Managing U.S.-China Relations? Challenging. Picking a Good Guidebook? Easy: The China Challenge

Managing U.S.-China Relations? Challenging. Picking a Good Guidebook? Easy: The China Challenge

Book Review: A unique window into the U.S.-China relationship that should not be missed. 

Rigorous, measured, readable scholarship is always in insufficient supply generally. It is particularly so concerning the vital issue of U.S.-China relations. The world is awash in books on the twenty-first century’s most important bilateral relationship, but even amid this torrent The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power by Princeton University professor Thomas J. Christensen represents a unique contribution. Given the difficulties inherent in its weighty subject, the volume will remain relevant for years to come. Above all, it offers Christensen’s unique perspective as a leading scholar on the topic who has also served as a high-level diplomat—namely, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs with responsibility for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

Christensen writes clearly, in active voice. He substantiates his points with wide-ranging but carefully distilled data and citations. He frequently offers personal recollections (literally dropping his coffee upon reading news that China voted for UN Security Council Resolution 1970, referring Qadaffi’s government to the International Criminal Court). He offers deep reflection, and makes connections that are both vivid and relevant. This is at once remarkably accessible and represents the thinking person’s guide to understanding Sino-American relations. If you want overwrought and simplistic narratives, this is not the book for you. Here is what it does offer:

- A compelling case that today’s international system allows the United States and China to coexist peacefully and further common interests and responsibilities, even as they continue to compete in specific areas.

- Reason for nuanced concern: China remains far from surpassing the United States, but will pose problems even without catching up.

- A positive vision for bringing a rising China further into the twenty-first century international system, and for shaping its policy choices in a mutually-favorable direction.

- Detailed insights into what approaches have been more, and less, effective in influencing Beijing’s behavior productively.

- Specific recommendations for subsequent U.S. policymakers, including the next president, to address these important issues.

Reality Check:

To accomplish these important but difficult tasks, Christensen begins by establishing a strong analytical foundation. With a scholar’s detachment, he tackles theoretical misconceptions head-on, drills down analytically, and pays attention to essential economic underpinnings that all too many professors of international relations and security studies ignore. He emphasizes, for instance, what any industry expert will patiently explain, but which few academics or politicians understand: “rhetoric about energy independence… is fundamentally misguided and misinformed. Oil is a globalized commodity and no one can cut the United States off from supply….” Christensen scrutinizes Chinese trade figures and finds that these statistics are inflated by increasing dependence on foreign oil—a sign of potential vulnerability rather than strength. As he summarizes, it “makes no sense” to view Chinese energy dependence as “a source of national power.” Yet that is precisely the outcome if statistics concerning energy imports are not considered correctly. This is one of many instances in which Christensen’s scholarly attention to detail provides important context for assessing China’s trajectory and influence.


While Christensen is respectful to all whom he mentions (a trait for which he is known), he is not afraid to highlight unsound or unsubstantiated assertions that have gained undeserved traction in China policy debates. This includes what many would see as flip-flopping by Paul Krugman on the impact of Chinese economic growth on the United States. Similarly, Christensen eschews “direct comparison of numerical indicators, free of context, to judge military advantage.” This is a refreshing alternative to blanket assertions that the U.S. military or its budget is larger, by a given metric, than some number of other countries’ assets combined. In examining historical levels of American defense spending, Christensen rightly rejects “the argument that somehow the defense budget is undercutting the overall economic foundations of U.S. power.” It is likewise noteworthy that Washington enjoys formal defense commitments with sixty-two political entities. By contrast, Beijing has only a formal alliance with Pyongyang, a security partnership with Islamabad, and defense cooperation with Moscow. With partners like those…

Christensen exposes revisionist history that pervades even well-meaning Washington circles, not to mention the greasy engine room of retail politics. Many improvements to American focus on, and presence in, the Asia-Pacific currently credited exclusively to President Barack Obama in fact began under President George W. Bush. Christensen makes a reasonable case that “Almost all of the major military aspects of U.S. policy now associated with the pivot were in motion before the surge in Iraq in 2006….” Christensen is right to point out that there is often a lag between a major policy shift and the positive manifestations for which a leader later claims credit.


