Should the U.S. Change its China Policy and How?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The past several months have seen a growing chorus of calls for the U.S. to take stock of its policy toward China. Some prominent voices have called for greater efforts by the U.S. and China to forge “a substantive sense of common purpose,” while others reject the notion that the U.S. and China can ever coexist without conflict and believe America needs to contain China. Still others argue that the basic assumptions of our current diplomacy toward China should not change despite escalating friction. This renewed attention, to what for a long time has been deemed the world’s most important bilateral relationship, takes place against the backdrop of rising tension between the countries in the South China Sea, and newly hostile rhetoric from China about the dangers of “the West.”—The Editors


Until now the assumption underlying America’s policy towards China has been that nothing fundamental need ever change. Since 1972 the basic pattern of the U.S.-China relationship, and the foundation of the wider Asian strategic order, has been China’s acceptance of American strategic and political primacy in the Western Pacific. Most U.S. policymakers and analysts have believed that this could and would continue indefinitely because China didn’t have the power, the will, or the motive to contest U.S. primacy.

For a long time China encouraged this assumption—that’s what “bide and hide” was all about. But China has abandoned “bide and hide” and now overtly challenges the post-1972 order. It wants “a new model of great power relations,” and believes it now has the power to get it.

So how should America respond? It has only three basic options: to contest China’s challenge and try to preserve its primacy in Asia, to accommodate China to some degree, or to withdraw from any substantial strategic role in Asia. America’s instinct, of course, is to take the first course. This is what the Pivot aimed to do in a half-hearted way, hoping that a merely symbolic show of resolve would suffice to make China back off.

Alas everything China has done since then has proved the opposite, so if America wants to perpetuate the old order it will have to accept a very serious contest with China indeed, and this is what some people now advocate. But while America remains very strong, China is more formidable in many ways than any previous adversary, and its strength will most likely grow faster than America’s over coming decades. The costs and risks of escalating rivalry could be very high indeed, and Americans cannot assume that China is any less determined to change the regional order than America is to preserve it. It is time to ask whether preserving primacy in Asia is worth the price.

That means it is time for America to consider an accommodation with China, as several influential voices are now urging. This would not be easy. America would need to treat China as a full equal for any deal to stand a chance, and Americans have never treated any country as an equal before. But America has never dealt with a country as powerful as China before, either. And America would still need to back any deal with its power. Ultimately, China could only be held to an agreement over a new regional order that America is willing to go to war with it to enforce.

Otherwise, America will find itself facing the third alternative—withdrawal from Asia. No one should imagine that this is not a real possibility in future, just because it has been wrongly predicted in the past. If America is going to stay in Asia, it must treat China as an equal, or confront it as a rival.

China’s leaders have closely studied the rise of great powers. CCTV aired a series on the subject in 2006, focusing on the United States, Russia (Soviet Union), France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Each of these was a colonial power. (The United States colonized the Philippines, among other territories.) Each used its might to expand its sphere of influence without waiting for permission or international approval.

Some succeeded better, and longer, than others. Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which promised to free fellow East Asian nations from Western domination, certainly didn’t go as planned.

And China’s gamble in the South China Sea may not, either. It doesn’t bode well for China that neighbors who happily had been sharing the fruits of China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” a decade ago, such as the Philippines, now are comparing China and its aggression in the South China Sea to Hitler’s Germany.

Of course, laying claim to a largely unpopulated expanse of water is materially different from the human cost that came with Germany’s and Japan’s occupation of entire nations in the 1930s. But China’s increasingly aggressive defense of its claims in the South China Sea, including building artificial islands that could be used as military bases, has alarmed and angered neighbors with conflicting territorial claims, and made others in the region wonder what costs they’ll eventually be made to bear in service of Xi Jinping’s vision of the “China Dream.”

