The Transformation of Strategic Mindsets and China-US Cooperation

China International Studies | 作者: Zhao Minghao | 时间: 2014-09-18 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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By Zhao Minghao


The China-US relations are undergoing profound transformation and will navigate a rough sea ahead. The bilateral ties would be defined by a complex mix of cooperation intertwined with competition for the coming decade. Admittedly, competition is rising while cooperation is still limited. The fundamental challenge facing both Beijing and Washington is to address increasing strategic distrusts, expand the sphere of cooperation and manage the rivalry. [1] In so doing, it is essential to push ahead the transformation of both sides’ strategic mindsets. They need to broaden their national security aperture, avoid the strategic myopia, work together to navigate carefully and steer the “shared boat” into the right direction in the uncharted water of the future world, and equip themselves well to confront tomorrow’s unknowns. The stakes for comprehensive and substantive cooperation are very high and the margin for error is small.

It is worth noting that the natures of national security core concepts, such as power, leadership, and security are changing, which result from the changing international environment and defines the debates and choices of grand strategy in decades ahead. The domestic debate over American grand strategy since 9/11 attacks has exerted much influence on the foreign policy orientation and posture of the Obama administration.[2]

They reflect a myriad of important trends defining and shaping the current and future international politics within which the China-US relations develop. It is necessary to unveil and underline the new characteristics in the global affairs to stimulate the policy makers from the both sides to transform their mindsets accordingly and increasing their awareness of the revolutionary mega-context where the bilateral relationship lies.

The overarching characteristic is the diffusion of power and power in the international system is diffusing not just to rising powers but also to non-state actors.[3] Obviously, the diffusion of power, together with the increasing interdependence among the nations and the complexity of the threats, suggests that there will not be any hegemonic power in future. [4] It also leads to the redefinition of the nature of power, that is, the power would shift to networks and coalitions and the country which could become the hub of the networks and the convener of the coalitions and skillful in forging the connectedness with relevant players would be the truly powerful one.[5]

In this sense, the successful grand strategy for one country in this century ought to be milieu-oriented rather than position-oriented. It is unwise and costly, even self-defeating if one country is first and foremost concerned about and concentrates all of its power recourses for the ambition of seeking the predominant position and preserving to be the No.1. What is most striking for both China and the US is not the preeminence of one threat or the threat from one single and specific country, rather, the scope and variety of threats and the quality of global interdependence and its complexity. For China’s part, it has been seeking to establish a concept of comprehensive security by incorporating economic and non-traditional security concerns with military and political security interests in a world which is becoming more and more polycentric. Even military security concerns have to take into consideration transnational problems like countering terrorism and piracy and participating in UN peacekeeping operations. Economic security, for one thing, needs to be protected by joining other countries in stabilizing the global financial market.

Moreover, it is virtually much more complex to clearly distinguish between friends and foes. Indeed, the United States might cause political and military threats to China, and Japan as a geopolitical competitor for China is staunchly allied with the United States. These two nations nonetheless happen to be China’s greatest economic partners. Russia, a country seen by some Chinese as a potential ally, is economically and socially not even as important to China as South Korea, another military alliance of the United States. In Beijing’s strategic outlook, there is indeed a tension persisting between the traditional political-military perspectives and the broadening socioeconomic perspectives. For most Chinese strategic elites, how to find a way to coordinate those different, if not conflicting, perspectives in the making of national security strategy is a daunting challenge.[6]

In the coming decade, neither side should view the other as the greatest national security threat since they face common global challenges which would be more sweeping and daunting, and have to tackle the domestic consequences of those challenges. Several major global trends can be identified here. The first one relates to the demographic change. The world population will rise from 7.1 billion to about 8.3 billion. The aging of population would accelerate in most advanced countries and several developing ones including China. The economic growth would decline while the costs for social welfare soar in aging countries. Although the US would not encounter the aging problem, it has to struggle with increasing debt burdens, fiscal shortfalls, and chronic unemployment.

