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Rethinking U.S. Strategy Towards China

Jan 21, 2016

Based on a paper presented to the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Fellows Fifth Annual Conference, "An Ethical Dialogue between Asia and the West: Philosophical Traditions, Moral Contentions, and the Future of US-Asia Relations." The Conference took place in New York City, October 20-23, 2015.

From Nixon to Obama: Four Decades of U.S. Engagement with China

How can the U.S. improve its policy towards China to avoid, and yet be prepared for, conflict? Since the Nixon Administration, the U.S. strategy towards China has been predicated on the assumption that if the bilateral relationship is properly managed conflict can be avoided. Many contend that through engagement the U.S. can shape China's choices in ways that reduce the chances the U.S. and China will come into conflict.

Whether a conflict occurs, the argument goes, depends on whether China is dissatisfied with the prevailing international order, because as James Steinberg and Michael O'Hanlon have written: "only if it believes that it is disadvantaged will China necessarily choose to use its newfound power to create a world more to its own liking in potentially disruptive ways.1 Jeffery Bader, who served as a top White House official in the first Obama administration, agrees that “China could play a more constructive role than it would by sitting outside of that system.2 So the prevailing wisdom holds and the thinking behind engagement goes, if China participates extensively in the international system, then it will help create a system it likes and not become revisionist.

According to Evan Medeiros, who stepped down in June 2015 after six years as a top White House official on China, the U.S. and China "agreed that we would develop our relationship defined by cooperation on regional and global challenges while affectively managing our differences.3 Medeiros explained in an interview with China's official CCTV how this policy sought to avoid what IR theorists call the Thucydides Trap:

Beginning when President Obama met President Xi for the first time formally at Sunnylands... we agreed that we did not believe conflict was inevitable between China and the United States, a rising power and an established power, and we agreed that we would work to make sure that rivalry didn't become inevitable. So that's the basic framework for our relationship, and we think we've succeeded in accomplishing that in recent years.4

To help make Beijing more cooperative, Washington can shape its choices, according to Bader:

Underlying our approach was a clear understanding that our political, security, and economic policies in Asia needed to be grounded in traditional state-to-state relations and a commitment to shaping the choices of emerging powers like China through our diplomacy and deployments.5

But how to shape China's choices? To establish "a modicum of trust between U.S. and Chinese leaders so that there could be political incentives for cooperation," Bader recalls that Obama's Asia team built a China strategy based on "three pillars," which can be considered the pillars of engagement:6

(1) a welcoming approach to China's emergence, influence, and legitimate expanded role;

(2) resolve to see that its rise is consistent with international norms and law;

(3) endeavor to shape the Asia-Pacific environment to ensure China's rise is stabilizing rather than disruptive.7

The goal, according to Steinberg and O'Hanlon, is to shape "China's interpretation of U.S. strategy" and its "leaders' assessments of U.S. intentions." They argue that: "Washington can craft its own policies in ways that will call forth reciprocal, positive Chinese actions.8 Chinese assessments range from “one extreme that the United States is determined to maintain its hegemonic position and resist China's rise. At the other, they accept the argument that the United States is prepared to 'share power.'"9 The chances to avoid hostilities can be improved if "U.S. policymakers can reinforce the domestic political forces in China that are likely to support constructive Chinese strategies." By empowering Chinese moderates U.S. policymakers will reduce the possibility that more hawkish leaders will push China toward aggression. Thus, by reiterating the U.S.' willingness to share power with China Washington can reduce the chances of conflict with Beijing.

In practice, this engagement-based China strategy means that scores (if not hundreds) of U.S. policymakers in numerous government agencies correspond regularly with their Chinese counterparts across a wide breadth of issues. In September 2014, President Xi Jinping said there were over 90 official mechanisms for U.S.-China exchange.10

Questioning Engagement

Now, however, a growing contingent in Washington and beyond is arguing that extensive U.S. engagement has failed to prevent China from threatening other countries. One longtime proponent of engagement with China, David M. Lampton, gave a speech in May 2015 entitled "A Tipping Point in U.S.-China Relations is Upon Us," in which he noted that, despite the remarkable "policy continuity" of "constructive engagement" through eight U.S. and five Chinese administrations, "today important components of the American policy elite increasingly are coming to see China as a threat."11 Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd summarized this view: “Beijing's long-term policy is aimed at pushing the U.S. out of Asia altogether and establishing a Chinese sphere of influence spanning the region.12 Similarly, in June, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said on PBS Newshour: "The longstanding consensus that China's rise is good for the U.S. is beginning to break down.13

In response to these misgivings about Beijing's intentions, there have been calls for Washington to actively shape China's strategic choices by enhancing U.S. military capabilities and strengthening alliances to counterbalance against its growing strength. Recent publications reflect increasing apprehension; most argue that policymakers must avoid an enduring "structural problem" in international relations that causes rising powers to become aggressive.

