A Superpower, Like It or Not
Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role
In contrast to its Cold War strategy of containment, Washington's current approach to China is not the product of a deliberate planning process. It is nowhere codified in official documents. Indeed, it does not even have a name. Still, for the better part of two decades, the United States has pursued a broadly consistent two-pronged strategy combining engagement and balancing.
U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama have worked to engage China through diplomacy, trade, scientific cooperation, and educational and cultural exchange. Since the mid-1990s, successive administrations have also taken steps to maintain a favorable balance of power in East Asia. As China has grown stronger, the United States has bolstered its own military capabilities in the region, enhanced its strategic cooperation with traditional allies, and built new partnerships with other countries that share its concerns, such as India and Singapore.
The engagement half of this strategy has been geared toward enmeshing China in global trade and international institutions, discouraging it from challenging the status quo, and giving it incentives to become what the George W. Bush administration termed a "responsible stakeholder" in the existing international system. Although U.S. policymakers have grown more circumspect in recent years, they have long hoped that trade and dialogue would help eventually transform China into a liberal democracy. The other half of Washington's China strategy, the balancing half, has looked to maintain stability and deter aggression or attempts at coercion while engagement works its magic.
Recent events have raised serious doubts about both elements of this strategy. Decades of trade and talk have not hastened China's political liberalization. Indeed, the last few years have been marked by an intensified crackdown on domestic dissent. At the same time, the much-touted economic relationship between the two Pacific powers has become a major source of friction. And despite hopes for enhanced cooperation, Beijing has actually done very little to help Washington solve pressing international problems, such as North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons or Iran's attempts to develop them. Finally, far from accepting the status quo, China's leaders have become more forceful in attempting to control the waters and resources off their country's coasts. As for balancing, the continued buildup of China's military capabilities, coupled with impending cuts in U.S. defense spending, suggests that the regional distribution of power is set to shift sharply in Beijing's favor.
WHY WE CAN'T ALL JUST GET ALONG
Today, China's ruling elites are both arrogant and insecure. In their view, continued rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is essential to China's stability, prosperity, and prestige; it is also, not coincidentally, vital to their own safety and comfort. Although they have largely accepted some form of capitalism in the economic sphere, they remain committed to preserving their hold on political power.
The CCP's determination to maintain control informs the regime's threat perceptions, goals, and policies. Anxious about their legitimacy, China's rulers are eager to portray themselves as defenders of the national honor. Although they believe China is on track to become a world power on par with the United States, they remain deeply fearful of encirclement and ideological subversion. And despite Washington's attempts to reassure them of its benign intentions, Chinese leaders are convinced that the United States aims to block China's rise and, ultimately, undermine its one-party system of government.
Like the United States, since the end of the Cold War, China has pursued an essentially constant approach toward its greatest external challenger. For the most part, Beijing has sought to avoid outright confrontation with the United States while pursuing economic growth and building up all the elements of its "comprehensive national power," a Chinese strategic concept that encompasses military strength, technological prowess, and diplomatic influence. Even as they remain on the defensive, however, Chinese officials have not been content to remain passive. They have sought incremental advances, slowly expanding China's sphere of influence and strengthening its position in Asia while working quietly to erode that of the United States. Although they are careful never to say so directly, they seek to have China displace the United States in the long run and to restore China to what they regard as its rightful place as the preponderant regional power. Chinese strategists do not believe that they can achieve this objective quickly or through a frontal assault. Instead, they seek to reassure their neighbors, relying on the attractive force of China's massive economy to counter nascent balancing efforts against it. Following the advice of the ancient military strategist Sun-tzu, Beijing aims to "win without fighting," gradually creating a situation in which overt resistance to its wishes will appear futile.
The failure to date to achieve a genuine entente between the United States and China is the result not of a lack of effort but of a fundamental divergence of interests. Although limited cooperation on specific issues might be possible, the ideological gap between the two nations is simply too great, and the level of trust between them too low, to permit a stable modus vivendi. What China's current leaders ultimately want -- regional hegemony -- is not something their counterparts in Washington are willing to give. That would run counter to an axiomatic goal of U.S. grand strategy, which has remained constant for decades: to prevent the domination of either end of the Eurasian landmass by one or more potentially hostile powers. The reasons for this goal involve a mix of strategic, economic, and ideological considerations that will continue to be valid into the foreseeable future.