In addition, the US has been beset by anxieties over immigration. A new age of transnational and internal migration may bring about more low-intensity conflicts such as urban violence which also require increased attention from governments. The implication may be the tendency to “securitize” social and human issues which could increasingly absorb the national security resources.[7]

Second, the percent of the world’s population in the middle class will expand from the current 1 billion to over 2 billion and urbanization will grow from 50 percent of the world’s population to about 60 percent. The tensions and conflicts between the middle classes from different countries and between the high-status and low-status middle classes within one country may heighten. The convergence of concerns and increased vocalization of demands by the empowered middle class will contrast sharply with government’s capacity to deliver public goods and services, particularly those relating to improving quality of life. Greater participation and knowledge coupled with a growing expectations gap may initially become a source of friction, conflict and even resurgent populism and recurring nationalism. In short, the middle classes would pose more questions than it answers. The exclusiveness in the progress and the creation of new-poor-caste may promote radicalization and the rise and risks of extremism. [8] To address the pressures associated with the rise of middle classes, the technological breakthroughs need to be developed in time to boost sustained growth and solve the problems caused by energy constraints, chronic diseases as well as rapid urbanization.

Third, demand for natural resources commodities will increase owing to growing middle-class consumption, for example, nearly half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. Scarcities are likely to be more common and the struggles for land, energy, food, water, and minerals, truly represent a nexus of challenges for the globe. There are also opportunities if both China and the US show leadership, from improving resource efficiency and promoting greener growth, to staving off potentially disastrous conflicts. Indeed, resource and material scarcities arise primarily from failures of governance rather than from a physical shortage of resources or materials. There is plenty of room for China and the US to jointly build up a new and comprehensive framework for resources management. And both sides need to apply more localized/decentralized perspective to tackle this issue. By 2030, the fifty greatest megacities in the world will concentrate more resources than most small and middle-income states.[9]

Fourth, owing to a huge growth of global middle class, greater educational attainment, and widespread use of new communication technologies, the issue of identity politics will become more prominent. The tensions and conflicts among religious, sectarian and ethnic groups are likely to be intensified. The rapid flow of information will place identities under increasing pressure. People will be interconnected by myriad networks and greater interpersonal trans-national flows.

However, distinctive cultural identities will remain and democratic aspirations will tend to be compatible with a greater awareness of national and sub-national cultural identities, like Egypt in the post-awakening era. The “imagined communities” would experience the re-imagining of traditional movements and ideologies. Especially, the young people will define their identity through interaction with global networks. Indeed, both positive and negative identity makers will be empowered in this process. While the cross-national and transnational identities would have better chances to be nurtured, the populist and nationalist movements will also become stronger, or finding safe haven or foot soldiers for criminal and terrorist networks, then leading to the “democratization of violence” in the worst scenario.[10]

Fifth, the enhancement of domestic and global governance is a pressing and vital task for all, but the world and the major powers seem to be lack of willing, resources and capabilities to push it forward through joint efforts. Governments and international institutions’ abilities to adapt fast enough to harness economic, social, and political changes are questioned. Both China and the US are encountering the daunting domestic challenges on the revitalizing and sustaining their economic health, addressing the increasing social disparity, strengthening the social safety net, adjusting the structure of energy consumption, and ensuring and promoting the employment. [11] The dynamic synergy and new opportunities for cooperation could be cast in this process. In particular, the global economic imbalance will continue to deepen and it remains to be seen that greater multipolarity in economic sphere lead to increased legitimacy and resiliency in global economic order or result in global volatility and international economic breakdown. Moreover, it is necessary for both China and the US to strengthen consultations and cooperation in managing the global commons. It is worth exploring how global governance can achieve “transformation in stability” and become more inclusive and functional by these two countries.

A broad consensus driving the development of China-US relations in the last four decades is partly fraying since we need a new consensus that reflects the reality that China is an increasingly established power. The convergence of strategic visions of China and the US will help put our two countries on a path to greater complementarity and serve as firm basis for the bilateral cooperation in the coming decade. Although it is imperative for both countries to work together to address challenges associated with global trends, for many American strategists, there is still a fundamental question to be answered: would China overthrow the existing global order?

In a nutshell, China has an increasing stake in a stable global order. The shaping of existing global order was led by the US after the WWII, and it was initially built for a world of sheltered economies and just 50 states. The order has been evolving since then, though the core elements of this order, openness and rule-based, have been sustained very well. The current world order which is for a world of 200 states and a profound globalization. The crisis facing it is not the crisis of itself and its core elements; rather, it is a crisis of authority and capacity. Rising powers like China gain more influence, they will not overturn the current system’s rules and principles, but instead seek to gain more authority within the existing order, which could make it better functioned. Most rising powers continue to participate in multilateral organizations as outsiders or, at best, marginal actors. [12] The global order to come is expected to be capable of accommodating and addressing the perspectives, concerns, and priorities of the emerging powers. And it ought to be fair, inclusive, open, and rule-based.