With respect to the Asia-Pacific rebalance, however, this reviewer would argue strongly that mismanagement of the Iraq War and associated grave blunders cast from the beginning—and continue to cast—a long shadow indeed over other U.S. efforts abroad, including vis-à-vis East Asia. The vast human toll, the necessary expense of caring for those who have so heroically borne the nation’s burden, the repeated focus on employing ground forces and otherwise striking inland actors at the expense of deploying sophisticated systems optimized for deterring major power aggression in the maritime Asia-Pacific, the lingering public fatigue in supporting ambitious initiatives overseas, and even what many consider a partial overreaction by Barack Obama in his hesitation to wield the instruments of national power—all are direct consequences of errors by George W. Bush. Few, if anyone, would disagree that the younger Bush’s Asia policy was far more effective than his disastrous approach to the Greater Middle East. Yet while—as in so many cases—the optics were worse than the reality, during his presidency limitations on high-level visits to East Asia left many in the region understandably concerned that Washington was paying insufficient attention. When these factors are considered, Kurt Campbell’s 2005 observation holds meaningful relevance even today: “Rarely in history has a rising power made such prominent gains in the international system largely as a consequence of the actions and inattentiveness of the dominant power.

Despite flawed decisions of the president he served, however; and thanks to his own positive efforts as both scholar and practitioner, Christensen has produced a work that is about far more than China and the United States alone, but also about security in today’s international system. As John Mearsheimer and other tragic pessimists fail to appreciate, but as Christensen argues persuasively, the world today is fundamentally different from its pre-World War I antecedents. This is thanks to transnational production chains in particular, but also because of the integrative power of real-time world financial markets and extensive international organizations, together with the inescapable deterrent power of nuclear weapons. In short, today’s global system is interdependent as never before. Moreover, war does not “pay” the way that it used to: territorial conquest no longer represents a promising means of augmenting economic and international power. For all this, we are more fortunate than perhaps we typically appreciate.

Against this increasingly interconnected backdrop, Christensen gives transnational production networks the emphasis that they deserve. More than half of China’s exports (90% of its high-tech exports) are assembled by foreign-invested firms, typically using at least some foreign-sourced components. “Those products might more accurately be labeled ‘Made in Asia’,” Christensen writes memorably, “or even ‘Made on Earth!’” He invokes Edward Steinfeld’s “example of an iPod assembled… in a Taiwanese-owned plant on mainland China using American and Korean know-how and a hard drive made by a Japanese manufacturer, itself with a factory based in China that uses components imported into China from third countries.”

This vivid dissection of today’s international system establishes the basis for the approach Christensen advocates for U.S. China policy. Pragmatism is in order. There are many common interests; the game is not zero-sum. Despite important differences, there is no need for Cold War-style containment. Yet the United States must remain strong, maintain presence, and stand up proactively for its interests and values.

Challenges and Opportunities:

Indeed, despite globalization, considerable obstacles to Asian regional integration remain. The United States has a useful role to play in the Asia-Pacific, and the universal concepts it promotes should not be seen as inherently alien or colonial in nature. Specifically, just as mathematics are not viewed as “Arabic or Asian” today and important intellectual disciplines are not regarded as “European,” “international institutions are not intrinsically Western, even though they have their roots in the post-World War II consensus.” In an observation that this reviewer believes supports some of the important work of his Princeton colleague G. John Ikenberry in After Victory, Christensen notes that “the greatest beneficiaries of that system have not always been the leaders who created it.” Where Christensen differs respectfully from Ikenberry, and this reviewer concurs, is in his argument that labeling international institutions “Western” is counterproductive. Case in point: China has unquestionably benefited more from the current global order than any other nation, particularly since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. Post-1978, no nation has done more than the United States to facilitate China’s rise.

Overall, Christensen contends, “China is essentially playing by our rules. … I have never seen any evidence that Chinese elites have a blueprint for a new international system to promote once China becomes sufficiently powerful to implement it.” Rather, it is at the margins that Beijing is causing difficulty; for example, by stimulating China’s domestic economy and promoting national champions to generate jobs at the expense of foreign businesses and international trade and intellectual property norms; and by pursuing its outstanding territorial and maritime claims in ways that increasingly concern its neighbors.

