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Foreign Policy

Many Voices Shape U.S. Outlook on China

May 26 , 2015
  • Wang Wenfeng

    Professor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

People here in China these days have paid a lot of attention to American scholars talking about the status of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. One thing the scholars have in common is a strong sense of urgency. American experts tend to believe that the relationship has nearly come to a point where some dramatic change is just going to happen. As Professor David M. Lampton put it, “a tipping point is upon us”, “the respective fears are nearer to outweighing our hopes than at any time since normalization.” Professor Christopher Layne expressed a similar idea in one article, saying that the US and China are rapidly nearing what could be called a “Carr Moment”, where the geopolitical rubber meets the road: the status quo power, in this case, the US, must choose between accommodating and opposing the revisionist demands of the rising power, which is China.

Meanwhile, in a report published by Council on Foreign Relations, Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis caught people’s eyes by arguing that the US grand strategy toward China should be revised because America’s effort to integrate China into the liberal international order has not only failed but also generated new threats to US primacy in Asia. A new strategy, in their minds, should center on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy. Basically, the report advises a police in which America takes even harder lines toward China in almost every area of the bilateral relationship. All in all, what we are hearing is a call for immediate rethinking and changing of US policy, whatever the direction. Any delay could be dangerous.

There is no doubt that when it comes to US China policy, or any other US foreign policy, the most important player is the president and his administration. President Obama talks about the competition between the US and China in different areas, from economic issues like trade to geopolitical issues like South China Sea and also topics like international rules and institutions. People have seen the realistic side of his China policy in the “strategic rebalance toward Asia”. But he has never talked about the bilateral relations in a way that the two giants are strategic rivals like the US and Soviet Union in Cold War years, and on issues he cares about a lot like climate change, he repeatedly expressed the hope that America and China can work together. It is quite safe to say that he doesn’t see US-China relations in a “great power politics” way. At the same time, although “rebalance toward Asia” has been an important part of Obama’s foreign policy ever since his first term, his top priorities have always been America’s economic recovery and reform of domestic systems in areas like banking and health care. And in foreign policy, he has to spend a lot of time and energy dealing with counterterrorism issues and things like the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Obama never gave an exclusive speech on China policy, nor did his team ever coin a term for his China policy or US-China relationship. In the days left of Obama’s presidency, as time is limited and he wants to make progress in other areas, absent big surprise, we can predict with some certainty that the Obama administration won’t bother to change the tone of China policy.

So without a statement, an address by the president or a major members of his team, like the Secretary of State or the National Security Adviser, how could we conclude that a huge change is underway in US policy toward China? How could we know that bilateral relations are passing or have passed that “tipping point” and are entering or have entered a new period? One thing we can do it to turn to public opinion and atmosphere surrounding the relationship to see whether there is an obvious change in the discourse of so-called foreign policy establishment. If that is the case, we would see that when people, in academic circles or on major media, talk about China and US policy, there would be a clear consensus that the old ways are not working anymore because China is totally different and America has to have a new framework dealing with China. So people would generally agree either that China poses a major threat to America, and that taking a harsh line toward China on every front, even preparing for military conflict with China, would be a normal response, like Blackwill and Tellis recommend. Or that peaceful coexistence and cooperation with China has become so important that America just needs to “accommodate” China, like Lampton and Layne suggested, and be more cautious not to offend China like it did before, meaning that on issues related to China’s core interest, the US side needs to show more respect than before.

If America has come to that point and has to choose between these two options, the hard, balancing approach will have more chance than the soft, accommodating one. Being soft is against the American instinct when confronted with external challenges, especially when posed by a country like China, which has fundamental differences from the US in many ways, most importantly ideology and political system. It’s likely to be a “mission impossible” for any US leader to explain to his domestic audience that sharing power in Asia-Pacific and the world with China is something necessary.

But opinions like Lampton’s, which advocate accommodation, show the absence of domestic consensus. China is not the Soviet Union, US-China relations are very complex, and we are in a world in which challenges come not only from more different actors but also in different forms. On these points there is consensus in America. Today Americans are more concerned about issues other than China, like ISIS, and Russia stands in front of China on the list of countries that Americans don’t like. Debate about China policy in America is still very much limited to the “foreign policy establishment”, and a lot of complaints about China stay at the “issue” level. China and the US are at odds on many very important issues, but they are more like negotiators, competitors than adversaries. That is why we can hardly imagine a 2015 version of the “Truman Doctrine” by a US president, declaring an explicit hardline strategy toward China.

That is not to say that those alarms by American scholars are without value. Warnings by Lampton and others deserve close attention. China policy may not be among top priorities for Obama, but there are those who keep focusing on US-China relations, and if they, officials at operational levels within the government and scholars in academic circle, have reached a consensus, because foreign policy making in any country is both a top-down and bottom-up process, others will follow suit. So when in the future the US president wants to seriously think about strategy toward China and make a major statement, he or she may find that the “tipping point” has already quietly passed, that US policy is already on a track of no return: America can only choose, in Christopher Layne’s words, “opposing” policy. In that case, the president’s official confirming of policy change could only be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. So first, we must always closely follow opinions about bilateral relations at different levels and America’s domestic atmosphere surrounding US policy toward China, especially as the 2016 election approaches; second, the two countries need to deepen the exchange and interactions at different levels so that people in both countries have a better idea of where the other side thinks the relationship is going — and what we can do to keep that “tipping point” away from us.

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