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. 

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.