Christensen demonstrates cogently what such geopolitical theorists as Henry Kissinger and some overly-eager Chinese strategists alike fail to recognize: Asia today differs from the world prior to World War II in its “lack of true multipolarity.” Given this complex context, and building on the analytical foundation detailed earlier, Christensen offers compelling evidence that “pessimists” exaggerate China’s rise, influence, and leverage; as well as America’s “decline.” They underappreciate the strength of U.S. alliances. To be sure, as Christensen readily acknowledges, China has the world’s second largest defense budget. Already the world’s second largest economy, it is the leading trading state and foreign direct investment target. It is Africa’s leading trading partner, and the foremost economic partner of central African republics. At the same time, however, Christensen politely calls out Martin Jacques and Arvind Subramanian for exaggerated projections that have, surprisingly, received far too little pushback. They seem unaware of the many important data points that Christensen deploys, including the fact that “the ratio of workers to pensioners will drop faster in China than in any country in human history.” This contrasts markedly with the comparatively favorable conditions enjoyed by United States, “the only advanced economy in the world with a growing population and a growing work force.”

Recent events support Christensen’s assessments. In analysis that went to press well before China’s June 2015 stock market slump raised questions about the nation’s economic growth trajectory and its leaders’ stewardship thereof, Christensen asserts clearly, “pessimists often underestimate the problems brewing in the Chinese economy.” China “lacks institutions like developed stock markets to channel capital into the most dynamic sectors of its economy.” Similarly, before Beijing’s August 2015 currency devaluation spooked markets and arguably undercut reforms, Christensen wrote, “China’s stubborn ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ approach on currency actually causes long-term domestic instability….” This all leads to a logical big-picture conclusion: “rumors of the death of U.S. economic leadership have been greatly exaggerated.” Beyond that, Christensen documents the major institutional, legal, and normative hurdles that stand between Beijing and global leadership.

Nevertheless, there is an important nuance to Christensen’s thesis: even without catching up to the United States, China will pose problems for it, particularly in East Asia. Christensen first made this observation in 2001, when its significance was poorly understood by most. Fourteen years later, he elaborates further: while “China will not replace the United States anytime soon as the world’s greatest economic, military, and political power…. China’s diplomatic influence in the region has… grown, as has its military and economic wherewithal. These factors, combined with geography, alliance politics, and sovereignty disputes, create true challenges for U.S. national security policy.” Christensen explains the volatility of China’s maritime periphery, particularly the East and South China seas, where nationalist narratives rooted in domestic politics feed dangerous disputes over features and waters with no mutually accepted status quo, in which all parties believe that they are defending rightful claims. Here, with the partial exception of Japan, Beijing enjoys military superiority over Washington’s regional allies and friends.

Drawing on his extensive historical research, Christensen uncovers another factor harming China’s regional policies, and worsening their impact on the United States and its regional allies and partners. With respect to North Korea, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must maintain a righteous narrative of triumph in a just war against a worthy adversary to protect Mao Zedong’s legacy, and theirs. The PLA’s other major foreign wars, against India and Vietnam, do not offer this politically vital combination—which is “unique and irreplaceable” for the PLA’s image. Leninist secrecy and historical reengineering have long concealed the fact that Mao’s meetings with Kim Il-sung in Beijing gave the North Korean dictator a “green light” to invade South Korea. Even today, Xi Jinping perpetuates a conveniently selective portrayal of the Korean War. Fortunately, with proper efforts, Washington can incentivize Beijing to rein in Pyongyang where and when it matters most. One of the best examples to date, Christensen relates, was the U.S. Treasury’s prevention in 2005 of Macau’s Banco Delta Asia from performing U.S. dollar transactions because of its laundering of North Korean criminal proceeds.

