaders favour proliferation, but rather because they rank more highly maintaining a friendly buffer state, in the first instance, and preserving access to energy, in the second.
After decades of engagement there is little reason to believe that China has become a status quo power, aspiring to nothing more than being accepted as a member in good standing of the contemporary, US-made international system. On the contrary, it seems clear that Beijing rejects the legitimacy and permanence of many existing arrangements. China's leaders have long expressed the view that the US alliance system in Asia is an obsolete relic of "Cold War thinking", and in recent years they have reiterated their claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.
Over the past 20 years Beijing has been engaged in a steady expansion of its military capabilities. Today China deploys hundreds of accurate, conventionally armed cruise missiles that can be fired from land, surface ships, submarines and aircraft, as well as more than 1,000 land-launched ballistic missiles. Using information from an array of sensors deployed on ships, planes, unmanned drones and satellites, these weapons can be targeted against the fixed airfields and naval bases on which the US depends to support its forces in the western Pacific.
Surface ships, including the US navy's mighty aircraft carriers, are also becoming vulnerable to attack. America's Asian alliances rest on the credibility of its defence commitments and this, in turn, depends on its ability to project overwhelming air and sea power into the western Pacific. China's maturing "anti-access/area denial" forces have begun to call that capability into question.
Thanks in large part to the gravitational pull of its economy, now the second-largest in the world, China is the strongest force in continental Southeast Asia. As it makes investments in transportation infrastructure, agriculture and resource extraction, its influence in Central Asia is also growing. In recent years China has also become a leading trading partner of all the maritime states of North East and South East Asia.
From South Korea to Japan, to the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia, these countries are generally more prosperous and more democratic than their inland counterparts, and they are, in many cases, friends and allies of the US. Chinese strategists clearly hope that deepening economic ties will carry diplomatic benefits, complicating the calculations of governments that remain allied to the US, causing them at least to hesitate before taking actions that might offend Beijing.
Since the end of the Cold War observers have often praised the quality of China's diplomacy, noting the effectiveness of its "charm offensives" in winning favour across Asia. In the last three years, however, many of Beijing's actions have frightened its neighbours, driving them more deeply into America's arms.
Obama's administration came into office intending to maintain the basic approach of his predecessors, but hoped it could enhance and expand engagement, broadening and deepening it to include issues such as climate change, while minimising perennial disagreements over human rights. Although they had no intention of abandoning efforts at balancing, administration spokespeople downplayed this part of US strategy, dropped the term "hedging" to describe the purpose of America's Asian alliances and military deployments, and began speaking instead of the importance of mutual "reassurance".
Starting in the latter part of 2009, however, this approach encountered a series of setbacks. Throughout Asia, as well as in Washington, China was seen to be behaving in an assertive, even aggressive, fashion across a variety of fronts. When North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel in March 2010, Beijing shielded its long-time ally from punishment and instead criticised Washington and Seoul for conducting joint naval exercises.
After the Japanese authorities arrested a drunken Chinese fishing boat captain in waters near disputed islands in the East China Sea in September of the same year, Beijing chose to escalate what should have been a minor incident into a major diplomatic confrontation, going so far as to suspend exports of rare earth minerals vital to Japanese high-tech manufacturers. Further to the south, Beijing intensified its claims to virtually all the waters and resources of the South China Sea. Faced with mounting opposition, in July 2010 Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned other claimants, with uncharacteristic bluntness, that "China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact".
Chinese officials for the first time threatened to impose sanctions on US companies involved in possible arms sales to Taiwan and issued public statements that they might stop buying US debt if the president met with the Dalai Lama. Although it proved to be a bluff, the latter threat went well beyond previous expressions of displeasure over the issue. In 2010 there also were a number of notable displays of China's growing military capabilities including the roll-out of a prototype stealth fighter during a visit to Beijing by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the initial deployment of new anti-ship ballistic missiles evidently designed to target US aircraft carriers.
