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.

“Korea War games sign of growing tensions,” warns a recent report by the BBC News. Dozens of similar international headlines warn of intensifying Sino-American strategic rivalry and even cold war.

Yet this prognosis is way off the mark. It confuses tactical maneuvering for grand strategy. Today’s global economy is pushing both of these great powers toward strategies of retrenchment and buck-passing, not expansionism and conflict.

The US and China do have important strategic differences in Northeast Asia and elsewhere, and testy encounters like the recent one over US-South Korean naval exercises can be expected. However, today neither President Obama nor Chinese President Hu Jintao can afford domestically to entertain grand strategic designs and geopolitical ambitions, let alone engage in a costly cold war-style conflict.

Obama is scaling back commitments

In fact, both leaders are trimming their foreign policy sails as they concentrate on priorities at home.

The need for retrenchment is the real reason that President Obama has revived America’s commitment to international institutions and multilateralism, and why he has been pressuring Europe, China, and other nations to shoulder a greater share of the international security burden (for example, in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions). Similar cost-saving considerations also explain Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia and to curb the growth of the Pentagon’s budget.

By scaling back US commitments and shifting some of the costs of international security onto other states and international institutions, Mr. Obama hopes to be able to invest more resources in the economy, health care, and education – areas crucial to the Democrats’ political fortunes. The change in emphasis is reflected in the White House’s new National Security Strategy. Roughly one-quarter of the 52-page strategy document released in May is devoted to domestic policies and goals such as strengthening the economy and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

Of course, with tens of thousands of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, mountainous federal deficits, and Republicans challenging Obama’s every move, there are limits to how far the president can go in actually shifting US priorities. Still, foreign policy experts who view Obama’s foreign policies as little more than ploys to maintain US “hegemony” are misreading the signs. Domestic renewal, not foreign ambition, is now the driving force behind US foreign policy.

China is putting domestic challenges first

Obama is not alone. President Hu is also prioritizing domestic needs, and for some of the same reasons. While China has suffered less severely from the global downturn than the US and many other countries, the economic crisis has heightened President Hu’s worries about the country’s widening income gap, unemployment, intensifying regional disparities, and mounting internal strife.

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.

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.

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