How to Stop the Scary Slide in U.S.-China Ties

The administration would be wise to prioritize issues, and place those defining the strategic relationship with China at the top of the list.

The upbeat tone at the biannual bureaucratic gathering last week on U.S.-Chinese ties known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) did not mask the troubling reality: the U.S.-Chinese relationship is more at risk than any other time since 1989, as Beijing’s assertive actions on disputed territories in the South China incrementally changes the status quo. And about the only certainty is that this elaborate bureaucratic exercise checked all the boxes on issues from climate change to currency manipulation, yet the relationship will continue its downward spiral. The core issue of whether the world’s two largest powers can find a modus vivendi remains unanswered.

The trajectory of U.S.-Chinese relations—whether they become predominantly cooperative, predominantly competitive, or remain a mix of both indefinitely—will likely remain a key question around which much of the global order of the twenty-first century will revolve. And to a considerable degree, the answer to that question turns on whether a framework for strategic stability is possible.

As was learned in August 1914, economic interdependence does not necessarily prevent nations from going to war. In part, an effort to avoid 1914 analogies, Beijing has recently been promoting the idea that the United States and China should forge a “new type of great-power relations,” an aspiration that President Obama embraced at the 2013 Sunnylands Summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, though it lacks any mutually agreed definition.

The United States and its economic and security partners in the region have all been pursuing a hedging strategy of cooperation with China economically and on other issues where interests overlap, yet seeking to counterbalance Beijing’s growing military capacity and influence. Indeed, apprehension about Chinese intentions among many nations in the Asia-Pacific has animated new networks of security cooperation, including between: Japan and India, India and Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, Singapore and India, Japan and Australia, and Japan, India and Australia trilaterally. All are allies and/or security partners of the United States.

One feature of a more cooperative relationship would be a stable, more predictable military balance with mechanisms that manage risk and tend to foster mutual restraint. China has cited U.S. missile-defense programs as being destabilizing. The administration’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review cited the importance of “maintaining strategic stability in the US-China relationship.” And the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review called for pursuing high-level dialogues with Russia and China “aimed at promoting more stable, resilient and transparent strategic relationships.”

It took nearly two decades and several near nuclear catastrophes before the United States and the USSR created understandings and processes to cope with a bipolar world. But the U.S. strategic situation in regard to Moscow contrasts sharply to that in Beijing.

Despite an increasingly problematic relationship with Russia, the U.S.-Russian balance has benefited from a strategic framework based on arms-control arrangements, transparency, and predictability along with consultation mechanisms, much of it a legacy of the Cold War. There are obvious differences in regard to China, with which the United States has a complex, highly interdependent economic relationship yet which is not an adversary, but rather a strategic competitor. Moreover, unlike Russia, which was a nuclear peer, there is a great, but slowly narrowing, asymmetry between the U.S. and Chinese nuclear arsenals.

Today, there is no effective structure of arms control, nor sufficient mechanisms for strategic consultation, crisis management, confidence building, reassurance or transparency measures with China that adequately manage risk. For nearly two decades, U.S. administrations have sought a strategic dialogue with China. But Beijing has been unwilling to engage, citing the huge discrepancy between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces, and thus, rejecting the idea of arms control. Beijing also is uncomfortable with analogies to the USSR with the implication that China is an adversary.