By Mike Green, Senior Adviser and Japan Chair, CSIS
Sam Roggeveen’s surprise at Nick Burns’ statement that there is a consensus in Washington that: (1) China is a potential threat; and (2) the United States must continue to engage China constructively is….well…surprising. Sam is only the most recent observer Down Under to express skepticism that the United States or our allies can walk and chew gum at the same time when dealing with Beijing. Hugh White probably sparked the whole debate with his prediction that Asia’s security and economic architectures will inevitably diverge, but he is clearly not alone there. It is as though our friends in the Australian strategic community are more bound by realist international relations theories than the we are in the States. If nothing else, it proves the need for a serious strategic dialogue between American and Australian policymakers and scholars. General Monash and Coral Sea aside, we still do not completely understand each other’s strategic outlooks.
Nick Burns’ observations in Sydney are basically on target. The range of views among American China hands has narrowed considerably this past year. There is still debate about the right mix of engagement and hedging, but much less about what is happening in Beijing. The shorthand version is as Nick described it: China’s emerging leadership is more nationalistic and less tolerant of domestic dissent at home or pretentious former tributary states abroad. The PLA serves under the direction of the Central Military Commission, but only the Chair and Vice Chair are civilian party leaders (currently Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping). Beyond that the PLA and the other security and intelligence services have fairly broad operational latitutude to safeguard China’s “interests,” which are increasingly defined in expansive terms with respect to “the Near Sea,” or what the rest of us consider the “Second Island Chain.”
While there is some hope that Xi Jinping will be more subtle on maritime issues because of his experience in Fujian Province, there is little expectation that current doctrine or practices will ease, or that the internal pressures to protect Chinese interests will abate. I heard an even more granular version of this thesis on a recent trip to Beijing, where long-time foreign residents described the domestic situation as the worst since Tienanmen. As one thirty year veteran of business and journalism in China put it to me, “the Deng era is ending and we don’t know what comes next, but this place is on the boil.”
It should be reassuring for friends and allies in Asia that mainstream Republican and Democratic foreign policy thinkers in Washington are concluding from this that we need to shape Chinese behavior through strong alliances, free trade and forward presence. Containment is not an option, and conflict is hardly inevitable. But ceding to Beijing’s vision of an alternate future for the region would only invite more assertive and destabilizing behavior. We should never assume that we are the demanders in this relationship. The region depends on China increasingly for economic growth, but the patterns of trade and finance are trans-Pacific and global, and Beijing faces numerous challenges to its sustained economic development that only the outside world can help them solve (including the need for natural resources, which is why China ultimately needs Australia far more than Australia needs China).
The United States began the engagement strategy with China in 1972, and then added the Joe Nye corollary of balancing with revitalized alliances in 1995 (Nye was assistant secretary of defense, and began with the U.S.-Japan alliance). Getting the right mix between engaging and balancing is not always easy. President Obama’s November 2009 Joint Statement promising to respect mutual “core interests” with China was a bad move that encouraged Beijing to think the United States was prepared to move towards a bipolar condominium. The joint statement negotiated by Kurt Campbell for Hu Jintao’s visit in January 2011 walked that back, and the Chinese side agreed because Hu needed a successful visit more than Obama did. Now the Pentagon is beginning negotiations with the PLA on the “principles” of U.S.-China strategic interaction; a perilous endeavor, but probably one we need to try.
If the United States and our allies are in sync on this strategy, we will have a much better chance of seeing China emerge as a productive actor in Asia. But we’ll need to agree on a few key principles:
- Avoid the false choice between engagement and balancing…we have to do both.
- Recognize that we have a stake in China’s success, but should not compromise with respect to our expectations of Chinese behavior.
- Disabuse Beijing of the notion that trade patterns will cause U.S. allies to fall into line with Chinese foreign policy goals.
- Remind Beijing that threatening behavior will cause neighboring states to align more closely with each other and with the United States.
- State unequivocally that the future of Asia should be an open community bound by universal norms of behavior with respect to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.