As the United States enters a presidential election campaign and prepares for the first state visit of a new Chinese leader, the U.S.-China relationship is at an important inflection point. Nearly four decades after the normalization of relations between our two countries, new realities in China, the United States, and the international community are changing the way Americans and Chinese view their bilateral relationship and forcing a re-examination of the principles that underpin our policies.
The global arena has changed dramatically in recent years. Today there are few challenges that the United States or China could solve alone and few scenarios in which one country could succeed without the success of the other. Whereas only a decade ago our relations were focused primarily on bilateral or even regional issues, today our agenda is global. Each country’s ability to achieve its national objectives is threatened by the same set of international challenges. Our future prosperity and security is increasingly intertwined. The stakes for a cooperative and constructive U.S.-China relationship have never been higher.
At the same time, there are new realities that pull us apart. China is now the world’s second largest economy and has accumulated significant influence on the global stage. Its new leader, President Xi Jinping, has charisma and confidence that have contributed to his ability to consolidate more power and reorient the country in a more ambitious direction than either of China’s previous two leaders were able to during their tenures. But Xi is also more nationalistic, risk-tolerant, and ideological than his predecessors, and his more active and muscular approach to foreign affairs can at times be at odds with U.S. interests and reinforces the notion that what China decides to do with its newfound power may not always align with our national objectives.
In the Asia-Pacific, for example, Xi is pursuing a dual-track strategy that on the one hand employs the ace in China’s deck—economic might—to convince neighbors that China’s continued rise will benefit them, and on the other hand involves a much more aggressive approach to strengthen China’s claims to disputed territorial and maritime features in adjacent waters, often through coercion and without due regard for international law. Both tracks are hugely ambitious—Xi’s One Belt One Road project, for example, aims to connect China to Europe by land routes traversing Russia and the Middle East and sea routes navigating through the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden. Xi’s land reclamation in the South China Sea, meanwhile, has recovered over 2,000 acres in just the last 18 months— more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region.
This more active foreign policy represents a major departure from the foreign policy principle of taoguangyanghui that dictated that China should keep a low profile on the international stage and focus on its development efforts at home. Potentially more troubling, however, are the rising frictions in the U.S.-China commercial relationship, exacerbated by accusations of cyber hacking, China’s use of industrial policy, and a slowing Chinese economy. The U.S. business community has historically been an anchor of stability between the two countries, especially during inevitable periods of tension. Yet, growing concerns about protectionist tendencies that seem intended to close the door to foreign companies under the pretext of national security threaten to undermine the support of these reliable stakeholders. Civil society and human rights groups are also concerned with developments in China calling for a ban on Western textbooks, a crackdown on NGOs, and the silencing of dissidents.
Thus, as China has emerged as a formidable economic and geopolitical U.S. competitor, its differences with the United States have become more (not less) pronounced. What many Chinese are now calling China’s renaissance—the nation’s revival at home and abroad—while welcomed by the United States, is different than what many in the West expected. Americans who traditionally believed China’s success was good for the United States are now beginning to question this assumption, and in these doubts, a debate has emerged over whether or not Washington has the right framework to respond to a rising China.
Contours of the U.S. Policy Debate on China
At the core of the U.S. debate are questions about the strategic intentions of a rising China, the long-term sustainability of U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific, and the roles of both nations in the region going forward. One side of the extreme argues that growing Chinese power is undermining U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific. Without reassurances of sustained U.S. predominance, countries on China’s borders will reorient their defense postures in ways that could lead to an intensified regional arms race and an environment where conflict is more likely. This argument supposes that China’s ultimate aims are not limited to pushing the United States out of Asia, but also include undermining the U.S.-led international system and U.S. global leadership. Thus, the United States should move assertively to block China’s rise.
On the other side of the extreme are those who argue that Beijing’s aims are limited to strengthening its security and enhancing its regional influence, which the United States and its allies should not necessarily see as a threat. Washington should come to terms with the reality that U.S. predominance in the region is unsustainable given China’s growing economic clout and military modernization, and attempting to preserve it would be dangerous and ultimately unsuccessful. In order to avoid conflict, this contingent argues that Washington should share power with China and further assist its integration into the current international order.
Both extremes are flawed and dangerous policy choices. If the United States moves toward a balance of power with China, it will be based on a premature assumption that China’s continued rise to regional predominance is inevitable. China confronts enormous political, economic, and social challenges at home and faces several major powers and nuclear states in the region, not to mention a U.S. military that for the foreseeable future is expected to endure as the strongest in the world. Furthermore, it is not in the interests of the United States or those of its allies to have a G2 with China.
