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Foreign Policy

Obama Administration Reaffirms China Policy in Key Documents

Feb 16 , 2015

The recent flap over whether the Pentagon will halt the further expansion of China-U.S. military exchanges until the two sides agree on rules for managing rules for encounters between warplanes seems to be overblown. Both the Pentagon and the Chinese Ministry of Defense have denied any fundamental change in their policies. Meanwhile, several documents released last week offer a better indication of where the Pentagon and the Obama administration want to take their relationship with China in coming years.

In his written responses to the questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the administration’s nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, asserted that, “China’s economic growth can be a positive force in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States and many countries in the region welcome China’s economic rise.”

Carter added that, “China’s increasing military might, in the absence of greater transparency from China, is causing rising concern throughout the region and must be closely watched. He stressed the need for greater transparency regarding how China “will use its growing military capabilities” and how it will pursue its territorial “claims in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.” He also called for “all parties to develop confidence-building measures that will increase transparency and reduce risk.”

When asked about cyber security threats from China Carter reaffirmed U.S. policy that, “The theft of intellectual property through cyber means is a clear threat to the economic prosperity from which the nation derives its national security. Our competitive economic advantage and our military technological advantage rest on the innovations of a highly knowledge based U.S. industry. Any nation-state that engages in the theft of our intellectual property through cyber means jeopardizes both our national security and economic prosperity.”

Carter emphasized that, “[Chinese] military involvement in such theft raises additional concerns that misunderstandings about China’s intentions could result in unintended escalation between our countries.” Nonetheless, he downplayed the Pentagon’s role in preventing such theft and said that, “We need to continue to use all the instruments of national power to deter this kind of behavior, including diplomatic, financial, network defense, law enforcement, and counterintelligence.”

Carter also said that he would “ensure that the United States sustains its ability to deter aggression and coercion and maintain free and open access to the maritime domain in the Asia-Pacific region” by continuing to “modernize U.S. security alliances and partnerships, enhance U.S. force posture, and update our military capabilities.”

Yet, Carter considered strengthening Sino-US military relations an important task. He said such relations “are beginning to demonstrate positive outcomes” since “China is devoting more attention to operational safety and preventing incidents that could seriously harm the overall relationship.” More generally, he affirmed his intent to “continue to pursue a sustained, substantive dialogue that aims to reduce risk and manage our differences, while building concrete, practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest.”

Even more authoritative was the Obama administration’s revised National Security Strategy, released on February 6. It also declared that, “The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China [and seeks] a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world.” The text sees potential collaboration “on shared regional and global chal­lenges such as climate change, public health, economic growth, and [Korea’s] denuclearization.”

Although the Strategy acknowledged that, “there will be competition,” the administration “reject[s] the inevitability of confrontation [even though] we will manage competition from a position of strength” and insist “that China uphold international rules and norms on issues ranging from maritime security to trade and human rights.” Echoing Carter, the Strategy said that the administration “will closely monitor China’s military modernization and expanding presence in Asia, while seeking ways to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or miscalculation.”

The document said that “tensions in the East and South China Seas are reminders of the risks of escalation,” but emphasized that, “We encourage open channels of dialogue to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law [and] also support the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct for the South China Sea between China and the Association of Southeast Asian States.”

In contrast, these documents adopted a considerably harsher tone regarding Russia. Carter defended the administration’s decision to suspend bilateral defense cooperation with Russia following Moscow’s “occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea” since “Russia’s behavior is inconsistent with that of a responsible, global stakeholder.” Carter called for “supporting our Allies and partners in Eastern Europe with training activities, rotational presence, and capacity-building programs” to make them “more resistant to asymmetric threats… or hybrid, methods of coercion.”

The revised U.S. National Security Strategy released on Friday refers to Russian “aggression” and related terms about a dozen times, complaining that, “Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—as well as its belligerent stance toward other neighboring countries—endangers international norms that have largely been taken for granted since the end of the Cold War.” In response, the administration was prepared to “deter Russian aggression, remain alert to its strategic capabilities, and help our allies and partners resist Russian coercion over the long term.”

In fact, this balanced tone regarding China essentially repeats the language the Obama administration used its first National Security Strategy, issued in May 2010. That text said that, “We will continue to pursue a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China. We welcome a China that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the United States and the international community …We will monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that U.S. interests and allies, regionally and globally, are not negatively affected….we will encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security, and prosperity as its influence rises.” The 2010 report acknowledged that “will not agree on every issue….But disagreements should not prevent cooperation on issues of mutual interest, because a pragmatic and effective relationship between the United States and China is essential to address the major challenges of the 21st century.”

As seen in his State-of-the Union speech last month, while the Obama administration has essentially given up on Russia as a key U.S. partner in the remainder of its second term, the president is generally satisfied with his China policy, and plans to continue its core elements in his last two years.

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