Not Since Nixon Has a U.S. President Faced Such a Tough China Challenge

Forbidden City. Flickr/Creative Commons/Yiannis Theologos Michellis

China now has more tools of economic statecraft and military power than ever before.

January-February 2017

FOR MOST of the past four decades, American presidents have presumed that a “successful” China would be good for the United States. But this is no longer the case. Today, that long-standing consensus is breaking down in the face of several dynamic changes. These include China’s rapid military buildup, its unprecedentedly quick industrial and economic development, an increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy, and new competitive pressures on the United States’ economy and fiscal health.

Even the most sanguine voices now view the U.S.-China relationship as competitive, and urge the United States to respond decisively, if carefully, especially to Beijing’s security behavior in Asia. Among Washington foreign-policy elites and a growing number of U.S. companies, China is viewed as a strategic competitor, a military threat in Asia and, ultimately, a possible adversary. Indeed, during the election campaign, Donald Trump pledged to adopt a more confrontational approach toward China, not least by threatening to impose significant tariffs on its exports to the United States. But Trump is by no means alone in this regard. Across the American political spectrum, from right to left, a new and more skeptical consensus about the rise of Chinese power is eroding the aspirational and optimistic view that prevailed for more than forty years.

It would be difficult to understate just how important and dramatic this shift could turn out to be. Eight presidents, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, fostered closer relations with China. Washington opened American markets and welcomed Chinese products into the United States. It encouraged U.S. firms to invest in China, sharing business practices and U.S. technologies. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s administrations supported China’s admission into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Over three decades, Washington enabled China’s participation in nearly every major international forum.

In the process, the United States subsumed many of its concerns about China’s Communist-led political system to its long-term interest in trying to assure a more integrated, less isolated, less autarkic China—one that joined and participated in the international system. But that was not all: by helping to enable a stronger Chinese economy, Washington also shelved, at least temporarily, some of its concerns about China’s capacity to translate butter into guns.

But while the long-standing Washington consensus about China is breaking down, it would be too simplistic to argue that the United States is now heading for a more adversarial relationship. The reality is that the Trump administration’s approach to China will be formulated against the backdrop of four swiftly changing strategic and economic conditions in Asia: the growing economic and financial integration of the region, which has shifted the relative balance of power against the United States; China’s newly assertive strategic posture; the increasingly diverse economic and social ties that now characterize American interaction with China and will make coalition building difficult, whether for more cooperation or more conflict; and the combination of eroding U.S. military advantage and protectionist trade pressures.

A Trump administration has the opportunity to adapt to these conditions. If it does, it can define an agenda with China that sets American policy onto a more strategically and politically sustainable course.

 

IT IS already clear that Asia is fast becoming a more integrated region—more “Asia” than “Asia-Pacific.” This means that the U.S. role will, in relative terms, become diminished over time.

This trend is structural, and thus not easily reversible. It reflects the rapid rise of Asian economies, the growth of intra-Asian trade, the restoration of old linkages between continental and maritime Asia, and the emergence of Asian market participants, companies and government financing arms as capital exporters, including to one another, not just consumers of Western capital. Taken together, this first trend will mean a smaller role for the United States in relative terms, even though U.S. trade and direct investment in Asia are rising in absolute terms.

This is a notable change, one that will make it harder for the new administration to rely on the same playbook the United States has deployed since World War II. Throughout the postwar period, but especially since the 1960s, the United States has been the principal provider of both security and economic related public goods and other benefits in Asia.

In the security realm, alliances and partnerships, solidified by the U.S.-Japan security treaty of 1960, a forward-deployed military presence and willingness to assert American power with carrier battle groups (and, when necessary, military action) have tamped down major-power war. There have been localized conflicts, of course, from Indochina to the South China Sea. But this unique U.S. role has mostly kept the peace.

In the economic realm, the United States has beaten back protectionist pressure, kept its markets open to Asian exports, led the region and the world toward liberalization of trade and investment rules, and enabled Asia’s export-led economies to power their way to prosperity.

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