A China unchecked by a U.S. presence in the region might not engage in outright conquest, but it would be well situated to enforce claims over disputed territories and resources. Freed from having to defend against perceived threats along its maritime periphery, China could project military power further afield to advance its interests in the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and Africa. Within China's expanding sphere of influence, U.S. firms could find their access to markets, products, and natural resources constricted by trade arrangements dictated by Beijing. The prospects for political reform in the countries along China's periphery would also be diminished as long as the CCP remained in control. And from its secure Asian base, Beijing could offer aid and comfort to authoritarian regimes in other regions.
Even if China does undergo a political transformation, however, this would not suddenly erase all tensions with Washington. If history is any guide, the process of liberalization might be accompanied by internal turmoil and an increased risk of conflict with other nations. A democratic China would no doubt seek a stronger voice in regional affairs, and its aims would not always align with those of the United States. In the longer run, however, the prospects for U.S.-Chinese cooperation would be greatly enhanced. A government confident of its legitimacy would have no reason to fear encirclement and subversion by the world's democracies. Meanwhile, with other countries less likely to see China as a threat, Beijing would find it easier to reach mutually acceptable settlements with its neighbors, including Taiwan.
The United States could learn to live with a democratic China as the dominant power in East Asia, much as the United Kingdom came to accept the United States' dominant role in the Western Hemisphere. Short of Beijing's genuine democratic transition, however, Washington will not willingly abandon its policy of balancing and withdraw from the region. At the same time, barring a severe crisis or major confrontation, Washington is not likely to give up on its efforts at engagement. Some version of the mixed strategy is going to persist, at least for a while. To be at all effective, however, both of its parts will require significant adjustment.
FROM SLOGANS TO STRATEGY
As a first order of business, the United States must counter China's ongoing military buildup by bolstering the balancing half of its strategic portfolio. The Obama administration at first moved in the opposite direction, downplaying talk of hedging, highlighting the prospects for broader and deeper engagement, and suggesting that the top priority in U.S.-Chinese relations should be what James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state, termed "strategic reassurance." To its credit, in 2010, the administration began to reverse course. In response to a series of incidents over the course of that year that resulted in heightened tensions between China and Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam, among others, U.S. officials began to highlight their commitment to balancing. The administration even went so far as to coin a slogan to describe its intentions: as it wound down its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States would "pivot" toward East Asia.
The problem with the pivot is that to date it has lacked serious substance. The actions it has entailed either have been merely symbolic, such as the pending deployment of a small number of U.S. marines to Australia, or have involved simply the reallocation of existing air and naval assets from other theaters. Apart from vague references to a new "air-sea battle" concept, which the Pentagon describes, in typical jargon, as "networked, integrated, attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat" opposing forces, the administration has not made clear how it actually intends to respond to China's increasing military capabilities. To the contrary, having announced the new approach, Defense Department spokespeople have been at pains to avoid acknowledging the obvious fact that it will be aimed primarily at China. Especially in the current fiscal climate, it is hard to see how any administration could mobilize the public support necessary to maintain a favorable balance of power in Asia if it is not willing to be far more candid about the nature of the challenge posed by China's growing strength.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Since the mid-1990s, China has been piecing together what Pentagon planners describe as asymmetric "anti-access/area-denial" (A2/AD) capabilities. At their heart is the development of an arsenal of accurate, relatively inexpensive, conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles. With these weapons, China can target virtually every air base and port in the western Pacific, as well as threaten to sink enemy surface vessels (including U.S. aircraft carriers) operating hundreds of miles off its coasts. The People's Liberation Army has also been experimenting with cyberwarfare and antisatellite weapons, and it has begun to expand its small force of intercontinental nuclear missiles.
Absent a strong U.S. response, Chinese planners might eventually come to believe that their growing A2/AD capabilities are sufficiently impressive to scare the United States off from intervening or provoking a confrontation in the region. Worse still, they might convince themselves that if the United States were to intervene, they could cripple its conventional forces in the western Pacific, leaving it with few options other than the threat of nuclear escalation. Maintaining stability requires reducing the likelihood that China's leaders could ever see initiating such an attack as being in their interest. A direct U.S.-Chinese military confrontation is, of course, extremely unlikely. But the aim of the balancing half of U.S. strategy must be to ensure that it remains so, even as China's power grows.