Xi’s calculation over the past couple of years seems to have been that China is now powerful enough, its economy big enough, its neighbors dependent enough, and U.S. military resolve uncertain enough, that this is the time to act. China’s leaders may also fear they have a finite window of time in which to act, given the slowing economy, aging population, and other significant challenges at home.

And so, China has pushed its claims in multiple territorial disputes, for reasons both practical and symbolic. In the South China Sea, it’s not just about control of strategically important sea lanes, and access to oil and natural gas reserves and fish. It’s also about challenging a global order that has proved too constraining for China’s aspirations. China’s leaders aim to change the rules of the game—perhaps even the game itself.

Chinese leaders like to talk about “win-win” opportunities, but when it comes to challenging the United States in what they see as China’s backyard, it’s closer to a zero-sum game. Each time that China has pushed in the South China Sea, and the United States hasn’t pushed back, Beijing has scored it as a point in China’s favor, a loss of U.S. face and credibility.

Now that the U.S. is pushing back, Chinese pragmatism may yet prevail. The China-U.S. relationship is, after all, about much more than the South China Sea. The two countries are economically interdependent and share common interests best served by working together. Beyond that, it’s one thing to play brinkmanship, it’s another to go to battle against a superior military power.

Perhaps, as Susan Shirk discussed with her Chinese colleagues at the Shangri-La Dialogue, China could agree not to put missiles and other weapons on its new man-made islands, to ease off on challenging foreign vessels that pass nearby. Or perhaps, as Andrew Erickson predicts, China will continue to deploy its Coast Guard and Maritime militia to enforce its claims in the South China Sea, banking on the reluctance of U.S. forces to attack non-military personnel.

However they maneuver at sea, China’s leaders have a challenge of their own making to navigate at home—controlling a constituency of vocal young nationalists they helped create through a couple of decades of “Patriotic Education” indoctrination. Some of these young nationalists see China’s push in the South China Sea as part of China reclaiming its rightful place, its historic place, as the region’s preeminent power, preferably on its way to global domination. They would be disappointed, even angered, if their government pulled its punches now. As the Chinese saying goes, when you ride a tiger, it’s hard to get off.

Relations between China and the United States are not going well. Across the Pacific, there is little disagreement about that. When one goes one step further, what exactly could have been better? Which side should take the step that is sufficient to prevent the seemingly downward spiral? Agreement is hard to come by.

In my view, a good many Chinese observers, including some officials and diplomats, risk failing to fathom the depth of disquiet among American elites about the direction China as a civilization is going. Many Americans are asking: if China’s pursuit of further economic growth and a higher international profile is premised upon rejecting Western values, does America conducting business as usual with China amount to aiding an enemy?

I have been asked by a good number of American colleagues—those who do not often publish opinion pieces in mainstream newspapers—about Document No. 9 and the ‘no Western values in class’ academic policies. Such questioning caught me by surprise. The fact of the matter is that, as a full-time professor employed by a public university, I have never been shown a copy of that allegedly comprehensive rejection of Western values, nor been given specific instructions about my teaching and my interaction with students. More and more Mandarin-speaking international students (Americans among them) take Political Science or International Studies courses together with Chinese students. As a group, they are the proper source of information about the much-feared ideological/cultural campaign.

A sorrowful situation has emerged. Across America, the belief about an ideologically anti-Western China is spreading. Yet from China, general answers to the question “what does China want?” are either evasive or given in a way that often is incomprehensible to American audiences.

For their part, Americans seem obsessed with “naming and shaming” China. I observe that more and more Chinese elites are beginning to ask why is it that Americans endlessly accuse Chinese of wrongdoing? On issues ranging from intellectual property protection to anti-monopoly law enforcement, if the Chinese society is as full of theft and purposeful discrimination against American investors, what explains the vast number of multinational corporations still operating in China, especially when a sustained rise in factory workers’ wages has eroded the Chinese market’s attractiveness relative to many of its competitors.