On the other hand, a zero-sum U.S.-China relationship, a divided Asia, and a greater likelihood of military conflicts would be much to the detriment of U.S. interests and those of our allies. A containment policy could lead China to close its doors to cooperation and engagement with the United States. The interests of the U.S. business community, which, despite recent concerns, wants to maintain strong trade ties with China and access to its markets and investment, would be threatened. Additionally, growing Chinese investment in the United States, which is already contributing significantly to U.S. economic growth and job creation, would also be threatened.
A move by the United States to a more confrontational approach with China also ignores the fact that U.S. allies and partners, all now larger trading partners with China than with the United States, are not looking to choose sides between the United States and China. They want good relations with both. While on one hand they hope the United States can serve as a useful counterbalance to China’s growing influence, on the other hand, they want to benefit from increasing trade and investment with China.
Also at risk would be the interests of nearly every other nation with a stake in trying to address our common global challenges from climate change to transnational terrorism. And a policy of blocking China’s rise would further confirm the widespread view in China that the United States is determined to contain it and lend credence to hardliners who want to take an even less accommodating approach toward the United States. Revisions to U.S. policy toward China must account for Beijing’s likely reactions and the second- and third-order consequences.
How to Advance Relations Given New Realities
The success of Washington’s engagement with China starts with an understanding of these new global realities shaping our relations. Rather than moving toward extreme policy courses in the face of these new challenges, the U.S. strategy for advancing bilateral relations with China should begin with a comprehensive approach to the Asia-Pacific region, be founded on strong American domestic fundamentals, and be guided by U.S. leadership globally. The United States needs to get its approach to the region right, get its economy and political system working again, and project leadership and staying power on the regional and international stages. Only then will it be able to lead a much more deliberate effort to work with China where it has common interests, to pursue a more effective strategy to shape Chinese decisionmaking, and to invest adequately in current and future military capabilities.
The U.S. ability to uphold regional rules and norms in the Asia-Pacific, strengthen institutions, lead the building and modernizing of trade and economic architectures, and modernize its strong alliance system is critical to a secure and peaceful region and constructive relations with China. Although a majority of Americans view Asia as the most important region to U.S. interests, many question U.S. political will, staying power, and resources to implement its rebalancing policy in the region. The United States needs to get its economy growing again, get its political system out of gridlock, and keep its military funded and capable of meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century. U.S. national security, global credibility, and regional leadership rest on the foundation of its fiscal and economic health and the effectiveness of its policymakers and legislators.
When it comes to China, the United States should keep in mind several key principles that have guided our mix of competition and cooperation over the past four decades: where the United States and China have common interests, the United States must find ways to work with China; where the two countries have differences, leaders need to manage and narrow them; and given the uncertainties of China’s trajectory, the United States must maintain a hedging strategy and ensure its military is prepared and capable of defending U.S. interests today and in the future. Recently, the United States has struggled with all three major components of its China policy. It has fallen short in its efforts to expand meaningful cooperation with China on addressing shared regional and global challenges. Washington and Beijing have been unable to effectively manage their differences—tensions in the South China Sea and the cyber realm have come to define the bilateral relationship and set it on a path toward confrontation. With few positive narratives or examples of tangible cooperation between our two countries, the military hedging strategies threaten to dominate our front-page news.
As then deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick stressed in an important speech in 2005, a more cooperative relationship with a China that is a major stakeholder on global security and economic issues will not only make it easier for the United States to handle the wide range of global challenges we face in the years ahead, but is also essential to sustaining the existing, open international system. While cooperation will not mean we will not have serious differences and disagreements that we will need to manage, it will provide a broader framework for constructive engagement. If we can find ways to enhance our cooperation with China and change the narrative of our relationship among our publics by demonstrating that the United States and China can be a positive force in the international community, then this will give us space to deal with some of the more challenging issues in our relationship.
Conclusion: The View From a Wider Lens
While there are challenges in the U.S.-China relationship, Washington cannot lose sight of the fact that this is an important relationship—perhaps the most consequential one for the United States in this century. Whether or not Washington gets this relationship right will determine whether or not the United States is able to take advantage of the Asia-Pacific region’s growth and make progress on addressing critical global challenges in ways that yield benefits to the citizens of both countries, our neighbors, and the world. The U.S.-China relationship has been and will continue to be composed of both cooperation and competition, but because of the new global realities of our relationship, we must do a better job of balancing these two dimensions. If successful, our constructive cooperation will benefit not just our two countries but the entire international community.
A version of this article was originally published in Chinese by China Policy Review.