Failing to respond adequately to Beijing's buildup could undermine the credibility of the security guarantees that Washington extends to its Asian allies. In the absence of strong signals of continuing commitment and resolve from the United States, its friends may grow fearful of abandonment, perhaps eventually losing heart and succumbing to the temptations of appeasement. To prevent them from doing so, Washington will have to do more than talk. Together, the United States and its allies have more than sufficient resources with which to balance China. But if Washington wants its allies to increase their own defense efforts, it will have to seriously respond to China's growing capabilities itself. When it comes to Asia, the United States does not have the option of what The New Yorker first described as the Obama administration's penchant for "leading from behind."
To blunt the thrust of China's A2/AD strategy, the United States and its allies must first take visible steps to disperse, harden, or otherwise defend the targets at which a Chinese first strike might be directed, including those in space and cyberspace. Modern wars are not won on the defensive, however, nor can they be deterred with a purely reactive posture. This is the central insight behind the air-sea battle concept. The advocates of this strategy argue that as China improves its ability to attack targets off its eastern coast, the United States must develop options for conducting extensive conventional counterstrikes of its own.
Whatever the strategic logic behind it, the air-sea battle concept has begun to stir up controversy on several counts. Launching large-scale conventional attacks on China could provoke an escalatory response, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. New systems for projecting power from outside the increasing range of Chinese weapons will take time and money to develop, and they will divert resources from the kinds of projects the armed services traditionally prefer. Instead of additional aircraft carriers and sleek manned fighter jets, for example, the United States would need some mix of capabilities that have yet to be developed, such as long-endurance drones, a possible next-generation manned bomber, new long-range conventional missiles, and perhaps stealthy arsenal ships loaded with precision weapons.
In light of likely financial obstacles, political objections, and strategic uncertainties, the United States and its allies might not be able to develop fully effective and persuasive conventional counters to China's growing A2/AD capabilities. As was true during the Cold War, deterrence will have to rest in part on also having plausible options for escalation. The promise that the United States might use nuclear weapons to protect its allies remains at the core of U.S. defense commitments. But that threat will lose credibility as China's own long-range nuclear arsenal grows.
Instead of relying on the prospect of escalation to ever-higher levels of violence, the United States would do better to develop options to escalate horizontally. Of these, the most obvious would be enhancing the ability to respond to aggression by joining with a coalition of maritime friends and allies to cut China's sea lines of communication. Even if Beijing believed that it could use force to achieve a quick victory over Taiwan, for example, or in the South China Sea, it would then face the prospect of losing the ability to export goods by sea or to import the energy and other resources it needs to keep its economy running. The United States can enhance the credibility of this threat by investing more in undersea warfare technologies, an area in which it already holds considerable advantages; deepening its cooperation with the navies of Australia, India, and Japan, among others; and supporting Southeast Asian nations' efforts to acquire the weapons they need to defend their own airspace and coastal waters.
THE SAD STATE OF HAPPY TALK
As the United States intensifies its efforts at balancing China, it must continue to engage China, as well. U.S. officials should make clear through both words and deeds that they seek the best possible relationship with China. But they need to cure themselves of the habit of exaggerating actual accomplishments and areas of agreement and understating problems and differences. Diplomatic happy talk has done nothing to soften Beijing's perceptions of Washington's intentions and has instead conveyed an unrealistic picture of the state of U.S.-Chinese relations to the American people and to friendly nations.
Rather than treating engagement as desirable for its own sake, the United States needs to take a more clear-eyed and results-oriented approach. The place to start is trade. The bilateral economic relationship still provides benefits to both sides, but it has recently grown increasingly lopsided. Beijing uses its currency policy and subsidies of various kinds to boost its exports. It pressures foreign companies to transfer technology to China in return for access to its domestic market. And it looks the other way while Chinese firms engage in the wholesale theft of intellectual property. Unlike Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, China is not just a problematic trading partner whose government employs mercantilist measures to tip the scales to its advantage; it is also a geopolitical rival that uses commercial relations for its strategic advantage.
China's massive bilateral trade surplus with the United States and Beijing's accumulation of dollar-denominated assets are thus worrisome for reasons that transcend economics. In recent years, Chinese analysts and officials have suggested that if Washington defied Beijing's wishes on various issues, including arms sales to Taiwan and presidential visits with the Dalai Lama, China might begin selling off those assets, driving up U.S. interest rates and slowing U.S. growth. The fact that such an action would probably do at least as much damage to the Chinese economy does not guarantee that in the heat of a crisis, Beijing would never attempt it. There is also no assurance that U.S. policymakers won't be swayed by Chinese threats, backing down when they should remain firm. The bottom line is simple: if Washington wants to retain the greatest possible freedom of action, it cannot stay so deeply indebted to its main geopolitical rival.
