MAR: A Model for US-China Relations
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

MAR: A Model for US-China Relations


The United States and China, as well as the international community, would benefit significantly if both powers adopted a strategy of Mutually Assured Restraint (MAR). It would help them to move away from the current distrust both sides exhibit in their dealings with each other, cap the military build up, reduce the risks of unintended conflagrations, allow both nations to dedicate more resources to urgent domestic needs, and increase collaborations in many matters that concern both powers.

By MAR we mean that both powers adopt measures that would allow China to take the steps it holds are necessary for self-defense, without extending them to the point that they threaten other nations or the international commons. It allows for the United States to take the steps it holds necessary for self defense, while living up to its obligations to its allies in the region and maintaining the international order. MAR would fall in the category of the steps President Ronald Reagan defined as “trust but verify,” concepts very effectively embedded in SALT.

The application of MAR to the U.S.-Sino relationship can be highlighted by an approach to the Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons development, especially anti-ship missiles. China holds that it has developed A2/AD weapons for self defense;  the U.S. views them as a threat to its ability to discharge its obligations to Taiwan and Japan, as well as other nations in the area, and as a threat to freedom of navigation in the region. Both powers should agree to limit the number and range of these missiles; that these limitations should be verified by agreed methods; and that such short-range, defensive missiles could be provided to other nations in the area, such as Japan, thus curbing a major source of the current pressure to arm.

MAR should be extended to cyberspace. In effect, China has suggested a code of conduct in this realm that appears to provide a very promising base for MAR. Another approach would entail recognition that using cyber-space for the collection of information about another power’s military and economic base is a long-standing practice in international relations and may be unrealistic to try to ban. However, both powers could agree to restrain their preparations for using cyber tools for kinetic attacks, for instance by committing themselves not to plant malware in the other power’s systems. Such an agreed restraint could be vetted.

Instead of treating the nations on China’s borders as contested areas that each power attempts to pull into its orbit, under MAR they would be treated as neutral buffer zones, similar to Austria, and for a while Yugoslavia, during the Cold War. While both powers would be free to continue engaging these nations economically, MAR would prohibit military treaties, agreements, and exercises.

It is particularly important for MAR that the status of the contested islands not be changed by unilateral moves, and that their status be negotiated, arbitrated or adjudicated by an agreed international body.

MAR is not meant to be the only foundation on which to base a more cooperative US-Sino relationship. There is a long list of areas in which both powers have identical or complimentary interests, and in which they can work together. These include reducing the dangers of nuclear proliferation, climate change, counter-terrorism and financial/economic stability.

Calls on China to abide by the rules and norms of the international order should take into account that this order is subject to mutually agreed, negotiated revisions. For instance, the U.S., France and the U.K. have in the past supported armed humanitarian interventions under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect initiative, although that violates a long tradition of nations not using force to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, based on the Westphalia Treaty and UN Charter.

China has indicated that it might agree to such changes to the international order, so long as these interventions are not used to move beyond their humanitarian goal, and do not lead to coercive regime change, as they did in Libya. Under MAR, both powers could negotiate agreed changes in the international order, rather than one side de facto changing it, and demanding that the other power consider the change acceptable, as if it has been properly adjudicated.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

September 25, 2013 at 03:10

I do not see the thrust of this article.

There is already functional R between China and the USA.

China is developing its military rather slowly, and sales to Taiwan and pivot toward Asia are both quite mild.

I know many tend to disagree, but I believe such is the truth.

September 25, 2013 at 03:01

China cannot and need not be equal to the USA to prevent war with the USA and alo achieve enough of its objectives.

The USA wants to avoid war with China.  China will have to be reckless for the USA to bite the bullet and go to war with China.

Some degree of proximity to the USA will serve China well enough.


