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Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president threatens to upend the world’s most important bilateral relationship. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to label China a currency manipulator and to respond to its “theft of American trade secrets” and “unfair subsidy behavior” by levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports. As president-elect, he reversed four decades of U.S. policy when he spoke by telephone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and declared that the United States was not bound by the “one China” policy, the diplomatic understanding that has underpinned Washington’s approach to Beijing since 1979.
Trump’s actions, however, have only compounded deeper problems in the Sino-American relationship. Recent Chinese policies have fueled concerns that the country seeks to overturn the post–Cold War geopolitical order. President Xi Jinping has begun to modernize China’s military, gradually transforming the regional balance of power. He has pursued assertive policies in the East China and South China Seas, appearing to reject both the territorial status quo in East Asia and the role of international law in adjudicating disputes. Many observers now believe that efforts to integrate China into the international system have failed and that East Asia will have to contend with a dangerous, revisionist power.
But China is not the only revisionist power in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the world. Just as Chinese revisionism alarms Washington, the United States’ posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond. As Trump begins his presidency, he would do well to understand this fear. The risk of crises, and even war, will grow if Trump introduces instability into areas of the relationship that posed few problems under previous U.S. administrations. But Trump could ease tensions if he pursues a less revisionist strategy than his predecessors.
Chinese policymakers deny that their country is a revisionist power. They claim that China seeks merely to defend a regional status quo that the United States is threatening. After all, they argue, China’s claims to many of the region’s disputed islands date back centuries. For example, Yang Yanyi, China’s ambassador to the European Union, wrote in a 2016 op-ed that China has enjoyed “sovereignty over the South China Sea Island . . . and the adjacent waters since ancient times.” Chinese policymakers point out that the “nine-dash line,” a demarcation of Chinese claims that runs along the edge of the South China Sea, has appeared on Chinese maps since the 1940s. “China’s relevant claims have never exceeded the scope of the current international order,” China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, argued in a 2016 speech criticizing the decision by an international tribunal in The Hague to rule against China in the South China Sea dispute. “China’s rejection of the arbitration is to uphold the postwar international order,” he said. According to Beijing, the South China Sea has always been, and will always be, Chinese territory; China, in other words, remains a status quo power, not a revisionist one.
But even if its territorial claims are not new, China rarely sought to enforce them until recently. For the past few years, however, China has grown increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes. In 2012, to the dismay of Tokyo and Washington, Beijing declared an “air defense identification zone” over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which are currently controlled by Japan but which China also claims, requiring aircraft flying through the zone to identify themselves to Chinese authorities. That same year, China maneuvered the Philippines out of Scarborough Shoal—a reef just over 100 miles from the Philippines and more than 500 miles from China. Today, its navy, coast guard, and “maritime militia” of fishing boats deny Philippine vessels access to the area. Meanwhile, China has presided over an extraordinary construction project in the South China Sea, building a string of artificial islands. As the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a website that monitors activity in the disputed territory, has noted, “The number, size, and construction make it clear these are for military purposes—and they are the smoking gun that shows China has every intention of militarizing the Spratly Islands,” a contested archipelago. China has drilled for oil in the waters of the contested Paracel Islands, ignoring Vietnamese protests and keeping Vietnamese ships away from the area. Last year, China sent a swarm of approximately 230 fishing boats, escorted by coast guard ships, into the waters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and it has also escalated the situation by sending more powerful military forces into the area, such as a frigate and an air force bomber.
China is not the only revisionist power in the U.S.-Chinese relationship.
What’s more, over the past few years, China has modernized its military. According to Captain James Fanell, the former chief of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, China is building coast guard vessels “at an astonishing rate,” some of which are among the largest coast guard ships in the world. China is also improving its conventional ballistic missiles, which threaten U.S. air bases and ports in the region, including Andersen Air Force Base, on Guam, a crucial U.S. military hub. These moves jeopardize the entire U.S. strategy for projecting power in East Asia.
In the eyes of all but Beijing, this clearly counts as revisionist behavior. And it has touched off a flurry of activity among countries that feel threatened. The Philippines, although possibly moving closer to China under President Rodrigo Duterte, has challenged China’s territorial claims in an international tribunal. Australia has strengthened its military and deepened its alliance with the United States. Singapore, not a U.S. treaty ally but a longtime U.S. partner, has increased its defense spending and has begun to work more closely with the U.S. Navy. Despite the legacy of the Vietnam War, Hanoi and Washington have begun to move toward closer security cooperation.
Chinese behavior has also shocked Japan into action. Japanese leaders have rejected military statecraft for more than half a century. But under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has reinterpreted (and may eventually revise) its constitution to permit more military activism and is forging closer ties with other countries worried about Chinese revisionism, including Australia and India.
So far, Japan’s response to China has been restrained. Although changes in the Japanese defense posture often generate alarmist headlines, Japan’s actions to date have been modest, especially when compared with how great powers normally behave when confronted by a rising power in their neighborhood. The Japanese public is preoccupied with a lagging economy and an aging society; it has no interest in military statecraft and has disapproved of the security reforms pushed by Abe and other conservatives. But as the world’s third-largest economy, Japan has tremendous latent power; a sufficiently alarmed Tokyo could decide to increase its military spending from the current one percent of GDP to two or three percent—an undesirable outcome for Beijing.
