The Washington-based Brookings Institution recently warned that America and China have come to view their relationship in adversarial, “zero-sum” terms. If so, each contender sees the other’s gains as its own loss. An escalatory dynamic may take hold as they hedge against setbacks while trying to score gains of their own. History has witnessed any number of zero-sum games, from the Anglo-German naval arms race that helped ignite World War I to US-Soviet brinksmanship throughout the Cold War.
It’s sobering news if similar one-upsmanship now drives US-China relations. Yet Washington and Beijing can consciously choose not to yield to the competitive impulse. Summit diplomacy may provide one safety valve. Jointly combating common challenges may ease the pressure.
Thwarting nuclear terrorism is one topic on which both Asian powers can agree. Last month fifty-three heads of state and the chiefs of five international organizations descended on Seoul for the second Nuclear Security Summit. Top leaders reviewed countries’ past performance on such matters as bolstering safeguards and physical security for weapons-usable uranium and plutonium, tightening export-control laws and regulations, and refining nuclear forensics. Such banal-seeming measures are crucial to denying weapons-related materiel to malefactors bent on obtaining doomsday weapons.
Summiteers made headway toward curbing non-state actors’ access to proscribed substances and hardware. They issued a joint communiqué vowing to do even more.
One thing they didn’t do was confront the highest-profile issues relating to nuclear security. Several dogs didn’t bark during the Seoul Summit. China is expanding and upgrading its “minimal” nuclear deterrent. Its navy, for example, is fielding a new class of ballistic-missile submarines. Yet the subject of “vertical” Chinese proliferation never came up. North Korea’s announced plan to loft a satellite into orbit atop a ballistic missile elicited only a joint US-China pledge to “coordinate their responses” to such a move. Iran’s much-discussed nuclear program occasioned barely a murmur. In short, the topics that capture headlines and popular attention hardly registered on the summit agenda.
Why? Simple. Statesmen naturally want to cut the Gordian knot when great nations find themselves embroiled in complex disputes. They want to resolve all problems at one stroke. But there are dangers to seeking a grand bargain. If negotiations deadlock on one stubborn issue, the whole edifice may tumble. Having sought everything, negotiators get nothing. The Seoul summiteers opted for more humble progress. Something’s better than nothing.
Think about Woodrow Wilson after World War I. President Wilson insisted on bundling the League of Nations Covenant with the Versailles peace treaty. This appeared reasonable on its face. Why not try to institute a new world order, having seen the old one shattered amid massive bloodletting? But the accords encountered stiff resistance from Republicans like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge, who objected in particular to Article X of the Covenant. They saw Article X as committing the United States to perpetual war to defend national frontiers redrawn at Versailles. (Personal acrimony between Lodge and Wilson didn’t help.)
Wilson took an all-or-nothing approach vis-à-vis the Senate—and got nothing. Senator Lodge and fellow Versailles skeptics attached “reservations” to the accords as a condition of their support. Rather than compromise, the president ended up urging senators to reject what he regarded as a watered-down diplomatic compact. America remained outside the postwar settlement as a result. A less comprehensive, more workmanlike, more realistic approach than Wilson’s accepts the inconvenient reality of political give-and-take. Rather than strong-arm opponents, it strives for piecemeal progress. The less controversial a dispute, the easier it is to settle. Acknowledging this, diplomats routinely unbundle agenda items, skirting touchy subjects while solving the problems they can solve.
Apply the lessons of Versailles to nuclear diplomacy. Like Washington, Beijing considers its nuclear force a lynchpin of national security. Chinese leaders are reluctant to crack down on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions lest they destabilize the neighboring Korean Peninsula. Confronting Iran could imperil Chinese energy-security interests. Rightly or wrongly, Beijing was loath to budge on such matters. The Nuclear Security Summit shelved them lest the whole enterprise come to grief in the search for a Wilsonian grand bargain.
If it’s hard to agree on matters that touch vital national interests, it’s relatively easy to agree on forestalling nuclear terrorism. Who doesn’t want to keep the likes of al Qaeda from acquiring mass-destruction weaponry or bombmaking materiel? Plus, China can work with outsiders on nuclear security, export controls, and border security while arousing little fuss. Unobtrusive cooperation stokes little public controversy while advancing important interests.
China got a late start battling proliferation. Indeed, it once proliferated deadly weapons as a matter of state policy. Over the past decade or so, however, Beijing has enacted increasingly stringent laws and regulations to stop illicit transfers of weapons-related goods and substances before they occur or, failing that, to halt hazardous cargoes before they cross national borders. It did so both to further its own interests and to act—and be seen as acting—as a “responsible stakeholder” in the system of global trade and commerce. Beijing welcomes outside help—even from a prospective competitor like Washington—to promote this cause.
Nonproliferation assistance commonly proceeds through unofficial or semi-official channels, and on the assumption that industry leaders, customs officers, and border-security officials constitute the first line of defense against nuclear terrorism. Such individuals can thwart proliferation at or near its source. To name one example among many, the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security, where I’m a senior fellow, periodically hosts Chinese officials in the Georgia hinterland. There they learn to foil proliferation. Our Center also dispatches experts to China to train firms that manufacture and export “dual-use” goods—items that have legitimate commercial uses yet can be used to construct mass-destruction weapons.
Over time, quiet cooperation may lay the groundwork for more convivial working relations between China and the United States. Quelling proliferation is a worthy endeavor in itself—and zero-sum thinking may subside in the process. As pundit Michael Ledeen might say: faster, please!
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-editor of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon (Georgetown University Press). The views voiced here are his alone.