Words That Matter(ed):

One of the greatest strengths of Christensen’s book is the detailed diplomatic history that it offers, much from a scholar-diplomat’s firsthand perspective. The key episode is what he terms “China’s Offensive Diplomacy” since the financial crisis of 2007-08. Washington’s interaction with Beijing during this trying period offers many lessons for policy-makers, particularly the next U.S. president. While China’s stimulus package in response to the crisis was the highest in GDP terms (14%) of any major economy, and exacerbated economic flaws that are finally being recognized more broadly today, Chinese leaders at the time misperceived that their nation had gained significant power relative to a weakening United States. They proceeded with “a mix of cockiness and insecurity.” “No one envied the Obama administration’s inheritance,” Christensen acknowledges reasonably.

The Obama Administration compounded the problem with “rhetorical packaging,” however. Its “public diplomacy created unnecessary problems with both China and its neighbors.” First, the Administration’s admirable attempt to devote heightened attention to the Asia-Pacific produced a term with negative implications: the “pivot.” “The United States had never left Asia and the suggestion that we had left and had suddenly returned would do diplomatic harm,” Christensen argues persuasively. “A deeper strategic problem for U.S. diplomacy raised by the pivot is that it makes the United States appear unsteady and unable to handle two problems at once.”

Second, and worse still in this reviewer’s judgment, “the rhetoric and symbolic acts taken to pursue reassurance in the second half of 2009 turned out to be similarly overcooked and counterproductive.” It is with characteristic diplomacy and thoroughness that Christensen documents one of the worst blunders of the Obama Administration vis-à-vis China. Before Obama’s state visit to China in 2009, “some of his advisors seemed eager, perhaps overly eager, to build trust.” The first major senior official speech on Asia strategy came from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on September 24, 2009. In advocating bilateral “strategic reassurance,” Steinberg “seemed to call for efforts to reassure China outside the context of any specific problem or crisis.” In fact, Steinberg offered “something new… volunteering that the United States also needed to proactively offer China ‘specific steps’ to allay Beijing’s security concerns about the United States.” Rather than simply rendering judgment, Christensen quotes the relevant text from Steinberg’s speech: “if our efforts are truly to be successful, they must go beyond words to actions that reassure. We must each take specific steps to address and allay each other’s concerns.” Christensen himself would never have made such an error: he “instantly imagined Chinese officials, saying: ‘Okay, here is an opening list: eliminate arms sales to Taiwan; reduce or eliminate surveillance and reconnaissance operations near the Chinese coast; pressure U.S. allies to back off their claims to islands disputed with China.’” Christensen rightly “wondered if and how the speech had been cleared through the interagency process before [Steinberg] gave it. Rumors circulated afterward that it had not.” The “strategic reassurance speech” subsequently made Obama’s decision not to receive the Dalai Lama before his China trip misperceived as just such a “specific step.”

Worse still, in preparation for the visit, the Obama Administration ill advisedly (in the view of both Christensen and this reviewer) agreed to “a joint statement about the nature” of bilateral relations. The “overeager reassurance campaign” continued, prompting Administration officials to accept a text that read, “The two countries reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués which guide U.S.-China relations. Neither side supports any attempts by any force to undermine this principle.” Most disturbingly: “The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.” As Christensen points out, however, “the United States does not agree on the critically important details of Beijing’s sovereignty claims to Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or the islands and waters of the South China Sea.” More broadly, the agreed-upon text paired specific Chinese “core” interests with diffuse, unenforceable American desires. Christensen suggests persuasively that the Obama Administration “came to realize the inclusion of ‘core interests’ in a joint statement was a mistake,” and senior U.S. government officials have apparently not repeated the phrase. But damage had already been done: “The Chinese government [has] used the phrase with sharply increased frequency after 2009.”

These Obama Administration errors had substantive impact. Many CCP officials not experienced in foreign affairs, and members of the Chinese public, consequently viewed the Administration as “more accommodating and sensitive to Chinese concerns than its predecessors.” This raised unrealistic expectations, heightened disappointment when they were not met, and prompted harsher Chinese reactions that would have otherwise been the case. This arguably exacerbated bilateral relations in 2010, a year of abrasive Chinese policies and consequent blowback—“arguably the worst year for Chinese diplomacy in the [post-1978] reform era.” Most factors that prompted this acerbic foreign policy remain in place, and remain an ongoing concern for U.S. officials. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, it was precisely when the Obama Administration was so focused on “strategic reassurance” that its perceived weakness was exploited by Beijing; and precisely when the Administration began rightly recalibrating its policy in 2010 that Beijing began to step back, however reluctantly and temporarily, from its worst excesses in word and deed.

