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The Need for a Consistent, Balanced US-China Policy

Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor at US Naval War College
September 28, 2013
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Watching US-China relations can cause whiplash. When the Cold War ended in 1991, China quickly seemed to win the audition for the next “near peer competitor” of the United States. After all, Russia was suddenly a democracy, of some sort.  And, retrospectively, while there were a multitude of Islamic authoritarian countries that should have been of more immediate concern, China was the only big, communist country.  The latter was particularly important to a few especially principled and very vocal Members of Congress. Problematically, however, other countries kept exploding or imploding, often getting in the way of focused, balanced and consequently credible, US-China policy.  US attention goes elsewhere for a while and then returns to China, shocked at Chinese actions and inactions “while we were away”, and then tries to overcompensate. This approach does not serve the US well. 

Joan Johnson-Freese

Joan Johnson-Freese

Designating China as the US’ next near peer competitor (read as a polite euphemism for “enemy” in China) provides the Pentagon a rationale for big platform defense acquisitions. Beyond the military realm though, that designation proved complicated even in the immediate Post-Cold War world. China was becoming increasingly capitalist. American companies from MacDonald’s to Motorola to Boeing were anxious to gain access to Chinese labor and entry into the Chinese markets.  Not everybody thought of China as a competitor. 

Globalization was quickly filling the void left by the Cold War, as the next big era of international relations. Markets became as important as missiles in this interconnected world. Even Hollywood has had to settle for North Korea as “the enemy” in movies, as a substantial portion of its overseas audience is in China.

Domestically, it has become a staple of US politics for presidential candidates to criticize China. 

Candidate Bill Clinton accused incumbent George H.W. Bush of coddling those Clinton called the "butchers of Beijing." He said the Bush administration had “failed to stand up for our values. Instead he sent secret emissaries to China signaling that we would do business as usual with those who murdered freedom in Tiananmen Square." 

President Clinton, however, talked of engagement with China, and was consequently accused in highly vitriolic tones of “selling out” to the Chinese by right-wing hardliners.   So it came as little surprise that candidate George W. Bush said in a CNN debate prior to the 2000 election that he would change America's policy toward China.  "The current president has called the relationship with China a strategic partnership, I believe our relationship has to be redefined as one of competitor," Bush said. 

And China being China – its international political savvy sometimes that of a petulant adolescent – only exacerbated the Bush Administration’s view of it as a repressive regime domestically and aggressive internationally.  The 2001 Hainan Island Incident alone, involving a US Navy EP-3 and a Chinese fighter jet, when 24 US crewmembers were detained and interrogated by the Chinese for 10 days, fueled hardline fires in Washington. Those fires had been burning since the 1999 US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, alleging theft of nuclear secrets from the US Los Alamos Laboratory and acquisition of US missile technology assistance from US aerospace companies.

And then 9/11 happened. 

With that, US attention swerved to the Islamic world like a turret on a tank. China was left to roam the world unimpeded for a decade, securing resources, making friends and conducting a charm campaign resulting in China’s favorable global perception increasing, while the favorable global perception of the United States was decreasing.   Though domestically China regularly played Wack-a-Mole with internet access, claims of human rights violations continued, and aggression and even armed clashes still occurred in the South China Sea, US attention was largely elsewhere.  And while at the turn of the millennium China owned less than $60 billion of US debt that would increase to over $1 trillion by 2010. 

Ironically, however, realist China understood and respected realist Bush. Though much of the rest of the world welcomed the Obama Administration, China did not understand Obama and was unsure of his power in Washington.   Further, when Obama entered office, the US was still deeply struggling with the 2008 economic crash, whereas China had fared relatively well. Realistically, the US was perceived as militarily exhausted and economically weakened. 

The Obama Administration entered office prepared to reach out to China. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change conference that it was time to explore “a new type of great power relationship” with China.   The president had good intentions, but was overconfident about how much the largely welcoming international reception given him would translate into personal influence. Obama hoped to persuade China to cut its omissions, toward reaching an agreement.  But that didn’t happen, and the Summit was a disaster. Subsequently, things began to go downhill in US-China relations. 

