Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

May 12, 2015 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaMeeting China Halfway

Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

Book Excerpt: An important new work offers important ideas on how to defuse the emerging U.S.-China rivalry. 

However, Kissinger’s fine book does not offer up specific policy proposals, recommending only that US and Chinese leaders must develop a “tradition of consultation and mutual respect.”22


Michael Swaine’s book, America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the 21st Century (2011), represents a crucial step in analysis of US-China relations, in that it raises the important possibility that “to maintain an effective strategy overall, US interests . . . might also need to change as China’s capabilities increase.” Examining a range of possible strategies that Washington could pursue in cooperation with China, Swaine concludes that a broad consensus supports a balance between hedging and engagement. However, he seems to break rather decisively with the current policy paradigm, calling for “alternatives to the current emphasis on predominance in the Western Pacific.” Indeed, he argues that asserting “US maritime predominance in the Western Pacific is probably unsustainable over the long term, . . . [and] attempts to sustain this predominance . . . are likely to prove . . . destabilizing.”23

Another new and extremely useful book is Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the 21st Century (2014), by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon. The book shares many assumptions and recommendations with the present endeavor. The authors note that in various obvious scenarios, “the risks of serious US-China war could be far greater than many now appreciate.” In common with the present volume, Steinberg and O’Hanlon offer a large number of concrete proposals to mitigate US-China tensions. In using a methodology quite similar to the one employed here, they express the hope that “Washington can craft its own policies in ways that will call forth reciprocal, positive Chinese actions,” and they also advocate a “virtuous cycle of cooperative restraint.”24 Significantly, they emphasize that advocating cooperative approaches is frequently not popular, and, moreover, they assert that “there are powerful forces in the United States . . . that will tend to favor US policies that could accentuate . . . [the] rivalry between the United States and China. The same is true in key allied capitals, perhaps most notably in Tokyo.”25

However, there are also major differences between the present volume and the one by Steinberg and O’Hanlon. They put a high premium on maintaining America’s system of overseas bases in the Western Pacific, though it is argued here that this system should be reformed. And they may understate the vulnerability of that basing structure, underrate the pace of progress in Chinese military modernization, and overrate the pertinence of the United States’ experience with recent counterinsurgency wars for any major power war.26 Another significant difference is that Steinberg and O’Hanlon put the major onus on Beijing for improving the troubled bilateral relationship, whereas this book seeks a more equal, bilateral modus vivendi and even calls upon Washington, with its strength and maturity, to make the difficult first moves toward reconciliation in crucial areas of contention.27 Nevertheless, Steinberg and O’Hanlon have made a superb contribution to the debate, and their call for “nonmilitary responses” to counter Chinese actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea areas is particularly brave, sober, and significant.28

The recent book on US-China relations that comes closest to the present effort is Hugh White’s The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (2012). White presents a disquieting picture of current US-China relations: “Active rivalry between America and China over their future roles in Asia is no longer a future risk, but a present reality.” He sees a collision as ever more likely, because both states appear to be seeking unachievable and conflicting goals: “The hope that America can maintain uncontested leadership in Asia is. . . as illusory as the fear that China will be able to dominate Asia in its place.” He might be quite correct in observing, moreover, that “the Chinese military has been preparing for war with the United States. Now the principal task of the US military is preparing for war with China.” In this most sober volume, he warns that “those who cannot imagine a catastrophe have no capacity to prevent it.”29 Where the present volume seeks to improve upon White’s incisive analysis, along with the analyses of the other books discussed above that have sought to elaborate a viable cooperative approach vis-à-vis China, is in both providing a much wider discussion of Chinese sources—and thus a firmer basis for cooperation—and also, more particularly, offering a series of specific, balanced, and sequential policy recommendations.

