27 May 2011

Chinese Suspicion and U.S. Intentions

Michael S. Chase, Chinese Suspicion and US Intentions,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 53.3 (June–July 2011): 133–50.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s formal state visit to the United States in January 2011 was widely seen as the successful culmination of efforts on both sides to get the US–China relationship back on track after a rocky year. Hu praised the ‘candid, pragmatic and constructive atmosphere’ of the day’s meetings and opined that the two countries have far more common interests than differences’. US President Barack Obama highlighted the benefits of bilateral cooperation and underscored the importance of a cooperative and constructive US–China relationship.

Obama’s comments echoed those of other senior US officials who have repeatedly emphasised that Washington welcomes the emergence of a more prosperous and powerful China, and that the US–China relationship does not need to follow historical patterns of conflict as new powers emerge. Washington is also concerned, to be sure, about how a stronger and more capable China will use its growing power, and specifically how Beijing’s growing military capabilities and lack of transparency contribute to uncertainty about its long-term strategic intentions. But the overall message is that the United States welcomes the emergence of a more prosperous and powerful China capable of playing a larger and more constructive role on the international stage.

Beijing appears to be hearing a different message. No matter what strategic assurances Washington provides, many in China are concerned that the United States is becoming increasingly uneasy about China’s emergence, and will try to prevent it. They fear that what Washington really intends is to attempt to contain China, by which they appear to mean delay or prevent China’s emergence or otherwise frustrate its great-power ambitions.

Chinese scholars and analysts have harboured deep suspicions about US strategic intentions for many years, but a changing strategic context and a series of recent incidents appear to have intensified their concerns. For some, the contrast between a rapidly rising China and a United States that they see as declining economically in the wake of the global financial crisis suggests that Washington will intensify its attempts to contain China in an effort to preserve its own position. These views are consistent with the concerns many Chinese scholars express about what they see as Washington’s ‘two-handed’ China policy, which they argue features elements of engagement and cooperation on the one hand, and containment on the other. Within this broader strategic context, Chinese analysts are extremely wary of a ‘return to Asia’. They argue that Washington’s attempts to strengthen its East Asian alliances, overtures to Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia, and statements about resolving competing claims in the South China Sea are evidence of its supposed intent to check China’s great-power ambitions. As explained by Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University:

China’s security environment is increasingly challenged by the United States in that the latter has taken the opportunity presented by regional tensions to shore up its alliance with both South Korea and Japan, as well as through trilateral defense coordination. If the ….