Meanwhile, Obama eventually was able to begin winding down the Afghan war, the longest war in US history, as he had pledged to the war-weary American public. And consequently, the policy tank turret seemed to turn again, with a late 2011 “Pivot to Asia.” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell explained the policy at a Washington event soon thereafter, carefully asserting it was not directed at China. 

Campbell stressed the intent of strengthening US ties with Southeast Asia. He stated the US recognized that every country in the region wanted a relationship with China as well as the US, due not necessarily to geo-strategic concerns, but simple geography.  The realities of globalization and China’s regional prominence required that smaller nations maintain ties with both Beijing and Washington, a change from the bi-polar Cold War world. He specifically stated that America’s relationship with China would be complex, and stressed the critical nature of continued engagement with Beijing in managing the security and economic issues of the 21st century.  He also clearly stated that the Pivot would not be completed in a few years, but would require sustained diplomatic and military resources. 

The policy was subjected to intense debate. Some analysts felt it would fuel Beijing’s fears of containment. Those fears were exacerbated by the announcement of 2500 US Marines being deployed to Australia, and the establishment of a multi-service Air-Sea-Battle Office in the Pentagon to develop this new war-fighting “concept.” The concept was explained as focusing on solving a problem known as Anti-Access/Area (A2/AD). In essence, anti-access is how an enemy keeps US forces out of a region, and area denial is how to bog them down once there.  It deals with the kind of issues that might be encountered in areas such as, Taiwan. 

Though the Pivot was announced emphasizing diplomacy and economics, and without intending to infer abandonment of either US European allies or Middle East commitments, it was viewed largely as an Asia-focused policy with a heavy military component, to the ire of friends, allies and China. The January 2012 release of the Defense Strategic Guidance by the White House to the Pentagon further highlighted the military element. Soon thereafter the Pivot policy was re-dubbed a “Strategic Rebalancing,” and President Obama made a November 2012 trip to the Pacific in an attempt to assuage concerns. 

Now, the policy may be stressed due to sequestration. Though Pentagon officials have been adamant that sequestration would “in no way impede the development or continued importance of the Air-Sea Battle operating concept,” sequestration strains sustained efforts and resources. Defense budget politics will undoubtedly also factor in as the Navy and Air Force support ASB, and the Army and Marines fight for their budgetary fair share for a much required rebuilding after fighting two wars.  These budget battles alone will raise questions among allies and potential adversaries regarding the US’ commitment and willingness to pay the costs of Asia-Pacific engagement. 

In addition to sequestration, the US is now fully focused, again, on the Middle East. Syria has consumed Washington’s attention, and that will likely remain the case at least for the near future. 

China is an enduring issue for US foreign policy. Globalization, economics and politics – both, for example, want to keep North Korea in check – link the US and China in inexorable ways.   The two countries will agree and cooperate on some issues, compete in others.  To maximize areas of cooperation the US must have a coherent, credible policy that equally focuses on all levers of power rather than largely the military and endures even while our attention goes elsewhere, as it often does.  Otherwise, when policies like the Pivot are announced, followed by the ASB concept, and an Asia- focused Defense Strategic Guidance, the mistrust that characterizes too much of US-Chinese interactions prevail, and grow, to neither countries benefit.  

China must also do more to promote improved US-China relations. Many US overtures to China have gone unheeded, especially overtures to the Chinese military for more mil-to-mil cooperation.  But leadership means taking the lead.  Clearly China is not the US crisis de jour, and we need to keep it that way. That will require consistent, constructive balanced policy equally reliant on diplomatic, information, the military and economic efforts; something that has been sadly lacking. 

Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented here are those of the author only and do not represent the views of the US Department of Defense, the US Navy or the US Naval War College.

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