How to Save U.S.-China Ties

In his new book, The China Challenge, Christensen provides a guide for salvaging the U.S.-China relationship.

China’s large-scale construction of artificial islands in the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea has led many in Washington to call for a tougher stance against Beijing. While China no doubt bears much responsibility for pursuing murky and ambitious territorial claims with aggressive actions, contending with China’s rise also requires a lot more than just getting tough.

During the course of the Obama administration, Beijing has reacted negatively not just to the administration’s gestures of goodwill but also to its more confrontational actions and rhetoric. A look back at the missteps early in the Obama administration would offer a useful guide to prescribing future action. The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, a new book by noted China scholar Thomas Christensen, provides precisely such a guide.

Presenting a wide-ranging look at Sino-American relations under multiple U.S. presidents, Christensen’s book makes clear the Obama administration started on the wrong foot when it employed rhetoric not backed up with facts for political convenience. Most notably, in July 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on a trip to Asia, “The United States is back,” and implied not so subtly that President Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had squandered U.S. resources on wars in the Middle East and neglected important developments in Asia.

“All of this rhetoric hardly matched reality,” writes Christensen. A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Bush administration, he recounts that all major aspects of U.S. military and economic policy now associated with the pivot to Asia began during the Bush administration. For instance, U.S. negotiations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement the Obama administration is eager to complete and has touted as a key component of its Asia policy, originated during the Bush years.  

The Obama administration’s self-serving rhetoric was not simply inaccurate but also harmful to bilateral relations. Instead of emphasizing America’s longstanding presence in Asia, the administration fueled common narratives in China that America was returning to the region to contain China’s rise.

If creating undue alarm in Beijing was not bad enough, the Obama administration also proceeded to overpromise U.S. accommodation of Chinese interests. In 2009, then-Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg emphasized the need for “strategic reassurance” in Sino-American relations and declared that each side must “take specific steps to address and allay each other’s concerns.” Before the end of that year, the United States would agree with China—in a joint statement—that the two countries would respect each other’s “core interests.”

The problem, as Christensen points out, was that U.S. policy did not and does not unquestionably support China’s core interest of continued one-party Communist rule. Nor does the United States side with China on its core interest of sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially when it comes to Chinese disputes with U.S. allies and partners like Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan. When the Obama administration subsequently—and rightfully—pushed back against Beijing on China’s human rights practices and aggressive assertions of territorial claims in Asia, many in the Chinese leadership felt duped and not at all reassured.

By the time that Washington formally announced a “pivot to Asia” in 2011, Beijing had plenty of reasons to worry that the United States was pivoting to interfere with China’s territorial claims, encircle it with America’s friends and generally thwart China’s great-power ambitions. In response, instead of reducing its provocations, China has pushed back harder against America’s presence in Asia and ramped up maritime disputes with U.S. allies and partners. And Beijing has blamed the pivot to Asia as the biggest culprit for the deterioration in regional tensions.

Having made a number of early mistakes with China, the Obama administration has attempted to right its course and Christensen gives it due credit for having renamed the “pivot” the “rebalance,” abandoned the policy of “strategic reassurance,” stopped expressing respect for China’s core interests and firmly reiterated its commitments to allies in Asia. Nevertheless, the diplomatic damage had been done, and China’s bellicose rhetoric and actions now erupt regularly despite U.S. pressure and protests.