Some experts, like Princeton's Aaron Friedberg, contend that the U.S. should "maintain a margin of military advantage sufficient to deter attempts at coercion or aggression.14 Thomas Christensen, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, noted in June, that there are two primary questions for U.S. security vis-à-vis China: How to dissuade China from using force in East Asia? How can we get China to actively contribute to stabilizing global governance? These initiatives, Christensen noted, are based on the assumption that "whenever a country becomes a rising power, tensions with neighbors arise.15

Christensen agrees with Bader that the U.S.' "strategic goal" vis-à-vis China is to "shape Beijing's choices so as to channel China's nationalist ambitions into cooperation rather than coercion." 16 To elicit Beijing's participation U.S. policymakers should “persuade China that bullying its neighbors will backfire, while proactive cooperation with those neighbors and the world's other great powers will accelerate China's return to great power status.17

The U.S. should build a robust deterrence architecture to counter-balance China's rise and push Beijing towards meaningful engagement, Christensen argues. The U.S. and its allies "need to maintain sufficient power and resolve in East Asia to deter Beijing from choosing a path of coercion or aggression.18 "Chinese anxiety about a U.S. containment effort could carry some benefits for the United States: the potential for encirclement may encourage Chinese strategists to become more accommodating," resulting in more "moderate policies." Both engagement supporters and deterrence supporters agree that the U.S. should change China's strategic calculus in ways that increase the benefits of cooperation and the costs of aggression; where they disagree is on how to achieve this.

Beyond 'Congagement'?

The time has come, as John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton has said, to "move beyond the 'engage and hedge' framework for China policy—an approach openly premised on mistrust and suspicion—to a strategy that maximizes opportunity," while "managing risk.19 The problem is that the U.S. China policy has been captured by the dichotomous framework of realism, sliding back and forth between engagement and containment; a policy many call congagement. Yet, given the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship, international relations theory is insufficient and produces flawed comparisons between China and previous rising powers, e.g. Sparta, World War I Germany, or World War II Japan.

To improve U.S. policy towards China to avoid, and yet be prepared for, conflict requires going beyond simplistic applications of international relations theory. It means opening the 'black box' of China's policymaking process to understand why it makes the decisions it does and how this process has and is changing. Unfortunately, barriers continue to prevent the U.S. from better understanding and responding to China. Most importantly, Friedberg identified a "yawning ideological chasm" that inhibits the success of U.S.' engagement, arguing that: "The very different domestic political regimes of the two pacific powers" make the liberalization of the Chinese political system essential for "a true trans-Pacific entente." CPC repression inhibits change in China and presents "a significant additional impetus to rivalry.20

American policymakers' beliefs about China are rooted in their own preconceived views and experiences in China. Since Americans began visiting the PRC in the early 1970s, rosy assessments have become commonplace. As the Sinologist Robert Scalapino observed after his 1973 visit:

There is serious risk that one may be badly misled by what one sees, hears, and instinctively feels [in China]. This is partly due to the tendency within all of us to superimpose our own values and cultural perspectives on another environment. Such tendency surely exists, and for some, it represents an ever-present bias. Their writings consequently reveal far more about their own views of their own social order than about China. Each individual, in any case, carries his prejudices with him in some measure, and he may well reinforce them as he goes.21

"Because China is so vast," James Palmer recently observed in the Washington Post, "its successes can be attributed to whatever your pet cause is.22 In short, Americans see what we want to see in China, and what we want to see most, argues Michael Pillsbury, is ourselves: "In our hubris, Americans love to believe that the aspirations of every other country is to be just like the United States. In recent years, this has governed our approach to Iraq and Afghanistan. We cling to the same mentality with China."23

American misunderstanding has been facilitated by Beijing's courting of influential Americans. China has done a better job at using engagement to improve American perceptions of China than America has done in changing Chinese perceptions of U.S. intentions. The Communist Party of China (CPC) uses bilateral engagement to assess U.S. capabilities, collect intelligence, and manipulate their American counterparts. Extensive economic, educational, scientific, cultural, and personal ties allow the CPC to build a large, loose coalition of Americans to carry the message that Beijing is Washington's indispensable partner.24 U.S. officials, however, are generally ignorant of CPC objectives and tactics toward them, collectively known as the United Front Doctrine.

