History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China


Foreword


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States' foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also critically examine and form opinions on the current and future United States' foreign policy.


This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

  1. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles of American Foreign Policy

  2. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny

  3. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I

  4. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Interwar Period and World War II

  5. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War - Confrontation and Containment

  6. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War Part 2 - Detente and Rapprochement

  7. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror

  8. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China


With the winding down of the War on Terror (2001 - present), the United States’ foreign policy would turn from the Middle East to a new primary focus — i. e., China. Formally initiated in 2012 under Barack Obama, the pivot to East Asia would mean a significant transfer of resources, diplomacy, and trade, toward the East Asia region. Though the policy was portrayed as an American effort to tap into the potential of an increasingly vibrant and economically dynamic East Asian market, it also signalled the region’s growing geopolitical importance for American interests. First in this order of geopolitical concerns was the rise of China as an economic powerhouse and potential peer competitor. In the years since the pivot, Sino-American relations have deteriorated significantly, with various commentators suggesting the emergence of a new Cold War between the United States and China. In this sense, there is currently no bigger question in the field of American foreign policy than how to react to China’s rise and its potential effects on the current international world order.


This article will begin with a brief history of the Rise of China, before discussing American foreign policy towards this phenomenon in recent years.


National Archives (1979). Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter at the arrival ceremony for the Vice Premier of China. Wikimedia Commons.

The Foundations of China’s Rise


China today is an economic powerhouse: it became the world’s largest exporter in 2010, the largest manufacturing economy in 2012, and is estimated to become the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP by around 2030 according to various estimates (Anderson, 2017). The World Bank has called China’s economic growth between 1989 and 2017 “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history” (Hang, 2017, p. 1). Deng Xiaoping — the paramount leader of China from 1978 until 1989 — is largely credited for setting in motion the events which unleashed China’s economic potential, de-collectivising agriculture in the countryside, introducing market reforms, and focusing on export-led growth (Stoltenberg, 1984). Such policies were a distinct break from those promoted by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from the establishment of the People’s Republic of China until his death in 1976. Under Mao, the principles of collectivisation, economic self-reliance, and a planned economy reigned. Deng, on the other hand, blended Marxist-Leninist thinking with pragmatism which was not hindered by strict adherence to ideology and recognised the need to reform China which was in ruins after Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (Stoltenberg, 1984).


The China that Deng inherited in the 1970s was one which was beset with institutional disorder and poverty, resulting from the disastrous economic policies of the Mao era, as well as the nearly 20 years of war and internal strife which preceded Mao. Deng realised, much as Lenin did after the Russian Civil War, that the China of the 1970s was still substantially underdeveloped, and had not gone deeply enough into the capitalist phase of development to the point where its means of production were adequately evolved to maximise productivity and sustain a socialist system (Stoltenberg, 1984) This being the case, Deng proposed a system of limited capitalism, similar to Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which would stimulate foreign investment, adopt certain capitalist aspects, and allow for material incentives at the local level, all of which would promote the modernisation and evolution of China’s productive forces, while still allowing a high level of government oversight (Stoltenberg, 1984). This combination of socialism and free enterprise would be labelled as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, and remains an integral part of Chinese economic thought today (Dillon, 2014, p. 37).


Constantin, A. (2013). Shanghai Skyline. Wikimedia Commons.

Peaceful Rise


Contrary to the Chinese Communist Party’s stance prior to Mao’s death, for most of the last 50 years, China has dedicated itself to a peaceful rise. This concept was even adopted as an official state policy under the previous General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Jintao (Zhu, 2007). The policy of peaceful development sought to assure the international community that China’s rise did not pose a threat to the current international system or to international peace and stability. Such an approach formed part of a new Chinese security concept developed in the 1990s, one which prioritised domestic economic development, along with the cultivation of a non-threatening image of China which would pay dividends in soft power while avoiding confrontation with the United States (Zhu, 2007). Additionally, key strategists in the development of the peaceful rise policy, namely Zheng Bijian, believed that the rise of a new power which threatens the hegemony of another state often leads to conflict and war, which is also known as the Thucydides Trap (Suettinger, 2004). The Chinese leadership of the 1990s and 2000s sustained, therefore, that by pursuing a policy of peaceful development conflict with the United States could be avoided.


Critics of the peaceful rise policy, such as Robert Suettinger, equated it to a ‘propaganda campaign’, which “should not necessarily be taken to have decisive significance for China’s foreign policy” (Suettinger, 2004, p. 2). Other critics point to the words of Deng Xiaoping, who summarised China’s non-confrontational policy as “concealing one’s light and cultivating in the dark” (Dent, 2014, p. 12), or biding one’s time without revealing one’s strength, leading critics to see the peaceful rise as a more calculated and sinister term. Supporters of the policy, on the other hand, argue that it formed the basis of a non-confrontational foreign policy premised on soft power and mutual advantage, one which allowed for the maximisation of economic gain and the prioritisation of domestic economic development (Hu, 2006).


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2011). Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Wikimedia Commons.

Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy


During the leadership of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party since 2012, China’s foreign policy stance vis-à-vis the United States has become increasingly aggressive and nationalistic. This style of foreign policy, popularly referred to as “Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy”, has come to the fore, especially in recent years, and represents a marked departure from the Chinese approach since the years of Deng. The policy has been tied to Xi’s Major Country Diplomacy plan, an adjustment in Chinese foreign policy attitudes and practices which stresses a redefinition of the vision and mission of Chinese diplomacy as it takes on a larger role in the world (Hu, 2018).


Yet the advent of this new aggressive foreign policy approach cannot be attributed to China alone: the post-2012 era in Sino-American relations has also seen a marked escalation by the United States, evidenced first by Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia”, and later by a plethora of tariffs, speeches, and interactions during the Trump Administration. The Pivot to East Asia Regional Strategy, as mentioned briefly in the introduction, was the significant transfer of American resources, diplomacy, and trade, toward the East Asia region in order to address and contain the rise of China as an economic powerhouse and potential peer competitor (Kagan, 2013). As early as 2013, the Chinese Defense Ministry listed the pivot to East Asia as one of the primary reasons for their own military buildup (Kagan, 2013). Furthermore, former President Hu Jintao had previously voiced his displeasure that the United States has “extended outposts and placed pressure points on [China] from the east, south, and west” (Kagan, 2013, p. 65). Regardless of the causes, the rise of Wolf-Warrior diplomacy and other foreign policy initiatives by Xi has indicated a much more aggressive Chinese foreign policy, though it has also been widely commented that this policy has led to negative consequences for China, such as increased negative public perceptions of China (Pence, 2020). As a result, it has been commented that Chinese foreign policy may be due for another re-calibration in order to minimise negative blowback from aggressive Chinese diplomacy (Pence, 2020).


White House Photographer. (1972). US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast. Wikimedia Commons.

American Foreign Policy Towards China


During the first decade of the 2000s, American foreign policy towards China was primarily focused on cooperation. Areas of cooperation included the Non-proliferation of WMDs, Climate Change, pressuring North Korea to negotiate on nuclear talks, and even the War on Terror in its early years (Vinodan & Kurian, 2021). With cooperation also came increased economic integration, leading to the increased ‘coupling’ of the American and Chinese economies, a development which commentators generally view as favourable to the two nations maintaining a peaceful relationship (Vinodan & Kurian, 2021; Anderson, 2017). On the other hand, American policy towards China during this period has tended to hit roadblocks on many of the same issues time and time again — e. g., Taiwan, China’s alleged human rights abuses, manipulation of the Yuan, and unfair trade practices (Vinodan & Kurian, 2021). Despite such tensions, the relationship between the two powers during this period was one defined overwhelmingly by cooperation and increased trade. Evidence of this can be seen in the U.S. - China Relations Act of 2000, which granted Beijing permanent normal trade relations with the United States, and led to China becoming America’s second-largest trading partner in 2006, and largest trade partner in 2019 (Library of Congress, 2022).


Within the American foreign policy establishment, the theoretical justification behind growing cooperation with China was primarily the desire to integrate it deeply into the existing world order: incentivising China to become a responsible stakeholder in the current order was supposed to ensure the continuance of the current U.S. global order while eliminating its biggest threat (Anderson, 2017). This policy had two goals: first, according to Perry Anderson, was to make China “not a presumptuous upstart, let alone menacing outsider, but a loyal second in the hierarchy of global capitalist power” (Anderson, 2017, p. 116). In this sense, the objective was to make China play by American rules in international trade institutions such as the WTO. The second aim of Chinese entrance into the rules-based order was the hope that deeper integration would lead to the infiltration of globalisation, the liberalisation of China, and eventually perhaps the fall of the Communist Party, which was still an ideological opponent of the United States. Such a perspective rests on the belief that “if the US is willing to go slow in its political demands on regions that neither know nor accept liberal democracy, while getting its way on economic demands of them, it will see the realisation of its ideals within them in due course” (Anderson, 2017, p. 169). In other words, increased trade would necessarily lead to exposure to the forces of globalisation, created and wielded by the United States, which would shape national interests and values with a liberalising tendency (Anderson, 2017). Though bordering on economic determinism, such a position was widely held in the early 2000s and was popularised by Thomas Barnett in his book Great Powers: America and the World After Bush (Barnett, 2009).


Container ship CSCL Venus of the China Shipping Line outgoing Hamburg in April 2014. (2014). Wikimedia Commons.

