May 07, 2019

Not a “New Era”—Historical Memory and Continuities in U.S.-China Rivalry

By Elsa B. Kania

At first glance, the return to a world of great power rivalry may seem sudden. The National Defense Strategy, published in January 2018, highlighted the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” against such great power rivals as Russia and China as the “central challenge” to U.S. interests and security. The notion of a new era has become pervasive and nearly inescapable in both American and Chinese discourse, and the phrasing may, at first, appear entirely appropriate. After decades in which U.S. policy has been more oriented towards engagement, U.S. strategy today clearly and explicitly recognizes China as a competitor, seemingly undertaking a historic reorientation in ways that can be seen as reflecting a major discontinuity with the past. At the same time, Xi Jinping often alluded to the notion of a new era (新时代), in which China is increasingly contesting American global leadership. However, the typical turning to this phrasing of a new era to characterize recent trends in U.S.-China relations, while perhaps rhetorically appropriate, can obscure what is not new, emphasizing novelty at the expense of recognizing the history and relative consistency in certain aspects of U.S.-China relations. That is, this common characterization of the 2017-2018 timeframe, as marking the start of a distinct epoch of strategic competition between China and the United States, confers a newness to this era of great power rivalry that can be greatly exaggerated, at the expense of recognizing the influence of the past couple of decades of history on the trajectory of U.S.-China relations.

Read the full article in The Strategy Bridge.

  1. For perspectives on unipolarity and American hegemony, see: William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Summer 1999), pp. 5–41. Barry R. Posen, “Command of the commons: the military foundation of US hegemony,” International Security 28, no. 1 (2003): 5-46.
  2. Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,” https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf
  3. The notion of engagement and degree to which U.S. policy was also hedging or oriented towards ‘soft’ containment at the same time continue to be debated. Certainly, Chinese leaders have long been concerned the ultimate U.S. intention was to contain and disrupt China’s rise. For an excellent historical perspective on the topic, see: Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia,” International Security 40, no. 4 (April 1, 2016): 45–88, https://doi.org/10.1162/ISEC_a_00238. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
  4. As it happens, the origins of this phrasing and characterization of a “new era” for the U.S. and China can be traced back to Xi Jinping’s signature ideology, “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” and also the introduction to the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy. Xi Jinping’s Report at the Chinese Communist Party 19th National Congress” [习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告], Xinhua, October 27, 2017, http://www.china.com.cn/19da/2017-10/27/content_41805113_3.htm
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