Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
The United States is currently the only country with the capacity and the ambition to exercise global primacy, and it will remain so for a long time to come. This means that the United States is the country that can exert the greatest strategic pressure on China. Although in recent years Beijing has refrained from identifying Washington as an adversary or criticizing its "hegemonism"—a pejorative Chinese code word for U.S. dominance—many Chinese still view the United States as a major threat to their nation's security and domestic stability.
Yet the United States is a global leader in economics, education, culture, technology, and science. China, therefore, must maintain a close relationship with the United States if its modernization efforts are to succeed. Indeed, a cooperative partnership with Washington is of primary importance to Beijing, where economic prosperity and social stability are now top concerns.
Fortunately, greater cooperation with China is also in the United States' interests—especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States now needs China's help on issues such as counterterrorism, nonproliferation, the reconstruction of Iraq, and the maintenance of stability in the Middle East. More and more, Washington has also started to seek China's cooperation in fields such as trade and finance, despite increased friction over currency exchange rates, intellectual property rights, and the textile trade.
Although there is room for further improvement in the relationship, the framework of basic stability established since September 11 should be sustainable. At least for the next several years, Washington will not regard Beijing as its main security threat, and China will avoid antagonizing the United States.
To understand the forces that govern U.S.-Chinese relations, it helps first to understand U.S. power and Washington's current global strategy. Here is a Chinese view: in the long term, the decline of U.S. primacy and the subsequent transition to a multipolar world are inevitable; but in the short term, Washington's power is unlikely to decline, and its position in world affairs is unlikely to change.
Consider that the United States continues to lead other developed countries in economic growth, technological innovation, productivity, research and development, and the ability to cultivate human talent. Despite serious problems such as swelling trade and fiscal deficits, illegal immigration, inadequate health care, violent crime, major income disparities, a declining educational system, and a deeply divided electorate, the U.S. economy is healthy: last year, U.S. GDP grew an estimated 4.4 percent, and this year the growth rate is expected to be 3.5 percent, much greater than the corresponding figures for the eurozone (2.0 percent and 1.6 percent). Barring an unexpected sharp economic downturn, the size of the U.S. economy as a proportion of the global economy is likely to increase in the years to come.
Many other indexes of U.S. "hard power" are also on the rise. The U.S. defense budget, for example, has increased considerably in recent years. In 2004, it hit $437 billion, or roughly half of all military spending around the world. Yet as a percentage of U.S. GDP, the figure was lower than it was during the Cold War.
Further bolstering U.S. primacy is the fact that many of the country's potential competitors, such as the European Union, Russia, and Japan, face internal problems that will make it difficult for them to overtake the United States anytime soon. For a long time to come, the United States is likely to remain dominant, with sufficient hard power to back up aggressive diplomatic and military policies.
From a Chinese perspective, the United States' geopolitical superiority was strengthened in 2001 by Washington's victory in the Afghan war. The United States has now established political, military, and economic footholds in Central Asia and strengthened its military presence in Southeast Asia, in the Persian Gulf, and on the Arabian Peninsula. These moves have been part of a global security strategy that can be understood as having one center, two emphases. Fighting terrorism is the center. And the two emphases are securing the Middle East and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The greater Middle East, a region stretching from Kashmir to Morocco and from the Red Sea to the Caucasus, is vital to U.S. interests. Rich in oil and natural gas, the region is also beset by ethnic and religious conflicts and is a base for rampant international terrorism. None of the countries in the area is politically stable, and chaos there can affect the United States directly, as the country learned on September 11.
On the nonproliferation front, the United States' main concerns are Iran and North Korea, two states that are striving to develop nuclear technology and have long been antagonistic toward Washington. In 2004, the United States carried out the largest redeployment of its overseas forces since World War II in order to meet these challenges.