Policy Recommendations:

In addition to helping scholars and practitioners think more clearly about policy toward China, Christensen draws on his experience in both professions to offer in-depth analysis and actionable suggestions. While it would always be nice to have still-more-numerous, more-specific policy recommendations, anyone who has labored in this area will appreciate his contribution.

In the geopolitical realm, for instance, Christensen suggests that “the United States and like-minded states… focus more on the considerable common interests we have with China” and “on solving specific behavioral problems by problematic states.” As part of this focus, Washington and its partners should place less emphasis on setting preconditions or attempting regime change vis-à-vis such pariah states, approaches that severely reduce prospects for Chinese cooperation. Heart-felt idealism will undoubtedly leave some unmoved by this suggestion. But Christensen’s logic cannot be easily dismissed: “Even Chinese passivity and the maintenance of normal economic relations with global pariahs provides enough sustenance to those bad actors to undercut global efforts to pressure them.” Recent difficulties in pursuing alternative policies, particularly concerning affairs in the Greater Middle East and the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, underscore the logic of his argument.

One of Christensen’s major points yields clear policy recommendations that are readily-implemented: words matter. Strong presidential leadership is essential to transcend glib buzzwords and parochial Pentagonese. This is in part because “in coercive diplomacy…psychology and perceptions are even more important than military reality.” It is here that the Obama Administration has made the majority of its China-related mistakes—in Christensen’s reckoning, as documented earlier, and in this reviewer’s. In making such constructive criticism, Christensen offers alternatives of his own (e.g., “adjusting” instead of the “pivot,” similar to the ultimately-official “rebalance”). Most importantly, he advises against “seeking common labels with Beijing” such as a “new type of great power relations” since “China tends to interpret them radically differently and to use those self-serving interpretations against the United States and its allies diplomatically when predictable differences arise.” Having conducted extensive research in this area, this reviewer could not agree more; he was amazed that in multiple interviews he conducted, U.S. officials dismissed such concerns as harmless instances of cheap talk to placate Beijing. It is noteworthy that, as with “core interests,” the Obama Administration appears to have stopped mentioning “new-type great power relations” and its several variants. Yet in both cases, Chinese counterparts from Xi on down continue to invoke Obama and his administration’s prior “agreement” with Beijing’s concepts. This lingering challenge should serve as a lesson to future administrations.

In what is arguably a more complex example given the need to educate politicians, taxpayers, and allies about the stakes involved, Christensen contends, “the phrase [anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD] and other buzzwords ascribe to China more coercive leverage than Beijing has earned… When the United States discusses publicly the notion that there are areas of the world its military cannot penetrate, it has the potential to undercut not only U.S. resolve but allied resolve….” What most would agree, this reviewer included, is that feeding such notions without doing enough to counter them tangibly, convincingly, and publicly is obviously counterproductive. Throughout much of his book, Christensen makes a reasonable case that—in an ill-advised inversion of Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum—the Obama Administration has acted too softly while speaking too loudly; and that the reverse would be considerably more effective. In this reviewer’s opinion, the Administration’s protracted public dithering over Freedom of Navigation operations, followed by the most modest U.S. Navy patrol conceivable near Subi Reef in October 2015, underscores the continuing validity of Christensen’s critique.

While Christensen cautions against exaggerating the impact of China’s military development beyond its immediate region, he emphasizes that strong U.S. presence and commitment is essential to shaping Beijing’s behavior positively therein. “Contrary to the common assumption that American toughness in East Asia only breeds Chinese intransigence and spirals of tension in the region,” he explains, “the second half of the 1990s demonstrates that a robust U.S. security presence and commitment to East Asia, in the proper diplomatic context, can incentivize China to behave more moderately toward its neighbors.” Christensen therefore calls on Washington to maintain a strong, comprehensive presence in the Asia-Pacific, and “to provide potential victims of Chinese bullying with an alternative security partner in the United States.” He maintains that Washington should ensure that regional sovereignty disputes are “handled peacefully,” in part by supporting “multilateral confidence-building”; while “assiduously avoid[ing] taking sides in those disputes or getting directly involved in their settlement.”