As suggested above, a major ambition of the present book is to take Chinese voices seriously—a shortcoming of all too much scholarship on China and US-China relations. Chinese foreign policy experts have reacted with alarm and dismay regarding the developments in bilateral relations during the last several years. Chen Jian, of People’s University in Beijing, wrote in mid-2012 that the “US seems to have undertaken hostile measures. . . . From 2012 to 2024 will be the most dangerous period for US-China relations. . . . The actions of small states could drag the United States and China into an armed conflict.”30 Another scholar, Pang Zhongying, also at People’s University, observed that “under the circumstances of the US strategic pivot, . . .‘East Asian cooperation’ confronts its greatest external attack.”31  Wu Xinbo of Fudan University concluded that “the Obama administration’s balancing strategy has already had an obviously negative impact on China’s security interests.”32 Although counseling patience, Shen Dingli, also of Fudan, wrote in late 2012 that no matter how hard the United States tries to “create trouble for China, . . . [and] maneuvers by various means to surround China, . . . this will not change the fact that the sun is setting on American superiority.”33

Less moderate voices are also evident in Chinese discourse, for example, Chinese Air Force general Chao Liang. He stated explicitly in a mid-2013 interview that China must “rebalance” against the US “rebalancing policy,” calling, among other steps, for China to greatly enhance its “strategic power projection,” including both nuclear and long-range conventional strike capabilities.34 Likewise, Chinese admirals call openly for measures “with respect to near sea areas to control firmly, control well, control strictly, and to eliminate near seas threats, confirming [China’s] sovereignty, . . . and that it will not accept invasion and encroachment.”35  Another important Chinese admiral called in mid-2014 for enhanced 积极长远的力量运用规划 (plans for the active wielding of long-range power) or what might be termed simply “power projection” as a means to cope with perceived threats to China’s maritime security.36 There is also open discussion in 2014 within Chinese foreign policy journals about a perceived imperative to “undermine, weaken, or destroy” alliances that are viewed as hostile to China.37 A question often asked in the course of 2014 has been whether Beijing might be studying the lessons of the volatile Ukraine Crisis that has dominated headlines in that year. Indeed, preliminary evidence is that, not only is President Vladimir Putin much admired in China, but also that Chinese strategists have observed that “Russia does not fear.” As one Chinese senior colonel explains in an interview: “[A US] aircraft carrier group daring to enter the Black Sea . . . would be akin to a person locked inside a house.”38 For the moment at least, the study of key Mandarin-language sources seems to reveal that cooler heads still prevail, and that China is not seeking to follow the belligerent and risky Russian model. The overall guidance in Beijing with respect to US-China relations still seems to be 斗而 不破 (struggle, but do not break).39 Nevertheless, it is quite evident that Chinese discourse regarding the United States has become more bellicose, even as a similar trend has developed in the United States, reflecting a clear and dangerous evolution toward intensified rivalry. Chinese voices are not unknown in the West. However, much more can and must be done to understand Chinese perspectives on US-China relations and the new global order—in part, through a close analysis of Mandarin-language texts.

Therefore, embedded within each chapter that follows is a lengthy analysis of a variety of writings on the key issues by leading Chinese scholars. To the maximum extent, this book draws upon direct translations of the key passages from these writings. The concept is to allow Western readers direct access to these Chinese assessments—which heretofore were almost completely inaccessible to Western analysts. It is crucial to state that by quoting from this expansive variety of Chinese thinkers on key subjects, the author emphatically is not implying endorsement of these assessments. On the contrary, some of these Chinese assessments are highly subjective and even spurious. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore these viewpoints or dismiss them altogether. The tendency to scorn one’s adversary’s ideas as “propaganda” is all too common in the practice of international diplomacy. Such an approach not only smacks of xenophobia but is also likely to feed the tendency toward “misperception” and enhanced subjectivity in policy judgment. Recently, in fact, a mark of the quality and openness of Chinese writings on foreign affairs and defense matters has been a new tendency toward self-criticism and demand for accountability, as in a 2014 Chinese article that criticized Chinese assessments of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, suggesting that these appraisals were critically weakened by group-think and a lack of diverse perspectives.40 The failure to adequately consult a wide variety of Chinese-language materials can create cultural blindness to actual opportunities for cooperation and the peaceful resolution of difficult issues. In sum, this book seeks to improve on its predecessors by analyzing hundreds of important Chinese writings that have not been evaluated by Western scholars. It is hoped that a better understanding of Chinese viewpoints may facilitate enhanced US-China cooperation on critical issues of mutual concern.