The Great Debate: U.S.-Chinese Relations and the Future of Asia

November 10, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyDiplomacy Region: ChinaUnited StatesAsia

The Great Debate: U.S.-Chinese Relations and the Future of Asia

Lyle Goldstein responds to his critics in an ongoing debate concerning U.S.-Chinese ties and the future of Asia-Pacific region. 

My critics and I appear to agree on many things, but apparently not on how these maritime disputes should be dealt with. One way to conceptualize the stark choice that Washington faces in these circumstances is to ask, what if I am wrong and the U.S. position on the maritime disputes is too flexible? If I am wrong, China will take possession of some additional reefs and consideration may be given in the future toward enhancing deterrence forces and strengthening defense of the home islands of the Philippines and Japan—a very clear and distinct red line. If Chase, Heath and Ratner are wrong and the rivalry continues to intensify along the current trajectory, we may blunder into a hot rivalry that we are unable to afford or much worse, World War III, over some trivial reefs. I am heartened to read in their critique, at least, that they are aware that “concerns about ‘containment’ are pervasive in Chinese foreign policy … assessments, and that is a fear the United States cannot ignore.”

A final point of weakness in the critique is the sadly low expectations that these analysts seem to have for U.S.-Chinese relations. The two most important countries in the world should be working closely on all the major issues on the global agenda, foremost among them: nuclear proliferation, Ebola and climate change. John Kerry’s recent speech on U.S.-Chinese relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies offers a glimpse of the state of cooperation with China on the key issues and the prognosis is not at all good. In a speech of more than ten pages, a grand total of two sentences each were devoted to the problems of Iran and North Korea. Are there any more important issues before international security and U.S.-Chinese relations than these twin conundrums? In a revealing part of the speech, Kerry says proudly that he will be going to China for the fourth time in his nearly two-year tenure in office. We all know he’s been busy, but four trips in two years seems to show a rather low level of engagement. Intensive U.S.-Chinese cooperation might have required something like ten trips and the equivalent number by the Chinese foreign minister to Washington. That would truly amount to intensive engagement.

Admirably, Kerry did spend significantly more time in the speech on climate change than on the problems over “rocks,” but even the climate-change discussion was extremely ambiguous and short on specifics—suggesting regrettably the distinct possibility that this critical part of the U.S.-Chinese relationship is almost as plagued by mistrust as most other parts of the relationship. Nearly half a year into the unprecedented human tragedy of the Ebola crisis in Africa, no serious diplomat, nor even a think-tank analysis has broached the idea of major U.S.-China military medical cooperation in the crisis, despite the fact that the Chinese military is well prepared for such an operation since they regularly exercise in MOPP (mission-oriented, protected posture) gear against chemical, biological and nuclear threats. Here, the “bandwidth” problem appears to be an issue: most think tanks and China analysts are too busy examining the conception and execution of the “rebalance” to seriously consider how Washington and Beijing might constructively cooperate to meet global challenges.

An unfortunate aspect of the emerging U.S.-China rivalry is that certain economic and institutional interests in both China and the United States are increasingly benefiting substantially from the intensifying rivalry. It is not outlandish, moreover, to suggest that hawks on one side of the Pacific can even create a boon for hawks on the other side and vice versa. My critics are esteemed colleagues, “rising stars” in the China-watching field, with wide and impressive experience in government. And yet we must be cautious and urge continual restraint, knowing full well that rivalry recruits more zealots than cooperation.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0