Here, one of Christensen’s key takeaways remains a particularly thorny problem for American policy-makers: “A China that lags behind the United States in terms of economics, soft power, military capabilities, and alliances can still pose major challenges to U.S. security interests, particularly in East Asia.” Christensen is doubly correct that “there are entire categories of weapons in which China’s numbers outstrip our own, but raw numbers do not mean as much in measuring military power as technological sophistication.” In the broadest sense, it may indeed be argued today that “in terms of the quality of weapons, there is no category of military hardware, save perhaps the antiship ballistic missile under development [and already deployed] in China, in which China has anything approximating an advantage over the United States.” But it is noteworthy that China has recently fielded the YJ-12 and YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles; the United States has not deployed equivalents of these next-generation supersonic missiles. Moreover, numbers matter considerably. Finally, U.S. planners’ greatest concerns lie ahead. Even as China is rapidly importing, indigenizing, developing, and fielding new systems, it is investing heavily in cutting-edge technologies.


Given Christensen’s detailed, compelling coverage of the nature and evolution of the international system, particularly its economic dimensions, as well as recent Sino-American diplomacy, the reader is left wanting even more of his military analysis than space permits. It would be particularly useful to read more about ongoing Chinese military efforts to strengthen “A2/AD” or “counter-intervention” capabilities; prospects for Chinese development of innovative space, missile, hypersonic, electromagnetic spectrum, cyber, and other systems; corresponding challenges to American presence, operations, and influence; as well as—per Christensen’s recommendation—how specifically the United States should ensure that it remains a strong actor in the Asia-Pacific. In fairness, however, the challenges that the world’s two leading military powers pose to each other could be the subject of a book unto itself. Indeed, there are already several major offerings in this area, most notably by Christensen’s Princeton colleague Aaron Friedberg. And Christensen has already pioneered the field of Chinese military analysis with his landmark International Security article “Posing Problems without Catching Up,” which continues to capture the key dynamics in this regard.

Another major theme, which Christensen labels “the biggest challenge of all,” is harder to operationalize but nevertheless essential: how to persuade Beijing to increase its provision of public goods as a responsible stakeholder. As Christensen documents compellingly, China benefits greatly from the existing global system, but lacks the willingness to contribute sufficiently to its maintenance. As the most influential developing country in history, China is facing contribution requests at an earlier stage than any before it. Yet, Christensen marshals stunning superlatives to make the case that the world cannot afford to have China continue largely “free-riding” (or remaining a “selfish superpower,” as this reviewer has termed it) as “the world’s largest trader of manufactured goods, one of the world’s largest importers of natural resources, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases [generating twice as much CO2 as the United States], a close diplomatic and economic partner of several of the world’s worst proliferators and failed states, and the holder of the largest reserves of foreign currency.”

To make matters worse, Beijing may prioritize cleaning air by increasing its use of synthetic natural gas generated from coal, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions further. Encouragingly, Beijing has agreed to cap emissions growth by 2030, with 20% of electricity generated by non-carbon means. Christensen rightly underscores the potential significance of this pledge, although it will require tremendous efforts in China, and by Christensen’s successors in the U.S. government, to ensure that it is implemented in a verifiable and meaningful way.

Bottom Line

By any measure, from a U.S. perspective, managing Sino-American relations effectively in coming years will be as demanding as it is important. One of the most difficult aspects will be working to shape a rising China’s behavior in a positive direction that is compatible with the current international system. Fortunately, amid these undeniable challenges, one decision is easy: if you have not done so already, you must read Christensen’s book. His unique insights as a scholar-practitioner concerning this century’s most important bilateral relationship will remain instructive for years to come.

Andrew Erickson is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Viault