Despite its many advantages, the United States is not invincible. The war in Iraq, for example, resulted in international isolation of a sort that Washington had not faced since the beginning of the Cold War. The invasion was strongly condemned by people all over the world and explicitly opposed by the great majority of nations. Washington split with many of its traditional allies, such as Paris and Berlin, which refused to take part in the operation. And tensions with Islamic countries, especially in the Arab world, increased dramatically.
Since then, the extent of armed resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq has exceeded the Bush administration's expectations. Meanwhile, revelations of prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel in Iraq and elsewhere have undermined the credibility of U.S. rhetoric on human rights and further damaged the United States' image in the world. U.S. "soft power"—the country's ability to influence indirectly the actions of other states—has been weakened. The United States also faces serious competition and disagreement from Europe, Japan, and Russia on many economic and development-related issues, and there have been disputes on arms control, regional policies, and the role of the United Nations and other international organizations.
Nonetheless, the points in common between these powers and the United States in terms of ideology and strategic interests outweigh the differences. A pattern of coordination and cooperation among the world's major powers, institutionalized through the G-8 (the group of leading industrialized countries), has taken shape, and no great change in this pattern is likely in the next five to ten years. To be sure, some of the differences between the United States and the EU, Japan, Russia, and others will deepen, and Washington will at times face coordinated French, German, and Russian opposition, as it did during the war in Iraq. But no lasting united front aimed at confronting Washington is likely to emerge.
Meanwhile, many developing countries now boast higher growth rates than those found in the industrialized world, and they have enhanced their role in global affairs by strengthening themselves and coordinating their stances on major international issues. Rich countries, however—especially the United States—still occupy dominant positions in the UN, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other global institutions. Moreover, they continue to maintain the contemporary international order and rules that serve their economic and security interests.
All of the changes described above have provided China with new, albeit limited, opportunities for maneuver. So long as the United States' image remains tainted, China will have greater leverage in multilateral settings. It would be foolhardy, however, for Beijing to challenge directly the international order and the institutions favored by the Western world—and, indeed, such a challenge is unlikely.
There is one region where the United States is most likely to come into close contact with China, leading to either major conflicts of interest or real cooperation (or both): in Asia and the Pacific. Divining the direction of relations between the two countries therefore requires a comprehensive analysis of the forces in the region. Of all the recent developments in Asia, China's rise is attracting the most attention at the moment. But several other important developments are occurring simultaneously.
Thanks to a period of internal reform, Japan has recovered from the doldrums of the 1990s and is reinforcing its status as Northeast Asia's most powerful economy. Meanwhile, India's economy is growing very rapidly, and New Delhi has sought rapprochement with Islamabad and improved relations with Washington and Beijing. The Russian economy is growing fast as well, due in large part to the surge in world energy prices. As a result of these and other forces, most Asia-Pacific countries are growing closer diplomatically, and economic cooperation in eastern Asia is speeding up. Two worrisome security problems remain, however: the North Korean nuclear program and the question of Taiwan.
Among all the nations in the region, Japan has the biggest effect on the Chinese-U.S. relationship. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S.-Japanese security alliance has strengthened, not weakened (as China once hoped it would). Unlike some other traditional U.S. allies, Tokyo has sent troops to support the occupation of Iraq and given substantive reconstruction assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan. In return, Washington has praised Tokyo's international role and endorsed (at least diplomatically) Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The prospect of conflict between the two allies, which many in the media once predicted, seems to have disappeared from the scene.
In sharp contrast, Tokyo's ties to Beijing have cooled significantly. A series of recent irritants have exacerbated a relationship already strained by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (where Japan's war dead, including a number of war criminals, are commemorated). These incidents have included the accidental intrusion of a Chinese submarine into Japanese territorial waters in November 2004; a visit by former Taiwanese leader and independence activist Lee Teng-hui to Japan in December 2004; Japan's ongoing publication of textbooks that downplay its World War II atrocities; and, this spring, anti-Japan demonstrations in a number of major Chinese cities. As such cases show, the historical conflicts between China and Japan and the mutual antagonism of their peoples can easily become political problems. Unless the issues are handled with care, they can evolve into serious crises.