Americans interact with only a "thin outer crust" of Chinese policymakers.25 Each institution has an office that deals specifically with foreign visitors, and the party maintains dozens of front groups that conduct hundreds of interactions and conferences every year with Americans. The CPC's International Department's front organization is the China Center for Contemporary World Studies; the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs and the China Institute of International Relations are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' front groups; the Ministry of State Security's is the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, and so on. The CPC has also created entities specifically to conduct "host diplomacy" with Americans, including the Hong Kong–based China–United States Exchange Foundation, which "promotes the positions of the Chinese government through the research grants it gives to American institutions.26 These groups both observe Americans and work to influence their views through dialogues and the distribution of English-language propaganda with titles such as The Strength of Democracy: How Will the CPC March Ahead.27

Information asymmetry is a longstanding aspect of U.S.-China relations, but has become increasingly problematic since President Xi Jinping took power in 2011. In July 2015, China enacted new laws regulating all aspects of Chinese interaction with foreigners, including a national security law that covers every domain of public life in China—politics, military, education, finance, religion, cyberspace, ideology and religion. These initiatives are "aimed at exhorting all Chinese citizens and agencies to be vigilant about threats to the party.28 They help explain why Washington's engagement strategy has been unable to change party leaders' perceptions or successfully support moderates over hawks.

The consequence of Americans knowing so little about the CPC and its strategies and tactics towards them is that many Americans continue to be badly misled by what they hear and see in China. The extensive U.S.-China engagement architecture has produced analytical limitations, or blind spots, within the U.S. policy community that if remain unaddressed are likely to produce the same types of intelligence failures that have occurred repeatedly in U.S.-China relations since 1911. The only way to redress these systemic deficiencies is to move beyond engagement and containment and adopt a nuanced strategy that prioritizes high quality human intelligence about Chinese leaders and policymaking and incorporates them effectively into U.S. policymaking towards China.

1 Steinberg, James and Michael O'Hanlon. Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S. China Relations in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014, 17.
2 Bader 3.
3 "Exclusive interview with Evan Medeiros of US National Security Council," CCTV 27 Feb 2015.
4 "Exclusive interview with Evan Medeiros of US National Security Council," CCTV 27 Feb 2015.
5 Bader 6.
6 Bader 11.
7 Bader 7.
8 Steinberg and O'Hanlon 47.
9 Steinberg and O'Hanlon 44.
10 Wu Jianmin. "The China-U.S. Relationship is Basically Good," ChinaFile 26 Sept 2014.
11 Lampton, David M. "A Tipping Point in U.S.-China Relations is Upon Us" Speech at the conference, China's Reform: Opportunities and Challenges hosted by The Carter Center and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences 6–7 May 2015.
12 Rudd, Kevin. 2015. America and China are rivals with a common cause. Financial Times, 17 April 2015, 9.
13 "Opposite parties, same goal: change U.S.-China relations," PBS NewsHour 3 June 2015.
14 Friedberg, Aaron. A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2011, 274.
15 Christensen, Thomas. Comments at Brookings Institution on June 25, 2015.
16 Christensen xxii.
17 Christensen xxi.
18 Christensen xxi.
19 Cited in Friedberg 259.
20 Friedberg 1–2, 42.
21 Scalapino, Robert. China and the Road Ahead. Survey No. 4 (89) 1973.
22 Palmer, James. "For American pundits, China isn't a country. It's a fantasyland," The Washington Post 29 May 2015.
23 Pillsbury, Michael. The Hundred Year War: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2015, 10.
24 Friedberg 167–168.
25 Friedberg 54. Also see Pillsbury 120.
26 David Shambaugh, "China's Soft Power Push: The Search for Respect," Foreign Affairs July/Aug 2015.
27 Edited by Lin Liangqi China Intercontinental Press: Beijing 2012. Also see Xie Chuntao. Why and how the CPC works in China. Beijing: New World Press, 2011. Both books were attained in Beijing in 2013 during an exchange hosted by the CPC that included American China experts.
28 Wong, Edward. "China Approves Sweeping Security Law, Bolstering Communist Rule," The New York Times 1 July 2015.

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