China: 10 Pieces of Advice for America's Next President on Asia's Rising Superpower

President Barack Obama is presented with a bouquet of flowers upon his arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport. Flickr/The White House

The next president will face manifold challenges. One of the most important will be addressing China. Much depends on the ability to find a path to sometimes uncomfortable cooperation.

Every American president seems to get sucked into the Middle Eastern wormhole. They start out promising to change the world, revamp America’s foreign policy, and address future challenges. Then they launch another Middle Eastern war and offer a new peace initiative involving Israel. Frustration inevitably and disaster sometimes ensues, and in no time a new president is taking office amid worsening international problems.

The U.S. faces only one potential peer competitor. Europe as a Weltmacht remains but a Eurocrat’s dream. Russia is a declining power worried about international respect and border security. India is on an upward track, but remains well short of great power status. Although Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, and other countries have enormous potential, they are far from having global impact. Only China has the look of a likely superpower.

And even the latter’s success is not certain. The People’s Republic of China suffers from ruinous demography, faces growing economic challenges, and is undergoing a mysterious yet brutal political struggle. How well the country navigates these rough waters will determine whether and when it fulfills its potential by combining the world’s largest population, economy, and military.

How the U.S.-China relationship develops today will have an important impact on the PRC’s development. Assume away Beijing’s threats and China’s ambitions might grow. Treat the PRC like an enemy and it is more likely to become one. This century will look far different if these two great nations find ways to cooperate when in agreement and resolve their differences when not.

What should the next president do?

1. Consider problems and debate solutions in the context of overall policy objectives toward China.

Washington has multiple goals when it comes to the PRC but cannot achieve them all. Priorities must be set, compromises must be made, and trade-offs offered. Convincing Beijing to pressure North Korea might require promising to withdraw U.S. military forces from South Korea; winning concessions regarding investment, cybersecurity, and intellectual property might require offering concessions on trade. Washington must decide which package of positions offers America the greatest value.

2. Look at issues from Beijing’s perspective. President Xi Jinping may be a ruthless authoritarian, but that doesn’t mean he and his colleagues act without reason.

Indeed, the PRC has good, as in convincing to its leaders, reasons for supporting North Korea, insisting on reunification with Taiwan, refusing to accept real democracy in Hong Kong, and claiming substantial real estate in nearby waters. The next administration will be more successful in negotiating with China if it addresses the concerns of PRC policymakers. The problem is not informing the denizens of Zhongnanhai about what Washington wants Beijing to do. The challenge is convincing Beijing to do so.

3. Acknowledge U.S. mistakes, hypocrisies, and failings.

Americans are no less nationalistic than people in other lands, often refusing to admit that their government is something other than a virtuous, innocent, and selfless virgin attempting to clean up an evil, depraved, and immoral world for the good of all. Washington has supported dictatorship in Asia, generated bloody chaos in the Middle East, created dependency in Europe, and fueled economic crisis at home. U.S. officials should exhibit a bit more humility before lecturing their counterparts in Beijing.

4. Strengthen the U.S. economy to overcome Chinese industrial policy.

Americans benefit greatly from free trade, despite Beijing’s various attempts to manipulate the system—keep the value of the yuan low, subsidize state enterprises, and discriminate against foreign concerns, which typically harm PRC consumers. All warrant attention as part of bilateral negotiations and multilateral agreements, such as the World Trade Organization. Nevertheless, Washington’s best response would be to aid American firms in becoming more competitive by reducing similar special interest economic manipulation in America, rationalizing and streamlining regulation, cutting wasteful federal spending and corporate tax rates, and improving education for eventual workers.

5. Play international chicken.