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. 

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.”