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The Washington Quarterly 24.3 (2001) 31-43

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China's Challenge to Pax Americana

Evan A. Feigenbaum

China has been a largely reactive international power for most of the period beginning in 1949 with the formation of the Communist state, willingly--and often skillfully--playing the pivot in the strategic competition of other states. In the 1960s and 1970s, its leaders briefly promoted a model of international order that stressed national revolution and proletarian solidarity. Yet, with that exception, the country has offered no real alternative vision of the international system for most of the past five decades. Beneath the rhetorical veneer, Chinese leaders have conducted their own foreign policy largely on the basis of the same calculations of balance of power and relative national advantage that drove the behavior of other major powers during the Cold War. Thus, Chinese foreign policy evolved during the first 50 years of the People's Republic in a context set almost entirely by others.

In the years since Beijing's 1996 missile exercise in the Taiwan Strait, however, Chinese leaders have begun to articulate a decidedly alternative vision of the underlying principles of international relations. This clarification has emerged gradually, in an ad hoc fashion, and has yet to cohere into a neatly bundled grand strategic vision. The concept is still evolving. Most importantly, it has emerged inadvertently--as a consequence of China's narrow concern with the issue of Taiwan.

U.S. strategists in particular should note just how much Chinese and U.S. views have diverged on the most fundamental organizing principles of international politics, not simply on specific issues of peace and security in Asia. Although tracing its origin to a comparatively narrow concern--Taiwan--this new, more comprehensive Chinese strategic vision touches the most essential [End Page 31] bread-and-butter issues of international relations: How should the international system be organized? Who should make decisions about global security? What is the appropriate role of military force? Who should decide international law? What is the meaning of globalization? What should be the role of the United Nations (UN)? Are alliances legitimate?

In nearly every significant aspect, China's emerging approach to world order is opposed to the prevailing U.S. view of international statecraft, and in nearly all cases, China's narrow preoccupation with the question of national reunification shapes its approach to the big questions of the international system. The longer the Taiwan problem persists, therefore, the more likely it is that these strategic ideas will become more systematic--and, thus, institutionalized--in Chinese foreign policy.

The Taiwan issue seems unlikely to be resolved soon. Over time, this single issue may give birth to a consistent and deeply embedded set of Chinese strategic preferences that will challenge the predominant U.S. approach to the foundation of international politics.

Two Roads Diverging

Chinese and U.S. worldviews increasingly diverge on six fundamental questions.

On What Dominant Principle Should the International System Be Organized?

Although China was a latecomer to Westphalian nation-state diplomacy, Chinese leaders have anchored their security and diplomatic practice for the past five decades in what has been evocatively termed "hyper-sovereignty values." 1 Throughout the 1990s, as U.S. foreign policy gradually discarded the notion that sovereignty is inviolable (the interventions in Panama, Haiti, and Kosovo provide three examples), China's stance on sovereignty remained rigid in rhetoric and almost always inflexible in practice. Indeed, only one case of significant compromise on principles of territorial sovereignty occurred in the history of the Chinese Communist state--a side deal to the Sino-Soviet alliance through which China grudgingly agreed to recognize Mongolian independence.

Even as China has become uncharacteristically flexible in recent years on certain aspects of political sovereignty--especially those issues tied to trade prerogatives and the World Trade Organization (WTO) regime, several areas of human rights, and issues regarding international peacekeeping--these subtleties are utterly lacking on topics concerning Taiwan. 2 Taiwan remains [End Page 32] the single issue to which China continues to subjugate any broad conceptions of grand strategy and, indeed, virtually its entire...


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