Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

On China

China is a major international trading partner, a major market for the world. The question is, will it rival the United States as a great power around the world? 

How would you describe China’s geopolitical position at the moment? China’s borders are secure, and in East Asia it’s quickly displacing the United States as a hegemonic power. So China is quite the success story. Outside East Asia, China has a long way to go to become a global power. Yes, it’s a major international trading partner, a major market for the world. The question is, will China rival the United States as a great power around the world? I think that, beyond East Asia, it’s going to be simply a global presence, not a global power.

What does it mean to be a global presence? If you think of the United States after World War II, if a poor country needed a bridge built, it went to the United States. Today, it’s more likely to look to China. If you have an emergency or a humanitarian crisis, maybe China will be there first to help out. China has become the “go-to country” of the 21st century. China wants to take its place in the global system as a leader. And certainly it has the resources to do that. So it’s an image issue, it’s a drive for status. The Chinese are proud of what they have accomplished, and they want to compete with the United States and assume the leadership role of the United States.

How does this role benefit China? China wants other countries to take into account Chinese power. It also wants the United States to worry. It wants the U.S. to disperse its resources, to be concerned about the Mediterranean or the Middle East or the Western Pacific. Finally, there’s a lot of national pride in the notion that China is indeed a humanitarian state in, say, the Middle East. Chinese global leadership can help the Chinese Communist Party achieve legitimacy and support from the Chinese people.

Why is it important for the party to have the supportof the people in a country that’s not a democracy? Make no mistake, leadership in China—a single-party, authoritarian country—is always concerned about instability and thus maintaining support from its people. So we see the crackdown domestically, the greater restraints on freedom of speech, on newspapers, on television. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t nervous. And when China is perceived by the people to be doing well, the Chinese Communist Party does well.

What do you make of speculation that China and Russia are forging closer political ties as a bulwark against the West? Certainly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has transformed Europe and America’s role in Europe. However, I think the expectation that you will see closer Chinese-Russian relations and the emergence of blocs is misplaced. Consider the sanctions on Russia. If you look at the American demands on China, the consensus seems to be, We don’t expect China to follow our sanctions, but we expect it not to undermine them. And so far, the Chinese have done that. Also, the Chinese aren’t necessarily pleased with Putin’s actions. They gave him a royal welcome to Beijing during the Olympics and said, “We have your back, no limits to our friendship.” And then he goes off and he invades Ukraine, dragging the Chinese into a conflict with Europe and the United States. They can’t be happy. Now, over the longer term, China’s the big beneficiary of the war. First, the United States has been trying to pivot its attention to East Asia since 2010. And everytime we try, we get drawn back into the Middle East—Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan—and now we’re getting drawn back into Europe. So how can we reallocate resources and attention to Asia when we’re getting bogged down in Europe? Second, with their military decimated in Ukraine, the Russians will be increasingly dependent on China in the years ahead. And these sanctions are going to make China a more important economic lifeline for Russia. As Russia gets weaker every day, Russia needs China more and more.

China and India each maintain a strategic relationship with Russia, yet the world’s two most populous nations are probably best described as rivals. Americans often misunderstand India’s strategic alignments. The Indians buy weapons from Russia, but the Russians are no help for Indian strategic interests. Russia cannot help India with Pakistan. It can’t help India on the border with China. And it can’t help India deal with the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. There’s only one country that can do all of that: the United States. So beneath the surface, U.S.-India relations are getting better each year. The Indians have a long commitment to nonaligment, so they’re not going to be overtly American, but look beneath the surface and you see India beginning to cooperate more with the United States, simply because of the growth of China.

How does this relationship further American interests? This is America’s containment policy. We are collaborating with India, Australia, Japan, and many smaller countries on the perimeter of East Asia to contain the Chinese navy inside East Asia. The Chinese see this very clearly and they aren’t happy. They accuse the United States of wanting to create a new East Asian NATO, directed at China. But, for the most part, China is also quite content with its growing military influence in East Asia. They’re mostly content with the direction of their security.

Do you see any countries right now that are in the position China was thirty or forty years ago and that someday could become a superpower? Many Americans think a rising India might help us with China, but the problem is that the gap between India and China—in GDP, in technology, in naval power—grows every day. So India is actually declining relative to China. And Japan can’t help us. It has a population of 120 million and a stagnant economy and little growth. Brazil is not going anywhere very quickly. So the future is a U.S.-China world. When people say, Can we get help in dealing with China? the answer is, No. If America wants to contain China, it’s going to have to do it by itself. 

Robert S. Ross is a political science professor. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he specializes in research on Chinese security policy and defense policy, East Asian security, and U.S.-China relations.