The redistribution of authority within the order in response to the reality of the changing power positions will serve to revitalize the order and ensure it keep benefiting most in the coming decades. Indeed, the United States and China, the largest economies and the most important players, are supposed to be beneficiaries to that. Obviously, the reform of the current order should be in accordance with several new characters of the world, with the interconnectedness of unprecedented magnitude as the top character, other key characters may include the rise of the rest and the return of Asia. As Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, “Increasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.”[13]

How could the fact that China becomes the largest economy affect the global order? How does the economic size matter? To answer these questions, we have to bear in mind that from the year 1 to 1820, China and India were the world’s largest economies. It was only in the last 200 years that first Europe took off, followed by North America. Hence, we should not be surprised by the projection that by 2050, or earlier, China and India will once again attain the No.1 economy position. The Carnegie 2010 study estimates economic size in 2030 and 2050. By 2050, China is bigger than the US. But what is striking is how little the country names in the top ten change. By 2030, Canada and Italy have fallen off the list, and Mexico and Russia are on it. But the ranking names in 2030 and 2050 remain similar – though with the order changed:

2030 ranking: US, China, Japan, India, Germany, UK, France, Russia, Brazil, Mexico.

2050 ranking: China, US, India, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, UK, Germany, France, Russia.[14]

For China, there is no reason to stand against others who are its trading partners and make a self-encirclement. Let’s take the financial power of China as instance. China owns America’s debt (China holds just 8 percent of outstanding Treasury securities, Americans hold nearly 70 percent), but as John Keynes put it, “Owe your banker 1,000 pounds and you are at his mercy; owe him 1 million pounds and the position is reversed”. Such interdependence suggests that the US and China have a high stake in each other’s success. The interests of the two countries have been unshakably and irreversibly intertwined.[15]

As for the issue of “China model”, the Chinese leadership and most strategies do not accept this formulation, not to mention the “export” of the China model. There is a sense in which the two economic systems – free market capitalism versus state capitalism – are ideological opponents, but it is an exaggerated ideological differences. The Chinese development path could spur the reflection that “Washington Consensus” had too much blind faith in market fundamentalism, ignoring the different economies requiring different system. Both sides need adopt a co-evolution perspective to look at this issue.[16]

In recent years there has been discussion of a waxing China and a waning United States in terms of global power. However, the projection on China’s power position is quite often rosier, if not always wishful, than the reality. The change over power position is often slower than it seems. And it depends how you measure things – like the rising, rise, non-rise of China according to different perspectives and measure-ment. The economic power does not correlate automatically with political influence. A much more nuanced view on power and more accurate power measurement is very much needed.[17]

Although China would continue to develop with relatively high growth rate with appropriate economic, social and political reforms in place, we cannot take the rise of China for granted in light of the myriad domestic challenges. Chinese top leadership and policy elites have very clear and sober estimates of their circumstances, limitations and daunting tasks. The road ahead is bound to be considerably bumpy and China’s rise is not America’s demise as vice president Joe Biden pointed out, or as China expert Susan Shirk warned, “It is China’s internal fragility, not its growing strength that presents the greatest danger.” While most people worry about the challenge of a strong China, “Let us not forget the risk of a weak China, beset by internal conflict, social dislocation and criminal activity; becoming a vast zone of instability in Asia.” [18]

In sum, the cooperative bilateral relationship between the US and China is a necessity, rather than an option. The description of states as either “revisionist” or “status-quo”, or as “norm-makers” or “norm-takers” seem to be not helpful in understanding the complex ties between the US and China. There have been a range of increasingly well-developed channels of dialogue and communication between the two countries, providing an institutional support for the steady development of bilateral relations. Even the most pessimistic people have to recognize that the two sides have accumulated some strategic common understanding, a profound cooperation foundation and rich experience about how to get along with each other. All this has made it possible and feasible for the two sides to establish a more stable and reliable pattern of interactions. Underestimating the existing mutual trust is as harmful as hyping mutual distrust and confidence enjoyed by each one could nurture the trust embraced by both sides. China and the US should signal a strong message to the outside about the existing strategic trust and the good state of the bilateral relations and relatively solid foundation for further cooperation and mainstream such view.

