During the late 1990s, prominent U.S. foreign-policy experts advanced the view that China’s rising economic and military might would constitute the single biggest long-term strategic challenge to the United States’ core national interests. This warning gained traction quickly, especially among Republican ranks.
Indeed, in November 1999, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush delivered in California a major foreign policy speech best remembered for its hawkish tone towards China. In a radical departure from the Clinton Administration’s emphasis on “strategic cooperation” with China, Bush boldly stated: “China should be seen as a competitor, not a partner.”
A few months later, Condoleezza Rice, who would later become Secretary of State under President Bush, echoed this hardline view by writing in Foreign Affairs: “China is not a status quo power but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor…[making] it a strategic competitor.”
Yet the goal of containing China would never play out as planned during President Bush’s two terms in office. Most significantly, the events of 9/11 required a sudden shift of attention and resources away from the Asia-Pacific region and toward the Middle East. President Bush’s “war on terror” moved front and centre and largely replaced the “China threat” as the chief foreign policy concern. In fact, in his State of the Union address in 2002, President Bush declared “a common danger is erasing old rivalries,” providing a clear indication that the U.S. was prepared to suspend, at least temporarily, its fixation on counterbalancing China for the sake of uniting the international community behind the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign.
China’s Golden Opportunity
The post-9/11 shift in U.S. foreign policy priorities was an inadvertent blessing to China. As the U.S. increasingly devoted its attention, money, and military might to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became necessary to reduce its focus on China, given limited resources. In practice this meant that China’s rapid military modernization and growing relationships with neighboring countries in the years after 2001 went mostly unchallenged by the U.S.
China played its hand well during this period. Then-President Hu Jintao heeded Deng Xiaoping’s famous advice, “hide your strength, bide your time,” by repeatedly playing down China’s rising military capabilities. In reality, China increased defense spending by an average of 15.9 percent per year between 1998-2007 – a figure far eclipsing the annual average growth rate of the economy during the same period.
This shrewd “hiding one’s strength” strategy worked well. Up until 2008, leaders around the world were mainly convinced by China’s “peaceful rise” narrative, which sought to assure the international community that China did not seek to fundamentally upend the existing Western-dominated international order.
In addition to rapid military modernization, China also sought to curry favor with its neighbors by offering them irresistible economic incentives such as allowing freer access to its massive economy and promises of much-needed foreign investment and foreign aid.
Most impressively, China was able to meaningfully deepen relationships in the mid-2000s with countries that are U.S. treaty allies or countries traditionally considered to be strong U.S. partners. Through the penning of free trade agreements with ASEAN countries, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Pakistan, and other countries, China successfully implemented its unique version of economic diplomacy to win a great many friends in the international community. By early 2009, “there was almost no country in the world whose relationship with China was not either stable or improving,” remarked Professor Chong-Pin Lin of Tamkang University in Taiwan.
China’s Second Lucky Decade?
Fast-forward to today and it appears that President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, a thinly veiled attempt to counterbalance China, has stalled for reasons remarkably similar to what President Bush experienced a decade earlier. During the Bush era, 9/11 and its aftermath sucked the U.S. into the Middle East morass. Today, the rise of Islamic extremism in the form of ISIS, the Iran nuclear issue, sectarian violence in Syria, lawlessness in Yemen, and Russian adventurism have similarly diverted attention and resources from President Obama’s signature “pivot” to Asia.
Chinese leaders have once again seized the moment by deploying the same strategic playbook as before: a combination of economic diplomacy and rapid military buildup. On the economic side, China-led economic initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Silk Road Economic Belt, and Maritime Silk Road all aim to further cement China’s economic and geopolitical importance in the region and the world. Moreover, the decision of several Western countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Australia, to join the AIIB despite U.S. opposition represents a major “soft power” victory for China.
On the military side, the growth in Chinese defense spending continues to outpace the country’s rate of economic growth. China is already the second biggest military spender in the world and is expected to increase defense spending to $145 billion in 2015, a 10.1 percent increase over the previous year.
Despite occupying a frontal position on the U.S. foreign policy radar for well over a decade, China has continued to escape the level of close U.S. scrutiny that even its own leadership had likely anticipated.