The time has come for Chinese and Americans to debate seriously the potential consequences of failing to address unspoken yet powerful questions about each other. At the end of the day, critical, even brutal, self-examination will carry each society forward by a large margin. The current state of affairs needs must be treated as a wake-up call for self-reflection in both societies.

For decades, many good academics, lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, NGO workers, even—gasp—politicians and businessmen, have worked to create a peaceful, win-win course with China. These do-gooders are the best that money can’t buy.

Unfortunately, China’s current domestic clampdown and ideological rigidity are damaging both to China and the rest of the world and are showing us all what money can buy: influence and intimidation. What China is doing in the South China Sea today is acting like a corporation, not a country.

Corporations elevate their own unbridled self-interest above the interest of others, making them prone to prey upon and exploit individuals, the environment, shareholders, and countries without regard for legal rules or moral limits. In a world where corporations eventually own everything, who will stand up for the public good?

In my documentary feature on U.S.-China relations, James McGregor says he looks at "the Chinese Communist Party today as kind of a combination of General Electric and a secret society.” The leadership in Beijing indeed appears to be acting like a secret society when telling the world—in the leaked Document No. 9 and the published draft law to govern NGOs—that no one will be allowed to engage China unless their sole aims are making money and enriching the Chinese state. (The Chinese people themselves have little to do with the Chinese state except when they are making the Chinese Communist Party rich).

It’s time to change our frame of reference, shifting away from the narrative of an ideologically-driven power struggle between the U.S. and China. The level of spin and propaganda in that debate is too high for any country to win, even if the U.S. or China draws support from regional players seeking economic and/or military security.

We need a narrative that recognizes the global impact of corporate power on all aspects of U.S. foreign policy related to America’s relationship with China: economic growth and jobs, climate change, non-proliferation, human trafficking, the war on drugs, pandemics, product safety, and human rights. It’s critical to understand the balance of power across all sectors and how business prevails on policy.

There was a moment when the advance of business interests over domestic and foreign policy interests was hailed as a new panacea. But now we need a comprehensive study of what this shift has really done to the world and what it means going forward.

The leaders in Beijing are laughing at us fools overseas who believed the decades of talk about the power of people-to-people exchanges and banding together to speak up about the problems in our world which need solving in a shared legal framework. But that is exactly what Americans must speak up about and take the lead on with international support. Fortunately, the White House has endorsed the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Declaration on Maritime Security, which reaffirms our commitment “to maintaining a rules-based order in the maritime domain based on the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

In addition, American citizens and lawmakers should build an international coalition to challenge the morality of profits obtained from collaboration with China’s increasingly repressive regime. Many argue that the costs of doing business with China already outweigh the benefits on purely economic grounds.

Global people power requires raising awareness of the truth about China’s profit-driven and politically repressive domestic and foreign policy and holding corporate and, in this case, government power accountable to the public interest.

It’s sad to see the China-U.S. relationship hijacked lately by excessive attention on the South China Sea and cyber security issues. The positive, interdependent and win-win side of the relationship actually dominates the picture if we look at the growing number of Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. and Chinese students studying in the U.S., as well as at growing bilateral trade and investment.

I agree with scholars such as Hugh White who argue that the U.S. should accommodate China and leave space for a rising China. That includes sharing power and letting China take the lead on certain issues. Yet on the South China Sea issue, the U.S. has acted in a way that reinforces the Chinese thinking that the U.S. seeks to curtail China’s growing influence in the region, as reflected in the U.S. rebalancing strategy, the Trans Pacific Partnership and its bid to block the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Freedom of navigation has been cited by the U.S. as a major concern in the South China Sea. China, now the world’s largest trading nation, needs that same freedom of navigation, in its own neighborhood, no less. Does it make any sense to assume that China wants conflict and confrontation when it has enough domestic headaches? A peaceful external environment serves China’s goals best. It’s absurd for some to argue that China needs such external distraction to divert attention from thorny domestic issues. Will the U.S. give China an opportunity to show that it has the wisdom to sort out the South China Sea issues peacefully with its neighbors?