Last spring the Chinese navy conducted its biggest exercises ever outside the so-called "first island chain". This is a notional line on the map extending from the tip of South Korea, through the Ruyuku Islands south of Japan, to Taiwan and all the way to the Strait of Malacca at the entrance to the South China Sea. Chinese naval strategists have long regarded it as a potential barrier within which their opponents, especially Japan and the US, might seek to contain them. Some authors argue that, to be truly secure, China must establish itself as the preponderant naval power all the way to the "second chain" of smaller Pacific islands further to the east. A few years ago a Chinese admiral jokingly proposed going even further. "You guys can have the east part of the Pacific, Hawaii to the States," he reportedly told a US counterpart. "We'll take the west ... from Hawaii to China."
After a brief period of hesitation, the Obama administration began to respond to China's actions by increasing its emphasis on the balancing half of its strategic portfolio. In 2010, the president visited the capitals of various Asian democracies while notably foregoing a stop in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to assertions that the South China Sea was a "core national interest" of China by declaring that the US had a "vital interest" in maintaining freedom of navigation through it.
In addition to strengthening its own alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines, the US also took steps towards closer relations with Vietnam, a country that, despite its communist government, has a long history of animosity towards China. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Defence Department announced the formation of an "Air Sea Battle" office, a group of planners from the various services whose primary purpose is to develop counters to China's growing anti-access capabilities.
Obama's most recent trip to Asia is thus only the latest in a series of actions intended to reassure America's friends and allies by signalling its continuing commitment to the region. What happens next will depend in large part on how China responds and that, in turn, will depend on the forces driving Beijing's apparent increase in assertiveness.
There is a significant body of opinion among professional China watchers that regards the country's recent behaviour as the result of transitory factors that have already begun to recede in significance. In this view, Beijing may have overreacted to a number of unanticipated events, but this does not imply that it has adopted a fundamentally new course. The inclination to take tougher positions on a number of issues perhaps had something to do with jockeying among candidates for elevation in the run-up to the impending leadership transition, a protracted and opaque process whose results will be formally announced at the 18th Communist Party Congress this autumn. Finally, it is argued that the perception that China has adopted a more confrontational stance is largely due to the unauthorised effusions of a few "rogue" military officers.
According to this interpretation, just as it did in the mid-1990s when it backed away from an earlier series of clashes with its South East Asian neighbours, China will learn from its mistakes, adjusting its policies and toning down its rhetoric so as not to provoke undue anxiety and hostility.
Obama's tough stand will persuade Beijing to back away from its recent belligerence. In retrospect, the assertive behaviour of the past few years will appear to have been an aberration rather than the wave of the future.
This view is reassuring, but it may be that recent shifts in China's external behaviour are manifestations of deeper and long-lasting changes within the country itself. Since the onset of the financial crisis a number of analysts and officials have come to the conclusion that the US has entered a period of relative decline, permitting China to rise even more rapidly than many had expected.
This appears to be feeding a sense of triumphalism in some quarters and encouraging the spread of an especially potent strain of assertive nationalism. The coming decade will see the emergence of a new generation of Chinese political elites who have known nothing but rapid growth and national success and who, as a result, may lack the patience and innate caution of their elders. The impending transition will likely see the further institutionalisation of a system of comparatively weak collective leadership at the top of the Communist Party. From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to the present group of unprepossessing bureaucrats, the stature of China's leaders has tended to diminish, to the point where no one figure has the authority to impose his will.
In this more competitive environment, and with popular nationalism on the rise, no one will want to risk accusations of "softness", and the safest option for all concerned may be to adopt a hardline stance towards external enemies, real or imagined. In contrast to the past, when mild criticisms of policy tended to come from groups of retired officers, some of the more outspoken recent advocates of greater toughness are comparatively high-ranking figures still on active duty. This is one indication that the military may be playing an increasing role in debates over national policy, along with other groups (including state-owned enterprises and lesser ministries) whose interests may best be served by initiatives that deviate from the kind of careful, incremental, rational approach that until recently has characterised Beijing's external strategy.
If this is the case, then the Obama administration's initiatives will probably provoke a response that escalates the ongoing Sino-American rivalry to a whole new level of intensity. The diplomatic manoeuvring, military muscle-flexing and heightened trans-Pacific tensions of the last several years may well be merely a prelude to what is yet to come.
Aaron L Friedberg is professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. A former adviser to the Bush administration, he is currently advising Mitt Romney. His book A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia is published by W W Norton & Company.