For exploring new approaches of China-US cooperation, it is needed to demystify the rise of China and challenge the conventional wisdom on great power rivalry. Sure enough, China and the United States can not change into each other. It is quite normal for them to have different strategic goals in their foreign policies, and different diplomatic philosophy and means. It does not mean they cannot achieve win-win results. For both countries, the policy-makers and strategic elites are expected to think on the grand strategy through a milieu-based rather than position-based perspective.[19] The absence of strategic like-mindedness will inhibit the emergence of fully functional partnership. Both sides should avoid the potential mismatch between the respective strategic objectives and the allocation of the national-security resources. It is essential for China and the US to embed their common concerns into respective domestic agendas.

One seemingly prevailing view suggests that as China gets more powerful and the US position erodes, this will inevitably lead to serious strategic competition between China and the liberal order predominantly led by the United States. The result of these developments will be tension, distrust, and conflict during the process of power transition. However, the alternative view assert that while the “unipolar moment” will inevitably end, China can thoroughly accommodate the United States, since China has already been highly integrated into the liberal international order. In this sense, the US-China relationship will not necessarily be confrontational, and there is wide potential for peaceful co-existence between two leading powers.[20]

Last, China-US cooperation is indispensable, though not sufficient, to solve all the problems in the world. Both sides need try to build up the “coalitions of the relevant” together, seeking context-specific understandings and buy-in from key players and refurbish the global institutions, reflecting changing relative power relations and capabilities. In the coming decade, we will witness not only relative economic gains by China, India, and Brazil, but also the increasing importance of middle powers and emerging regional players such as Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. This would contribute to a much more complex mixture of balance-of-power and multilateralism, with states making issue-by-issue alliances.

This reality will generate a higher level of unpredictability in international relations and probably make it harder to attain a broad consensus even on matters requiring urgent global action. The rise of the rest facing both the US and China reminds us the importance of maintaining the stability of interstate system and ensuring the functional states to address the myriad of threats and problems most of which stem from the dysfunction of states. The “state” is still and would be the primary actor in the international arena. [21]

[1]Zhao Minghao is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University.

 Robert B. Zoellick, “U.S., China and Thucydides”, The National Interest, June 25, 2013,; David Shambaugh, “Prospects for a ‘New Type of Major Power Relationship’”, China-US Focus, March 7, 2013. 

[2] Shawn Brimley, Michele A. Flournoy and Vikram Singh, “Making America Grand Again”, in Michele A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley (eds), Finding Our Way: Debating American Grand Strategy, June 2008, Center for a New American Security, 2008. 

[3] Thomas Finger (ed), Global Trends 2025, National Intelligence Council, 2008. 

[4] Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008; Richard Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity”, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008. 

[5] G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Forging a World of Liberty under Law, the Princeton Project on National Security, 2006. 

[6] Wang Jisi, “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy”, Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2011. 

[7] For example, see John Podesta and Peter Ogden, “National Security Implications of Climate Change”, The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2008. 

[8] Larry Diamond, “The Democratic Rollback”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008. 

[9] Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006. 

[10] Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, Vol.97, No.3, August 2003. 

[11] Francis Fukuyama, “US Democracy Has Little to Teach China”, Financial Times, Jan.17, 2011. 

[12] G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origin, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, Princeton University Press, 2011. 

[13] Mark Leonard, “The Central Challenge to the Western Liberal Order”, European Council on Foreign Relations, May 31, 2012, 

[14] Uri Dadush and Bennett Stancil, “The World Order in 2050”, Policy Outlook, April 2010, Garnegie Endowment for International Peace,; Kristy Hughes, “US, China and the Rest: Is the Global Order Really Changing”, The Huffington Post, March 30, 2012. 

[15] Joseph R. Biden, “China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise”, New York Times, September 8, 2011. 

[16] Thomas Friedman, “Never Heard That Before”, New York Times, January 30, 2010. 

[17] Zhao Minghao, “The Predicaments of Chinese Power”, New York Times, July 13, 2012. 

[18] Peter R. Orszag, “In China, Slowdown is a Bigger Danger Than Growth”,, January 15, 2013, 

[19] G. John Ikenberry, “The Right Grand Strategy”, The American Interest, January/February, 2010. 

[20] David M. Lampton, “A New Type of Major-Power Relationship: Seeking a Durable Foundation for US-China Ties”, Asia Policy, No.16, 2013. 

[21] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Balancing the East, Upgrading the West: U.S. Grand Strategy in an Age of Upheaval”, Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2012.