Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she intends to run for president in 2016 has reignited speculation about what a Clinton presidency would mean for U.S.-China relations. As the U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013 and the face of the “Pivot to Asia,” Clinton had a history of often antagonistic interactions with China. Clinton would enter office with an established perspective on the nature of U.S.-China relations and a well-known personal style in international diplomacy. Given that her perspective and style have already angered Chinese officials, Clinton would have to perform a complete about-face to reset relations. None of this bodes well for the U.S.-China relationship.
Understanding the impact of a potential Clinton presidency is crucial in predicting the future of U.S.-China relations, as she is by far the most likely candidate to win. Clinton has a significant lead over any prospective rival in name recognition and, more importantly, funding. There are no other candidates in the Democratic Party with Clinton’s level of institutional power, and she will probably not face any serious challengers in the primary. In the general election, Clinton will have an advantage over her Republican opponent due to the simple fact that she will probably raise more money. Generational demographic shifts appear to also favor Democratic candidates in presidential elections. While most political analysts insist that it is too early to predict who will win in 2016, there is a very high chance that Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States.
Assuming Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016, we can expect a foreign policy that is quite similar to what she advocated in the Obama administration. In short, this foreign policy will be interventionist and will rely heavily on military might. Clinton pushed heavily for U.S. intervention in Libya to topple the Qaddafi regime. She was also one of the loudest voices in favor of early intervention in the Syrian civil war. Clinton argued as early as 2012 that the administration should train and equip Syrian rebels in order to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. While the administration ultimately heeded Clinton’s advice on both counts, it is important to note that she was among the most consistent interventionist voices in the Obama White House.
Hillary Clinton and her aides were largely responsible for directing the Obama administration’s Asia policy until her departure in 2013. The Pivot to Asia was the hallmark initiative of Clinton’s tenure. Clinton authored a widely read article in Foreign Policy announcing the pivot strategy, arguing that the United States had to refocus its attention from the Middle East to Asia to cement the U.S.’s position in the global order. Though the military dimension of the pivot flopped due to budgetary constraints, Clinton initially envisioned a “comprehensive” strategy, including a strong military component. Chinese officials and policymakers interpreted the Pivot as an attempt to contain China’s legitimate rise. This, in addition to Clinton’s propensity to criticize the Chinese government at international gatherings, has not made her particularly popular in China.
Clinton’s pool of likely appointees is equally problematic for the future of U.S.-China relations. Many of the Clinton administration’s political appointees will probably be drawn from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). CNAS was founded in 2007, largely to serve as hawkish and pro-interventionist think tank aligned with the Democratic Party. Michelle Flournoy, its co-founder, was a political appointee in the first Clinton administration. Hillary Clinton delivered the keynote address at CNAS’s official launch. Clinton-CNAS ties run deep, and it is no accident that both heavily focus on the strategic importance of Asia to the United States.
Unfortunately for those who might hope for an accommodation between the U.S. and China, CNAS fellows often press for ill-considered military options to counter Chinese assertiveness. For instance, Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner, both CNAS fellows, have argued that the United States should “elevate the risks” of Chinese actions in disputed areas by increasing the likelihood of a U.S. military response. Colby and Ratner state that the U.S. should prepare to use force in response to “coercion” from Chinese Coast Guard vessels. They also hold that the U.S. must prepare for a major war with China and deepen its military ties with Japan. While each of these recommendations is supposedly aimed to deter aggression, China would probably see them as naked coercion. A “risk elevation” strategy would seriously strain U.S.-China relations and increase the possibility of a serious conflict.
Colby and Ratner suffer from the delusion that the United States can avert the reality of shifting power relations between the U.S. and China by acting more aggressively. A White House with advisers like Colby and Ratner might come dangerously close to provoking a dramatic military confrontation with China. I see little reason to believe that the prospect of escalation alone will be enough to deter China from a high-stakes conflict in its own backyard. Nor is China likely to simply acquiesce to continued U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific because the U.S. alters its rules of engagement. Unfortunately, these fallacious notions are quite common in U.S. policy-making circles.
A Clinton administration will lean interventionist, but there is no reason to believe that the next election will fundamentally alter the U.S.’s foreign policy priorities. While a change of diplomatic style might be expected, even seasoned analysts will be hard pressed to find a significant divergence between the Obama administration’s foreign policy and the policy of a Clinton administration. As long as U.S. policymakers believe that hegemony in the Asia-Pacific is a worthwhile aim, disagreements over the nature of U.S. strategy will remain quite marginal. Elections rarely change the fundamental interests of states.
Chinese distrust of Hillary Clinton will not be a boon to U.S.-China relations. Clinton’s hawkish tendencies will likely exacerbate tensions. But the fundamental sources of friction between the U.S. and China remain the same no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Absent a new accommodation to match the shifting balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, the rivalry between the U.S. and China will continue to deepen for the foreseeable future.