Book Review: Ending the Zero-Sum View of US-China Relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama pass a guard of honor at the Great Hall of the People. Beijing, China, November 12, 2014. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

As with most visits by a Chinese leader to the United States, President Xi Jinping’s September travel plans, while aimed at increasing cooperation and understanding between the two powers, will inevitably produce talk of competition and disagreement. Commentators on both sides of the Pacific will highlight economic, political, military, and other grievances. Human rights concerns have already led to calls for President Obama to refuse the visit, in light of a supposedly reenergized Chinese authoritarian streak—claims typically countered with criticism of lax US gun laws and racial inequalities.

This familiar narrative is a source of great frustration for Thomas J. Christensen, Director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University and formerly the chief official responsible for China at the US State Department. Christensen’s recent book, The China Challenge—Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, instead argues for an increasing commonality of purpose between China and the US. It firmly rejects the notion that the two are engaged in a fight to the death for global supremacy, or a “zero sum game”—a term he employs too frequently to count—and lack the will to move past their admitted differences.

The book sets the scene for an alternative future with Christensen’s first-hand account of the landmark first Strategic Economic Dialogue between China and the US in Beijing in 2006. The author recalls, with some lingering sense of incredulity, how supposedly hard-nosed, unabashedly pro-American Bush-era officials actively encouraged their Chinese counterparts along the path of growth and development, expressing their biggest concern as being that “you are not doing enough to maintain it.”

Christensen was surprised, but ultimately wholly supportive of the popularity of this opinion among America’s political leaders, because it mirrors his own prescription for maintaining global order in the 21st century. In outlining these views, he observes that the opposing narrative of constant competition—while prevalent among the American general population and media, and in some policy and academic circles—seems to have even more currency among members of the Chinese elite. He notes, for example, the respect Chinese academics show University of Chicago arch-realist John Mearsheimer—who has warned of the inevitable nature of conflict between the two powers—if only because he supposedly tells it like it is.

While skeptics in both countries can often dominate the debate, Christensen’s argument that China and the US have more to gain from working with, rather than against, one another is not exactly on the margins of contemporary thought. Two other recent critiques of this nature can be found in former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s report for Harvard University on the future of the bilateral relationship, and a somewhat less sanguine analysis from billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, which nonetheless draws the conclusion that Washington and Beijing should engage each other to the best of their abilities, and encourage mutual growth and development. To do otherwise would jeopardize the complex interplay of commerce and politics they have developed, and with it global stability.

Nonetheless, The China Challenge draws some interesting, and fairly fresh conclusions about how this could be done, particularly from an American perspective, relying on Christensen’s rather rare mix of academic and bureaucratic credentials—though thankfully never resorting to the obliqueness or obfuscation that can characterize those particular disciplines. The author spends most time on the conditions under which the US might encourage China to play a larger role in global governance, to build on those commitments it has already made, including to UN peacekeeping operations.

Some of the strongest lessons come from negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program beginning in 2006 and involving Beijing, Washington, Pyongyang, and other national governments. While those talks ultimately proved fruitless because of the recalcitrance of the Kim Jong-il regime, they did at least reveal some of the conditions under which US-China coordination could be furthered—namely, when the option of removing undesirable foreign regimes was off the table, and when China was convinced fault lay with the behavior of these rogue regimes, rather than Washington, it was willing to sanction them.

Christensen finds further education in China’s relationship with the UN Security Council, recalling how he dropped his morning coffee at the news of Beijing supporting a resolution referring Muammar Gaddafi’s former Libyan regime to the International Criminal Court, and abstaining from another, ultimately successful vote to create a no-fly zone to protect the country’s civilian population. Here, he isolates two conditions under which China might support foreign intervention in sovereign countries on humanitarian grounds: when authorities in the target states could be persuaded to acquiesce to such intervention, or when those authorities could be portrayed as having totally lost control of their own nation. However, Christensen notes that any progress in getting China to soften its approach in this respect were seemingly lost when NATO and the US interpreted the second resolution as permitting the military strikes that brought down Gaddafi’s regime, and allowed his summary execution by rebel forces.

Further on the governance front, Christensen acknowledges the enormous task that the US and China face in managing responses to global climate change, and how this is exacerbated by the clash of opinions over their comparative histories of development and the complex interplays of global capitalism. Noting that in 2005 a third of Chinese emissions were caused by export industries, the author asks the apt question: “in what sense is it fair to count these as Chinese emissions? It would seem rather that advanced economies are outsourcing not just manufacturing, but also environmental responsibility to China.” While this line of argument would be a tough sell for the US public, its understanding in the upper ranks of American power could ultimately increase the effectiveness of negotiations on the issue.

Surprisingly for someone who has spent much of his career dealing with security concerns, Christensen’s analysis is perhaps thinnest when discussing the various threats of military escalation posed by the rise of China. The book could be accused of placing too much emphasis on the fact that the US maintains the advantage in “virtually every aspect of military hardware” in terms of both quality and quantity, and is expected to for many years to come.

Christensen does acknowledge that China has an increasing ability to threaten US forces and bases through solid-fueled missiles and submarines, and that Chinese strategists have begun discussing “lowering the threshold” under which the country might employ nuclear deterrence. He does not, however, dwell at length on how individual areas of Chinese dispute, including with Japan, various Southeast Asian nations, and other US allies, might best be managed by current and future US or international leaders, other than through a broad sense of cooperation and communication, and a furthering of global economic integration. In increasingly complex cases such as Beijing’s island-building campaign—which, it should be said, likely occurred outside the author’s period of research—a more tailored approach is surely necessary.

Christensen is, finally, highly critical of the nature in which the Obama administration’s much-discussed “pivot” to Asia has been communicated to China and the world at large. “All of this rhetoric hardly matched reality,” he writes. “The United States had never left Asia and the suggestion that we had left and had suddenly returned would do diplomatic harm.” This harm included feeding into hawkish Chinese narratives that Washington was looking to contain China’s rise within its region.

On that question of semantics, the author or his editors might themselves be accused of lacking nuance in the book’s talk of “shaping” China’s choices, which is hardly the recommended language when dealing with a country whose contemporary policies are supposedly forever dictated by its experience of a “century of shame” inflicted by other nations. But this is a book firmly written for an American audience and is entirely cognizant of the fact that the US will need to respond to the rise of China in some manner, even if it need not be overly threatened by it. Christensen ultimately makes a convincing case for Washington adopting a more empathetic and persuasive foreign policy towards Beijing, if the aim is for both countries to help maintain global peace and prosperity well into the current century.

James Bowen is Assistant Editor of the Global Observatory.