Are China and America on a Collision Course?

By Peter Trubowitz ; Yan Xuetong | The Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

Are China and America on a Collision Course?


Peter Trubowitz ; Yan Xuetong, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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