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Foreign Policy

Variables Affect the US Grand Strategy Toward China

Aug 21 , 2015
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

At present, the China-US relationship is in a period of disturbances. In the United States, there are some discussions emerging about revising the US grand strategy toward China, as represented by the Council on Foreign Relations’ report co-authored by Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis. Is such a view the mainstream perspective in the US? What are the variables affecting US grand strategy toward China?

This author believes, if US grand strategy toward China is the “dependent variable”, then the “independent variable” should be US general judgment on China’s comprehensive national power, the direction of China’s political system, and China’s geopolitical role in the world. Domestic politics, perception of the leadership, and competition among different sectors in the US are the “moderator variable”; such third-party factors as maritime disputes and such uncertainties as financial crises are the “extrinsic variable”.

In the first place, the “independent variable” will play a major role in determining US future strategy toward China. In terms of China’s comprehensive national power, most Americans think China will grow up into an “incomplete” major power. Since it is far from being a peer of the US, the latter would do better to rule out the intention of isolating or containing China. In terms of the direction of China’s political system, history has proven that it is better to let people explore and choose a system that best meets their needs and that is beneficial to the world. The US should not try to subvert the existing regime in China, since it cannot afford the turbulence of a country with a population of 1.3 billion. In terms of China’s geopolitical role in the world, China is becoming a regional power, thus seemingly squeezing US strategic room. Hence, the US is rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region. But China is not seeking hegemony at any time. Therefore, the US will continue to welcome a stable and prospering China, but feel some pressure from China’s rise. It will feel it needs to “push back”, and but gradually get used to and balance the expansion of China’s “turf”. For China, it should clarify national core interests and its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, using “Tai chi push-hands” to counter US “pushing back”, and finally achieving an equilibrium between “yin and yang”.

Then, the “moderator variable” will play an intervening role in determining US future strategy toward China. In terms of domestic politics, as the 2016 presidential election is around the corner, drawing a clear line with the present government and getting tougher toward China will score points in US political circles. As for the perception of the leadership, the Obama administration is reflecting on its engagement policy towards China, and some are expecting the next administration will hedge more against China and be “tougher”. Reflecting competition among different sectors, the Congress has always harbored hardliners against China. As China deepens economic reform and foreign companies enjoy fewer privileges operating in China, US business interests are being compressed. Then, the military establishments have always exaggerated the “China threat” to compete for more resources. All these converge into an adverse tide in US policy toward China. While such political factors play a negative role in bilateral relations, for China this invites reinforcement of strategic dialogues with the US and working to establish confidence-building measures and strategic reassurance, in order to remove misgivings and build mutual trust.


Last but not the least, the “extrinsic variable” will be a double-edged sword. Indeed, third-party factors and uncertainties will help re-shape the features of a US grand strategy toward China. If properly handled, they could develop toward a positive direction — if the situation is correctly grasped by the leaderships and strategic thinkers of both countries, and they react in a timely and strategic way. The “extrinsic variable” can be good or bad. China should work to get along well with its neighbors, turn crises into opportunities, and avoid the situation when the US is kidnapped by its allies and has to be hard on China. Meanwhile, various crisis management mechanisms should be established to avoid miscalculation and tension escalation.

To sum up, US general judgment about China is the key to formulating its grand strategy to China. At present some domestic politics has negative effects, and we need more dialogues to enhance transparency. Third-party factors and uncertainties are artificial and subject to prudent management and precaution. In spite of some dissonant voices calling for a harder policy toward China, they are distinct from government policies, and we believe in the wisdom of both leaderships to discern the main theme and correct path of our bilateral relationship for the benefit of both countries and the world.

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