Chinese officials argue that U.S. interference has caused its neighbors to respond with alarm, but China’s own revisionism is to blame. Consider that for the past 60 years, even as Washington constantly entreated Japan to play a more active military role in the U.S.-Japanese alliance, Tokyo stepped up only when it felt threatened, as it did in the late 1970s when the Soviet Union launched a military buildup in Asia. Today, Japan is responding not to U.S. pressure but to Chinese assertiveness. Beijing must understand how threatening its actions appear if it wishes to successfully manage its relations with its neighbors and with Washington.
Like their Chinese counterparts, U.S. foreign policy officials argue that the United States seeks merely to uphold the status quo in East Asia. They want to maintain military predominance in the region through the policy of a “rebalance” to Asia, prevent a return to an era when countries settled disputes unilaterally and by force, and support freedom of navigation and the law of the sea.
In its desire to preserve the current global economic system and its network of military alliances, the United States does favor the status quo. But at its heart, U.S. grand strategy seeks to spread liberalism and U.S. influence. The goal, in other words, is not preservation but transformation.
After World War II, the United States formed a network of partners, supported by military alliances and international institutions, and sought to expand it. Prosperity and peace, created through trade and institutions, would prevail among the members of the liberal zone. As democracy and economic interdependence deepened, and as the zone widened, war would become less likely and respect for human rights would spread. Washington sought to pull countries into its orbit, regardless of whether they accepted its values. In time, perhaps engagement with the United States and with the liberal order would encourage the spread of liberalism to those countries, too. “The West was not just a geographical region with fixed borders,” the scholar G. John Ikenberry has written. “Rather, it was an idea—a universal organizational form that could expand outward, driven by the spread of liberal democratic government and principles of conduct.”
The strategy, to be sure, had elements of self-interest: Washington sought to create a liberal order that it itself led. But it also had a more revolutionary goal: the transformation of anarchy into order.
The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world. In Europe, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and its allies did not preserve the status quo. Instead, they pushed eastward, enlarging NATO to absorb all of the Soviet Union’s former Warsaw Pact allies and some former Soviet territories, such as the Baltic states. At the same time, the European Union expanded into eastern Europe. In Ukraine, U.S. and European policymakers encouraged the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in 2014 and helped install a Western-leaning one.
In the Middle East, U.S. policymakers saw the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an opportunity to advance democracy in the region. During the Arab Spring, they viewed the uprising in Libya as another chance to replace an anti-American dictator, and they encouraged the spread of democracy elsewhere as well. Underlying the United States’ recent engagement with Iran is a desire to promote liberalization there, too.
The United States can encourage liberalism while acknowledging that its grand strategy appears deeply threatening to outsiders.
In East Asia, the United States has not only maintained and strengthened its longtime alliances with Australia, Japan, and the Philippines but also courted new partners, such as Malaysia and Singapore. And with its policy toward Vietnam, the United States may encourage a dramatic change in the regional status quo. Historically, Vietnam, which borders China, has fallen within its larger neighbor’s sphere of influence, and since the Vietnam War, its relations with the United States have been bitter. In the past few years, however, Vietnam and the United States have deepened their economic ties, resolved previous disputes, and even explored greater security cooperation. Vietnam is also expanding its military ties with U.S. allies—namely, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines.
In each of these regions, U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies are aimed not at preserving but at transforming the status quo. “A country is one of three colors: blue, red, or gray,” the Japanese journalist Hiroyuki Akita said in 2014 at a talk at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, in Tokyo. “China wants to turn the gray countries red. The Americans and Japanese want to turn the gray countries blue.” No one, in other words, is trying to preserve the status quo. U.S. foreign policy elites might object to Akita’s blunt assessment and often dismiss the notion of “spheres of influence” as outdated, Cold War–era thinking. But the U.S. goal is to replace the old-fashioned competition for spheres of influence with a single liberal sphere led by the United States.
China, of course, does not stand entirely outside the liberal international system. China has become the world’s second-largest economy in large part by embracing some features of liberalism: it is now a top trading partner of many countries, including, of course, the United States. And China has gained greater influence in institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The country both profits from and—increasingly, by virtue of its wealth, talent, and expertise—contributes to the liberal order.
Yet in several key respects, China remains outside that order. Its military modernization and regional assertiveness challenge U.S. primacy in Asia and the principle that countries should resolve territorial disputes through peaceful adjudication. Although China has introduced significant economic reforms, many observers question its support for liberal economic development. Beijing argues that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led international development bank, will uphold good governance and environmental protection. Yet Beijing could well renege on those promises.
China is clearly an outsider in the realm of human rights. The Chinese Communist Party maintains its grip on power through the threat and use of force. It harasses, arrests, and tortures political activists and suspected enemies, and it represses secessionist groups, such as the Mongolians, the Tibetans, and the Uighurs. Under Xi, the government has cracked down even more harshly on domestic dissent. As a 2015 Human Rights Watch report put it, the Chinese leader has “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years”; in 2016, the nongovernmental organization declared that “the trend for human rights . . . continued in a decidedly negative direction.”