Rather than play a helpful role, the United States has pushed China and Japan further apart. Beijing fears that the consolidation of the U.S.-Japanese alliance is coming at its expense and that the growing closeness is motivated by the allies' common concern about the increase of China's power. As the "China threat" theory gains followers in Japan, right-wing forces there are becoming more assertive by the day and turning increasingly toward the United States as their protector. Japan has also used the United States to exchange military intelligence with Taiwan; indeed, Japanese right-wing forces no longer shrink from offending Beijing by making overtures to pro-separation forces in Taipei.
Japan has also failed to respond warmly to China's sponsorship of more institutionalized economic cooperation in eastern Asia. As its reluctance suggests, Tokyo is wary of Beijing's growing role in the region and does not want to cooperate with any attempts to create regional structures that would exclude the United States. Hard-liners in Washington may think that the United States benefits from a souring of the Chinese-Japanese relationship. In the long run, however, conflict between Beijing and Tokyo helps no one, since it could destabilize Asia's existing economic and security arrangements, many of which benefit the United States.
In the field of international security, the primary focal point in Chinese-U.S. relations is the North Korean nuclear issue. On this question, the Bush administration has little choice but to act cautiously, relying on the six-party talks to exert pressure on Pyongyang and using various mechanisms (such as the U.S.-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative) to stop North Korea from exporting nuclear materials or technology. China, in its own way, has tried to dissuade North Korea from developing nuclear weapons but so far has declined to support multilateral blockades or sanctions on Pyongyang. If North Korea ever publicly, explicitly, and unmistakably demonstrates that it does possess nuclear weapons, the policies of the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia—all of which favor a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula—will have failed. The United States might then call for much tougher actions against North Korea, which would increase tension and narrow China's options. The result could be new friction between China and the United States and a serious test of their relationship.
If, on the other hand, the six-party talks are resumed, tensions between the United States and North Korea may ease, and China's role will then be more favorably recognized. Should that occur, the countries involved in the process might even consider expanding the six-party mechanism into a permanent Northeast Asian security arrangement, a development that would serve the interests of all the countries concerned and one that China should favor. Under the current circumstances, however, such a possibility is slim. The more likely outcome is that tensions between Washington and Pyongyang will persist, although without an actual war breaking out.
Meanwhile, at a time when political relations between China and the United States are basically stable and economic and trade links are expanding, Taiwan remains a major source of unease. War between China and the United States over Taiwan would be a nightmare, and both sides will try hard to avoid it. Despite their differences, there is no reason the two sides should have to resort to force to resolve the matter. Yet some people in Taiwan, looking out for their own interests and supported by outsiders—notably parts of the U.S. defense establishment and certain members of the U.S. Congress—continue stubbornly to push for independence, ignoring the will of most Taiwanese. It is a mistake for Americans to support such separatists. If a clash occurs, these parties will be responsible.
China views the status of Taiwan as an internal matter. But only by coordinating its U.S. policy with its policy toward Taiwan can Beijing curb the separatist forces on the island. Despite U.S. displeasure at China's passage of an antisecession law in March 2005, policymakers in Washington have reiterated their opposition to Taiwan's independence and viewed favorably the spring 2005 visits by Taiwanese opposition leaders to the mainland, which eased cross-strait relations. Nonetheless, Washington has now asked Beijing to talk directly to Taipei's ruling party and its leader, Chen Shui-bian. To improve matters, Chinese and U.S. government agencies and their foreign policy think tanks should launch a sustained and thorough dialogue on the issue and explore ways to prevent separatist forces from making a rash move, dragging both countries toward a confrontation neither wants.
