Time For Realism In U.S.-China Relations

"The point of the new realism is not to force a conflict with China. It is to avoid one. Only steady strength...will show Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders that America is no better friend and no worse adversary."

“The United States welcomes a rising China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs.”

So asserted Susan Rice, National Security Advisor to President Obama, during a speech yesterday at George Washington University on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington. In an address designed to tout the “arc of progress” in Sino-U.S. relations, Rice chastised the “lazy rhetoric that says conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable.”

Rice may have set up her straw person, but no serious Asia watcher either predicts or desires a clash with China. However, even by the measuring stick of her own aspirations noted above, China today is falling far short of the mark, raising serious questions about the future of its relationship with the United States.

To begin with, few of China’s neighbors feel that Beijing is altogether peaceful these days. Its coercion over disputed maritime territory in the East and South China Seas continues unabated, and it has now built islands in contested waters and is beginning to militarize them. Its military might, showcased this month at a major parade, was a clear message of China’s strength and a warning to those who would oppose it.

Secondly, longtime observers of China are increasingly concerned about its stability. Xi Jinping has instituted a social crackdown that belies the regime’s concern over its safety. Xi has arrested potential threats to his own power in the Communist Party, tightened control over the military, jailed lawyers and dissidents, and maintained oppression of Tibetan and Uighur minorities. Even established academics like George Washington University’s David Shambaugh are beginning to say that the Communist Party is entering its endgame, with unknown effects on social stability.

Americans are willing to overlook these failings as long as China remained the goose that laid the golden egg. Yet this summer showed that Chinese prosperity, the third of Rice’s goals, can be taken for granted. The stock market collapse over the past few months is a sign of much deeper problems in the broader economy. The official growth rate has been knocked down to 7 percent, but few economists believe the figure, and it is entirely likely that China is already in stagnation. That means, as trade figures showed, dropping industrial production and shrinking imports. When the slowdown hits the pocketbooks of China’s nouveaux middle class, then social stability will be even more at risk.

A China suffering from economic stagnation and turmoil at home is unlikely to be a ‘responsible player in global affairs.’ In fact, it already isn’t, despite Rice’s desire. Just days before Xi’s visit to Obama, his government has formally arrested an American citizen on charges of spying. This sends a clear message to Obama about Beijing’s regard for diplomatic niceties. Far more serious, of course, is the unprecedented cyber espionage conducted by Chinese hackers, undoubtedly controlled or supported by the government, against U.S. citizens and businesses. The hack of the Office of Personnel Management compromised the sensitive data of tens of millions of Americans. In response, Washington is toying with signing a cybersecurity pact with Beijing that will do nothing to stop such aggression. Add on Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea and its attempt to dominate contested waters, its refusal to pressure North Korea, and its campaign to seek out Chinese expats in America and coerce them to return home, and the picture of bonhomie between America and China is itself a product of the kind of ‘reductive reasoning and lazy rhetoric’ denounced by Rice.

The question is, what to do about all this? How can the United States effectively pressure its largest import partner and the world’s second-largest economy? Must the arc of progress championed by Rice always bend in China’s favor?