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Are China and America on a collision course?

Probably not. The greater threat is that President Obama and President Hu, preoccupied with domestic matters, will fail to muster the political will needed to find collective solutions to the international problems their nations share in common.

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Responding to the violent ethnic clashes in China’s western Xinjiang autonomous region last year, Hu stressed the urgency of helping those hit hardest by the global downturn. Beijing, he warned, must “tirelessly promote economic and social development,” which is the “root of national prosperity and sustainable stability.” At a time when Beijing is redoubling its commitment to domestic growth and internal stability, US calls for China to shoulder a larger part of the burden of being a “responsible stakeholder” internationally stand little chance of success.

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Reasons for reluctance

This reluctance is due not only to the economic tradeoffs entailed in a pursuing a more expensive foreign policy. Beijing’s hesitancy to assume a leadership role in international politics reflects the Chinese political establishment’s views about what is possible politically. Ever since Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s dynamic “socialist market economy,” cautioned against assuming the responsibilities (and costs) of international leadership, China’s leaders have found it politically prudent to hue closely to Deng’s preferred path of selective engagement and incremental change. Any Chinese leader who does otherwise is courting political disaster.

As foreign policy analysts are quick to point out, none of this has prevented China from modernizing its military or claiming Taiwan, Tibet, and most recently, the South China Sea as vital interests. Yet analyses that stop there overlook the fact that much of China’s military apparatus is aimed at securing domestic stability and perimeter defense, and that Beijing prefers diplomacy over coercion to resolve territorial disputes with its neighbors. Under Hu’s leadership, China has defined its interests largely in economic terms.

Today, the real danger is not that the United States and China will come to blows over issues dividing them. The greater threat is that their leaders, preoccupied with domestic matters, will fail to muster the political will needed to find collective solutions to international problems they share in common: rising protectionism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change, among others. Sino-American retrenchment will discourage wider international cooperation and may encourage weaker states to fill the geopolitical void. Future historians may write that our leaders failed not in trying to do too much internationally, but in doing too little.

Peter Trubowitz is a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. Yan Xuetong is a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University and director of the Institute of International Studies.