There is a gap here. The U.S. wants the status quo that would keep its global hegemony intact. China wants a change to—not subversion of—the international system, a change to better reflect the reality. The U.S. blockade of the International Monetary Fund reform reflects a mentality that shows that the U.S. is not willing or ready to adapt to the new reality.

There is no silver bullet to solve the problems of this complex bilateral relationship. That is why the U.S. visit starting June 8 by Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Fan Changlong, and, later in June, the sessions of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the CPE (High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange), followed by the planned September visit by President Xi Jinping are so important. They all are high-level talks on expanding cooperation and effectively managing differences.

The leaders of the two nations clearly could and should do more to show their leadership in the relationship by frequently sending a more positive and cooperative tone to their bureaucrats and their people, instead of pointing fingers at the other side using so-called megaphone diplomacy. That would prevent inflammatory remarks and behavior by their subordinates. In this regard, Xi has done somewhat better than Obama.

Obama has no burden of running for re-election when he meets Xi in September. That meeting should produce more excitement than the meetings at Sunnylands, in California, in June 2013, and in Beijing in November 2014. It will still be tough, but that is exactly what we expect from great leaders of wisdom and courage.

Three years ago, when the scholars Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal published a joint study of mutual distrust between the United States and China, they identified a frustrating reality faced by those working toward stable U.S.–China relations. Despite good faith efforts, many American and Chinese thinkers and negotiators were having a very hard time trusting one another. Three years later, it’s not just distrust but a new kind of fatalism that is surging in both countries—a Cold War–inspired notion that different interests and political systems inevitably will lead to rivalry and armed confrontation. Clearly change is necessary.

Some recent U.S. policy has been tactically clever. On several issues, the Obama administration has reached into the legal toolbox to put pressure on China—for instance through indictments of accused PLA hackers, arrests of commercial spies, and support for the Philippine arbitration case brought against China under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. These efforts can be dialed up or down: Sanctions could be levied, for instance, and freedom of navigation operations could be intensified or dropped. Meanwhile, notwithstanding modest investments as part of the “rebalance,” the U.S. government has avoided a more confrontational military build-up. These legal approaches, however, may never bear fruit in stopping objectionable moves online and in the South China Sea.

Engagement also has been relatively strong. Summits between the two presidents have galvanized their nations’ bureaucracies to reach agreements that might otherwise have languished. If negotiations toward a bilateral investment treaty go well, the benefits for both economies and bilateral ties could be great. The Obama-Xi agreement to push for real action at this year’s Paris climate summit also could pay off. But these affirmative efforts also could fail.

None of this has prevented the rise of a new fatalism. To turn that tide, the primary challenge for U.S. policy toward China is to develop a government-wide strategy and enforce discipline across the diplomatic, military, economic, and other areas of engagement. This means developing a coherent plan to advocate for U.S. interests affected by either disagreement or cooperation with China, and a move away from a reactive, “Whack-a-Mole” approach to strategic challenges. Developing such a strategy and making parts of it public could increase confidence on both sides of the relationship and undermine fatalism by helping ensure that the United States will push its interests without letting slip the dogs of war—even the dogs of cold war.

The foundation of this kind of thinking is a realistic assessment of the limits to the considerable power the United States possesses. Strategists should take David M. Lampton’s advice and abandon the pursuit of “primacy” in favor of discussing realistic objectives with an understanding that the U.S. government can’t always get what it wants. They should follow Michael Swaine in seeking a pragmatic balance in the South China Sea. Efforts to counter Chinese initiatives should be based on interests, not suspicions. Pushing for a reckoning on cybersecurity, for example, makes sense; opposing China’s efforts to play an international role (see the AIIB) does not. At root, the U.S. government must pick its battles and work in a coordinated fashion based on a sober assessment of U.S. interests and capabilities.