China also obstructs its liberal partners’ efforts to promote human rights across the globe. In the 1990s, for example, China opposed UN intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, arguing that the West should respect national sovereignty. And regarding Syria, China has vetoed multiple UN Security Council resolutions calling for a political solution.
For illiberal countries, the inherently transformational nature of U.S. grand strategy appears deeply threatening—something U.S. foreign policy elites too often fail to recognize. NATO expansion, for example, provoked deep consternation in Moscow. As the political scientist Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson has noted, “Western scholars and policymakers should not be surprised that contemporary Russian leaders resent the United States’ post–Cold War efforts and are willing to prevent further NATO expansion—by force, if necessary.” U.S. and European efforts to encourage Ukraine to join NATO and the EU menaced Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out. This is not to excuse Putin’s military aggression; he had other choices. But NATO members’ inability to see how the expansion of their alliance threatened Russia represented a serious failure of strategic empathy.
In East Asia, adding Vietnam to the list of U.S. regional partners—or even allies—would seem to follow naturally from a strategy of spreading democracy and free markets and might insulate a liberalizing Vietnam from the coercive influence of its powerful neighbor. But a U.S. alliance with Vietnam would represent a dramatic departure from the status quo, and China would see it as such. U.S. foreign policy analysts sometimes invoke the benefits of closer U.S. relations with Hanoi without mentioning how threatening this development would appear to Beijing, which could react in a similar way toward Vietnam as Russia did toward Ukraine. U.S. policymakers should not automatically defer to China and Russia. But to understand the real tradeoffs of a given policy, they need to take into account how these great powers will likely react.
One can argue that the United States’ transformational strategy has had, and will continue to have, a profoundly positive effect on the world. Or one can argue that it is simply a manifestation of self-interested U.S. expansionism. It’s hard to argue, however, that U.S. policy has sought to support the status quo.
Proponents of the post–World War II U.S. grand strategy might argue that there is no reason to adjust it now. They might insist that challenges from China and Russia demand, if anything, a stronger U.S. commitment to spreading liberalism. According to this view, the United States should strengthen its security commitments in eastern Europe and extend new ones there. In Asia, the United States should strengthen its existing alliances, align itself more closely with Vietnam, and clarify its commitment to defend Taiwan.
China, unlike the Soviet Union, does not have a revolutionary ideology.
By contrast, realist critics might caution that as the global balance of power changes, so must U.S. grand strategy. A transformational approach may have made sense in the 1990s: it allowed the United States and its liberal partners to gain ground when China and Russia posed little threat. Today, however, China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence make this strategy too provocative. In this view, Washington must be wary of a growing risk of great-power conflict and, because all three countries possess nuclear weapons, potentially catastrophic escalation. These critics would have Washington prioritize great-power stability over its transformational goals.
The best way forward is a compromise between the approach of the liberal internationalists and that of the realists. Washington should continue to look for opportunities to promote liberalism, but it should do so through less threatening policies and in regions where its actions are less likely to have strategic repercussions for U.S. relationships with some of the world’s most powerful countries. For example, the United States can support the building of institutions and civil society in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia and the Middle East without threatening the core interests of other great powers. U.S. policymakers should be wary of extending alliances to the borders of China or Russia or attempting to advance democracy within those countries. The United States can encourage liberalism while acknowledging that its grand strategy appears deeply threatening to outsiders.
If Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, had won the presidential election, the United States would probably have continued to pursue its transformational strategy. It is much less clear, however, how Trump’s presidency will shape U.S. grand strategy and U.S.-Chinese relations. On the one hand, the Trump administration could prove deeply destabilizing. Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president, for example, has introduced real uncertainty about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, potentially shattering a delicate compromise that has held for four decades. If the Trump administration pokes sticks into more areas where previous U.S. and Chinese governments have forged compromises, it will preside over a deterioration of an already troubled relationship.
But Trump could also reduce tensions if he proves less assertive about promoting liberalism than the liberal internationalists who have presided over U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Although Trump has not outlined his views on grand strategy, he seems less concerned with transforming the world’s political system and more interested in making good bilateral deals for the United States. So Trump, caring little about promoting further liberalization in Asia, might dismiss an alliance with Vietnam, a weak nation embroiled in a territorial dispute with a great power, as a bad deal. If Trump’s pragmatism makes him more willing than liberal internationalists to compromise, his leadership could prove stabilizing in this respect.
For years, foreign policy analysts in the United States, Japan, and Europe took heart from at least one reassuring factor in U.S.-Chinese relations: China, unlike the Soviet Union, does not have a revolutionary ideology. Beijing has not tried to export an ideology around the world.
Washington has. In attempting to transform anarchy into liberal order, the United States has pursued an idealistic, visionary, and in many ways laudable goal. Yet its audacity terrifies those on the outside. The United States and its partners need not necessarily defer to that fear—but they must understand it.