With the announcement of the Pivot to East Asia in 2012, Sino-American relations began to become more strained. In China, it was received as a thinly veiled attempt at containing the country, now recognised by the United States as a bonafide peer competitor (Anderson, 2017). Sino-American tensions would reach their nadir during the Trump administration, whose foreign policy approach has led to a significant shift in U.S. - China relations, one which has sustained itself into the Biden administration. Vice President Mike Pence announced this change explicitly in a 2017 speech, stating that the United States would begin to prioritise competition over cooperation with China (Groll, 2019). Trump’s presidency was marked by increasingly heightened rhetoric and accusations levelled at China, the imposition of a trade war, and an almost unanimous bi-partisan consensus on the need to get tough on China. It has been estimated that tariffs against China have impacted over 350 billion dollars of imports, while also increasing consumer costs by 51 billion dollars annually (Lee & Varas, 2022). Such actions give insight into the perception at the highest levels of government during the Trump administration, and continuing into the Biden administration, that the United States is losing ground vis-à-vis China, both in terms of economic and geopolitical power, as well as that China has failed to ‘play by the rules’ of international trade, human rights, and diplomacy, and therefore must be checked (Anderson, 2017). Additionally, negative sentiments towards each other have also been measured in both the Chinese and American public, with negative sentiments of the other nation at all-time highs (Groll, 2019).


In recent years the containment policy, or ‘encirclement’, begun by the Pivot to East Asia, has become even more clear with the establishment of alliances such as AUKUS and the Quad, the latter being a diplomatic and military arrangement made up of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States. The purpose of these alliances and of the United States’ growing military participation in East Asia, according to Steve Chan and traditional realist international relations theory, is to ’balance’ China. In international relations theory balancing refers to “a state pursuing armament and/or alliances with the intention of offsetting a security deficit“ (Chan, 2012, p. 59). In balance-of-power theories, a primary claim is that such policies are “the predominant way states respond to an unfavourable power balance“, making it harder for powerful states and potential hegemons to successfully exert military power by forming an alliance (Chan, 2012, p. 60). In the case of a rising China, American alliances and increased participation in East Asia represent an attempt at balancing.


Evans, J. (2017). U.S. Navy. The Diplomat.

Furthermore, the Biden administration has sought to improve bilateral ties with regional allies, making international coalition building his primary foreign policy objective, in contrast with the actions of the Trump administration (Blackwill & Zelikow, 2021). In a telling example of this, NATO has even recently identified China as a threat to world order (NATO, 2021). What is abundantly clear is that the United States, at the level of the foreign policy establishment and the public to a lesser degree, has begun to view China as an almost existential threat on a bi-partisan basis. Massive new investments in America’s military budget are one illustration of this, with a new 5 billion dollar Pacific deterrence bucket recently approved, as well as new sanctions aimed at Chinese companies in the semiconductor industry (U.S. Department of Defense, 2021).


Critics of the growing hawkishness in the United States leadership have commented on the emergence of a new cold war which could threaten stability in the Pacific (Chan, 2012). Others, such as Margaret Lewis, have pointed out that the relations between the two countries have begun to put ideology at the forefront, resulting in increased ideological rigidity which decreases the possibility of cooperation (Lewis, 2020). Critics such as Ali Wyne have also pointed out the importance of the United States focusing on affirmative policies in its global competition with China: that is, on taking new creative approaches to global issues which can spotlight American leadership (Wyne, 2022). Such perspectives are refreshing in that they strive to address the growing hawkishness and militarisation of American relations with China, through innovation instead of the acceptance of an inevitable confrontation.


Hyungwon Kang. (2011). The Chinese and US flags fly on a lamp post along Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol in Washington. Al Jazeera.


Conclusion


Given the anti-Chinese sentiments at both the public and governmental levels of the United States, it seems that the future of Sino-American relations could remain turbulent. For normalisation, changes in the approach of both nations towards the other will be necessary. As American leaders have stressed before in more stable epochs of relations, the relationship between China and the United States is one which can lead to massive benefits for both countries, not only in economic terms, but also in important areas such as climate change, global security, and global development. Though any hot confrontation still seems a distant possibility, it remains to be seen how the international community will react to China’s continued rise, and if the international rules-based order that has reigned since 1945 will be able to survive the challenge.


In this sense, one of the fundamental questions for American foreign policy in the future will be how to adjust and evolve both its own actions, and the current world order to meet with changing geopolitical realities. As new threats and opportunities arise, and as new countries and regions grow in power and influence, creative and bold solutions need to be entertained which will allow for the bending, not breaking of the international system. It would seem that ideological rigidity, zero-sum thinking, traditional thought, and hyper-nationalist policies will only lead to another tragic outcome. In a system that many experts say is headed towards multipolarity, maintaining a unipolar approach is both dangerous and unwise. In 1972, Nixon shocked the world by visiting China and setting the stage for the normalisation of relations. Perhaps such bold and unconventional policies are needed to confront the emerging challenges and seize the new opportunities today and in the future.


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Constantin, A. (2013). Shanghai Skyline [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shanghai_skyline_unsplash.jpg


Container ship CSCL Venus of the China Shipping Line outgoing Hamburg in April 2014 [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Container_ship_CSCL_Venus_of_the_China_Shipping_Line_outgoing_Hamburg_in_April_2014.png


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National Archives. (1979). Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter at the arrival ceremony for the Vice Premier of China [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Deng_Xiaoping_and_Jimmy_Carter_at_the_arrival_ceremony_for_the_Vice_Premier_of_China._-_NARA_-_183157-restored.jpg


White House Photographer. (1972). US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nixon_and_Zhou_toast.jpg


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