Can America "Just Say No" to China?

Why Washington should avoid cooperation with Beijing for cooperation’s sake.

“One of America’s clearest and most compelling interests is to develop a positive and constructive U.S.-China relationship.”

Secretary Kerry’s statement at the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) is consistent with President Obama’s priority for the United States to make a military, diplomatic, and economic rebalance to Asia. And while the President and his administration have taken great strides to improve ties with regional partners Japan and Korea and serve as an arbiter of maritime and territorial disputes, the U.S.-China relationship has emerged as the United States’ highest priority. President Obama said in March 2014 “that this bilateral relationship has been as important as any bilateral relationship in the world,” aspiring to realize Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposition of a new type of major power relations.

China has taken advantage of this dynamic: undermining U.S. credibility in the region with allies and partners, successfully advocating for imbalanced cooperation efforts, and derailing progress on more substantive issues by putting the United States on the defensive in order to prove its priorities in the region.

The United States has overemphasized the engagement aspect of the U.S.-China relationship and has disregarded what Kerry referred to as the “constructive” part of the picture. Absent reciprocation or behavior modification from China, however, a true major power relationship is an unattainable goal.

As it reassesses its priorities for the bilateral security relationship, the United States should also ensure its messaging to China is consistent and resilient. The United States should be selective on issues of engagement: prioritizing substantive, productive issues such as cybersecurity and eschewing counterproductive, incongruent agendas such as counterterrorism cooperation. The United States cannot forgo consideration of larger strategic interests (such as protecting intelligence and military capabilities) or avoid contentious but important issues (such as tensions in maritime Asia, avoiding conflict escalation) so that it may engage with China. It runs the risk of cooperating for cooperation’s sake.

Unify U.S. Officials’ Messages to China

Too often, administration officials and military officials send messages that contradict each other and weaken U.S. strategic positioning—even individuals within the same organization or military service send divergent messages. Inconsistent U.S. messaging weakens leverage in negotiations and cooperation with China, and needs to be streamlined and better coordinated. The United States cannot continue to convey an impression that there is no unified stance on important strategic issues such as China’s maritime activity in the South and East China Seas and further offshore, allowing China to exploit the contradictions to its advantage.

For example, in his recent interaction with Admiral Wu Shengli of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert chose not to raise the issue of Chinese activities in disputed waters because he “didn’t want to get bogged down in a bunch of platitudes or for-the-record statements,” arguing that his priority lay with building trust. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in June had no qualms calling China’s actions in the South China Sea destabilizing” and “unilateral” and that the United States “firmly oppose[s] any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims.”

To cite another example, when China participated for the first time in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises this year, the PLAN also sent an uninvited maritime surveillance ship to monitor activities. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris “doesn’t know why” PLAN sent a spy ship even though they were invited. “Here is the Chinese conundrum,” he said. Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, noted that the ship’s presence at RIMPAC was “good news” of China’s “recognition” or “acceptance” that “military operations and survey operations in another country’s [maritime zones] are within international law and are acceptable.”