The Obama administration has responded to Chinese assertiveness by reinforcing U.S. military and diplomatic links to the Asia-Pacific, to much acclaim at home and in the region. But the “pivot” is based on a serious misreading of its target. China remains far weaker than the United States and is deeply insecure. To make Beijing more cooperative, Washington should work to assuage China’s anxieties, not exploit them.
Although China's economy has grown robustly in the past ten years, the presidency of Hu Jintao was not without its failures. The gap between the rich and poor has widened, the environment has suffered, and tensions have risen in the Pacific. The next Chinese president would be well served to learn from Hu's errors.
For decades, U.S. China policy has been driven by a combination of engagement and balancing. The Obama administration has put too much weight on the first, and diplomatic happy talk has done nothing to halt Beijing’s military buildup. The next administration should get real about China and bolster the balancing half of Washington’s strategic equation.
"Great power" is a vague term, but China deserves it by any measure: the extent and strategic location of its territory, the size and dynamism of its population, the value and growth rate of its economy, the massive size of its share of global trade, and the strength of its military. China has become one of a small number of countries that have significant national interests in every part of the world and that command the attention, whether willingly or grudgingly, of every other country and every international organization. And perhaps most important, China is the only country widely seen as a possible threat to U.S. predominance. Indeed, China's rise has led to fears that the country will soon overwhelm its neighbors and one day supplant the United States as a global hegemon.
But widespread perceptions of China as an aggressive, expansionist power are off base. Although China's relative power has grown significantly in recent decades, the main tasks of Chinese foreign policy are defensive and have not changed much since the Cold War era: to blunt destabilizing influences from abroad, to avoid territorial losses, to reduce its neighbors' suspicions, and to sustain economic growth. What has changed in the past two decades is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers.
Chief among those powers, of course, is the United States, and managing the fraught U.S.-Chinese relationship is Beijing's foremost foreign policy challenge. And just as Americans wonder whether China's rise is good for U.S. interests or represents a looming threat, Chinese policymakers puzzle over whether the United States intends to use its power to help or hurt China.
This is a premium article
Buy PDFBuy a premium PDF reprint of this article.
SubscribeSubscribe and get premium access to ForeignAffairs.com.