The next decade is likely to be the decisive period determining the future course of U.S.-China relations. Unless China and the United States can find ways to block the current drift toward strategic rivalry, tensions will rise. This will make it more difficult to preserve the climate of peace and prosperity that has fostered China’s rise and made East Asia such a dramatic success story. Moreover, if China's economy continues to surge ahead while the United States remains mired in the struggle to bring its burgeoning budget deficit under control, the PRC could emerge from this coming decade with the largest GDP in the world. This will have both psychological and strategic significance and could roil the waters of the bilateral relationship.
Recent US attention to East Asia, and particularly to Southeast Asia, is part of a coherent U.S. policy approach in East Asia that seeks not to contain China but to restore confidence in the region that the United States, despite its budget difficulties, is truly committed to maintaining a robust US presence in both Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, this flurry of US activity is causing many Chinese to see the United States as challenging China in its own backyard. In reality, the situation is more complex.
China's more assertive behavior following the 2008 financial crisis increased the desire of Beijing's neighbors for the United States to remain engaged to play a balancing role. However, these same countries worry that the United States may go too far in provoking China by trumpeting U.S. determination to pivot back into East Asia. In addition, America's closest friends and allies in the region share the concern that the United States may become distracted by its domestic difficulties and lack the staying power to remain fully engaged in East Asia.
Such considerations underscore the fact that the credibility of US policy in East Asia rests to a significant degree on effective management of the US-China relationship. East Asians want the United States sufficiently engaged to deter China from using its growing military capabilities in inappropriate ways. At the same time, they do not want the United States to rely excessively on the military component of its regional presence or to behave in ways that make China a more dangerous neighbor and increase pressures on them to choose between China and the United States.
Both China and the United States have defined a framework for the relationship that, in principle, should make these challenges manageable. In the two US-China Joint Statements issued in November 2009 and January 2011, the United States welcomed a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs. Similarly, China welcomed the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region. In terms of declared policy, therefore, the United States is not trying to hold China down, and China is not trying to drive the United States out of the western Pacific.
The question for both parties is whether they can adhere to these positions over time as China grows stronger and more influential. Beijing sees itself as again becoming the central player in East Asia, while the United States has long been a Pacific power with formal alliances and strategic ties throughout the region. Both Washington and Beijing consider good bilateral relations of vital importance, but their growing strategic rivalry has the potential to evolve into mutual antagonism.
In particular, the Taiwan issue remains a highly sensitive factor in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. Unfortunately, this issue is presented domestically in China in a manner that undermines mutual confidence and distorts the nature of the U.S. approach. Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing in 1979, U.S. policy on Taiwan has sought to minimize incentives for a military resolution by continuing the sale of defensive arms to Taiwan and to maximize incentives for a peaceful solution by holding firmly to a “one China” approach and by consistently supporting every positive development in cross-Strait relations. Developments over the last twelve years have shown clearly that this approach provided an important underpinning for the major improvements in cross-Strait ties that have taken place.
Moreover, China and the United States will not be able to lessen strategic mistrust unless and until they are prepared to address a central question: is there an array of military deployments and normal operations that will permit China better to defend its core interests while allowing America to continue fully to meet its defense commitments in the region? Neither country has yet shown any inclination to begin exploring whether such an accommodation is possible. And yet this is what needs to be done if we wish to avoid seeing history repeat itself, to the detriment of both countries.
Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy is Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. He retired from the Foreign Service in January 2001 after a career spanning 45 years with the U.S. Department of State.