The Chinese-U.S. relationship remains beset by more profound differences than any other bilateral relationship between major powers in the world today. It is an extremely complex and highly paradoxical unity of opposites. It is not a relationship of confrontation and rivalry for primacy, as the U.S.-Soviet relationship was during the Cold War, but it does contain some of the same characteristics. In its pattern of interactions, it is a relationship between equals. But the tremendous gap between the two countries in national power and international status and the fundamental differences between their political systems and ideology have prevented the United States from viewing China as a peer. China's political, economic, social, and diplomatic influences on the United States are far smaller than the United States' influences on China. It is thus only natural that in their exchanges, the United States should take the offensive role and China the defensive one.
In terms of state-to-state affairs, China and the United States cannot hope to establish truly friendly relations. Yet the countries should be able to build friendly ties on nongovernmental and individual levels. Like all relations between states, the Chinese-U.S. relationship is fundamentally based on interests. But it also involves more intense, love-hate feelings than do the majority of state-to-state ties. The positive and negative factors in the links between China and the United States are closely interwoven and often run into one another.
As this complex dynamic suggests, trying to view the Chinese-U.S. relationship in traditional zero-sum terms is a mistake and will not guide policy well; indeed, such a simplistic view may threaten both countries' national interests. Black-and-white analyses inevitably fail to capture the nuances of the situation. If, for instance, the United States really aimed to hamper China's economic modernization—as the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer has argued should be done—China would not be the only one to suffer. Many U.S. enterprises in China would lose the returns on their investments, and the American people would no longer be able to buy inexpensive high-quality Chinese products. On the other hand, although Americans' motives for developing economic and trade ties with China may be to help themselves, these ties have also helped China, spurring its economic prosperity and technological advancement.
This prosperity and advancement will naturally strengthen China's military power—something that worries the United States. Indeed, this issue represents a paradox at the heart of Washington's long-term strategy toward Beijing. Unless China's economy collapses, its defense spending will continue to rise. Washington should recognize, however, that the important question is not how much China spends on its national defense but where it aims its military machine, which is still only a fraction of the size of the United States' own forces. The best way to reduce tensions is through candid and comprehensive strategic conversations; for this reason, military-to-military exchanges should be resumed.
China faces a similar paradox: only a U.S. economic decline would reduce Washington's strength (including its military muscle) and ease the strategic pressure on Beijing. Such a slide, however, would also harm China's economy. In addition, the increased U.S. sense of insecurity that might result could have other consequences that would not necessarily benefit China. If, for example, Washington's influence in the Middle East diminished, this could lead to instability there that might threaten China's oil supplies. Similarly, increased religious fundamentalism and terrorism in Central and South Asia could threaten China's own security, especially along its western borders, where ethnic relations have become tense and separatist tendencies remain a danger.
The potential Chinese-U.S. conflict over energy supplies can be seen in a similar light. Each country should be sensitive to the other's energy needs and security interests worldwide. China is currently purchasing oil from countries such as Venezuela and Sudan, whose relations with the United States are far from amicable. Washington, meanwhile, is now thought to be eying Central Asian oil fields near China's border. Both Beijing and Washington should try to make sure that the other side understands its intentions and should explore ways to cooperate on energy issues through joint projects, such as building nuclear power plants in China.
History has already proved that the United States is not China's permanent enemy. Nor does China want the United States to see it as a foe. Deng Xiaoping's prediction that "things will be all right when Sino-U.S. relations eventually improve" was a cool judgment based on China's long-term interests. To be sure, aspirations cannot replace reality. The improvement of Chinese-U.S. relations will be slow, tortuous, limited, and conditional, and could even be reversed in the case of certain provocations (such as a Taiwanese declaration of independence). It is precisely for this reason that the thorny problems in the bilateral relationship must be handled delicately, and a stable new framework established to prevent troubles from disrupting an international environment favorable for building prosperous societies. China's leadership is set on achieving such prosperity by the middle of the twenty-first century; with Washington's cooperation, there is little to stand in its way.