A revaluation of the yuan would help narrow the U.S.-Chinese trade gap, although by how much is a matter of debate among economists. What seems certain, based on past experience, is that China will make meaningful adjustments only in the face of significant external pressure. In 2005, Beijing permitted an appreciation of its currency after John Snow, who was then U.S. treasury secretary, warned that he would issue a report to Congress accusing China of currency manipulation. Five years later, the Chinese authorities again allowed the yuan's value to creep upward, this time shortly before a G-20 summit at which other nations were preparing to criticize the country's exchange-rate policy.
Although the overall trade balance with China is a cause for concern, the high-tech sector deserves U.S. policymakers' particular attention. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has wrestled with the question of whether it should maintain export controls on technologies that potential enemies could use to develop sophisticated weapons of their own. Because of the global diffusion of technological expertise, some in the business and scientific communities believe that such controls are at best useless and at worst harmful to U.S. competitiveness. Even skeptics acknowledge, however, that the United States has advantages in areas such as stealth and encryption technologies that it can, and should, still protect through unilateral export controls. Worries about China's growing power could also breathe new life into multilateral control mechanisms. Because other advanced nations in both Europe and Asia fear feeding China's military or enhancing the competitiveness of its aerospace and telecommunications industries, they might now be more willing to cooperate in restricting exports of certain dual-use technologies to China.
At best, export controls can address only one piece of a much larger problem. China has a variety of means to gain access to sensitive technologies. Its scientific and industrial espionage is extensive. The country uses both time-honored techniques, involving simple bribery and theft, and newer, often more effective cyber-methods. And in addition to slipping past firewalls, China now has the option of simply walking in through the front door by buying into foreign companies or selling them products that could give China access to technology and information. A Chinese firm that sold next-generation telephone switching equipment to U.S. service providers could let China's intelligence services listen in on sensitive U.S. communications. Similarly, Chinese-owned firms could sabotage or modify microchips that end up in computers, communications systems, or even weaponry. The United States and its advanced industrial allies need to more closely monitor the high-tech supply chain and to regulate investment in their economies by Chinese firms, some of which have ties to Beijing and the People's Liberation Army.
STAND YOUR GROUND
The primary objection to recalibrating U.S. policy along the lines suggested here is that it would create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening the hand of Beijing's so-called hard-liners while undercutting its reform-minded liberals. The notion that there are good guys among those contending for power in China and that a nonconfrontational approach would favor them has intuitive appeal. At this point, however, the opposite is at least equally plausible. If Washington reverts to a softer stance, Beijing's hard-liners could try to take the credit. They might argue that the change was a direct result of their tough policies, including the sustained military buildup they have long championed.
It would be dangerous for American policymakers to try to shape an intraparty competition that they do not fully understand. This does not mean that China's political evolution is a matter of indifference; far from it. But any outside power's influence over the outcome will be indirect and long term. Democratic countries should continue to support the growth of civil society in China, promote the freest possible flow of ideas into and inside China, and speak out in defense of those who take risks for real reform.
At least for the moment, the trend lines in Asia are moving in unfavorable directions. Four years after the global financial meltdown, the United States is still mired in recession and hobbled by political deadlock. China's economy, too, shows signs of slowing, but the country continues to grow richer and stronger while the CCP remains in power. In the not-too-distant future, however, the situation is likely to reverse. The United States and the other advanced industrial democracies will bounce back from their present difficulties. A CCP-led China might not. China will have to cope with the combined effects of unchecked corruption, a rapidly aging population, and an investment-driven economic model that most experts believe to be unsustainable. China's ability to engage in a strategic rivalry is likely to diminish, even as the ability of the United States and its allies increases. The challenge facing U.S. policymakers is how best to navigate the intervening period of uncertainty and constraint.
China's recent behavior may prove helpful in this regard. Beijing's truculence has caused deep anxiety among many of China's neighbors, making them more inclined than ever to work together to balance the Asian giant. For this reason, other governments in the region have generally welcomed the more muscular rhetoric that has been emanating from Washington in recent months. But they remain uncertain whether the United States will have the resources and the resolve to back up its brave words. Whoever is elected president in November will have to take steps to dispel these doubts. Developing and funding a credible strategy for countering China's buildup and adopting a tougher approach to economic engagement will both be important. So, too, will be continuing to stand firm on issues of principle. As it engages and balances Beijing, the United States must do what it can to encourage what George Kennan might have termed the "gradual mellowing" of Chinese power.