September 24, 2013 at 16:49

the problem is, what you called "Philippines' EEZ" the guys on the other side called it "China's EEZ". there is simply no way china will just pack up and leave. and why should they, they believe its their just as hard as you believe its yours. furthermore time is on their side and its highly unlikely the US would go to war with china for the philipphines anyways.

and how is Prof. Etzioni's columes an enbaressment? while i disagree with his MAR theory, he can at least see things from different angles and makes an argument, unlike you who makes no arguements what so ever and simply posts one liners like "If China gets out of the Philippines' EEZ, all good things are possible. If it doesn't, I think there will be war in the near future. " 

September 24, 2013 at 15:35

interests is the core consideration for both countries

September 22, 2013 at 12:23

Unworkable.The problem is China recognizes its' borders to be no less than the entire south china sea. Remember China's declaration that the entire south china sea is one of its'  "core interest ". Equal in importance  to that of recovery its' of Taiwan. Ergo, its' military stance will be no less than that of its military stance in the Taiwan straits pending its' developing military capabilities. In the long run it will continue building its' military strength in the region while reassuring  southeast asian countries that it will not strike unless provoked. Just like what it did to the scarborough shoal.  The only solution is for southeast asian countries to try to keep up by building up its individual nations' defenses and introducing more alliances until a new equilibrium is attained. No mutual restrain agreement can be attained until both sides reach a level of  "assured mutual damage"  just like in europe.

September 22, 2013 at 06:33

china was to be seen as equal to the US, it would never accpet an artificial limit like 3% of GDP when the US spends 4.5%(without other, significant, concessions from the US). the fact that china spends 1.5-2% is by choice and very different from an imposed condition.

September 22, 2013 at 06:28

what? hold on, your telling me that any other great power isnt focused on "rich country, strong army" the US isnt focused on its economy and military? russia doesnt care about its economy and military? what world are you from mr.ACT?

when the chinese stand up for chian is virulent nationalism, when american or anyone else do it, its call partriotism. i call it BS
and oh yea. korea is an actually coutry populated by millions and you're saying thats the same as SCS and diaoyu islands which are disputed islands populated by a handful of people to zero in case of diaoyu islands. right, 1+1=5 in your world too mr.ACT?

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
September 22, 2013 at 02:30

@Applesauce: "The whole point is [moot], basically."

If China gets out of the Philippines' EEZ, all good things are possible. If it doesn't, I think there will be war in the near future.  

Either way, Professor Etzioni needs to retire. His columns here are an embarrassment. Even pro-CPC writers like Applesauce are balking at Prof. Etzioni's shameless apologias or the behavior of the Middle Heavenly Kingdom. 

September 21, 2013 at 08:08


nice sarcasm there, Chris, and I agree with you; the PRC today operates very much like Imperial Japan did circa 1880: the emphasis on the "rich country, strong army," the emphasis on nationalism…a good student of History would know what comes next. I'd actually argue that the South and East China Seas are to China what Korea was to Japan circa that period. What's worse is that this mimicry of Japan's course in international affairs appears to be motivated less wholly by imperialism and nationalism (as was the case with Japan), and more by a combination of imperialism (the Zhongguo mentality) and a very sincere need to distract the populace from corruption and pressing problems within the PRC as a whole; this combination actually makes the PRC more dangerous, I believe, than Imperial Japan was in its time, because what is riding on the background of all this is nothing less than regime survival for the CPC.

Chris Johnson
September 21, 2013 at 06:32

Well, one should not be surprised that a very 'accommodating' approach should emanate from such an optimistic observer.  After all, he's been a professional 'pie-eyed optimist' for almost 40 years.  Of course the Chinese are to be wholly trusted, because they are intrinsically kind and gentle and supportive of all their neighbors' wants, no matter how trivial.  Nor are they sicilian in the execution of their policies, which are designed to further causes we all know and love.  Like many Carterites, you appear to believe we all have equal equities and equal moral claims, just like the US and the USSR did in about 1985 or so.  I'm happy you do, professor, but I really would not want to sit through a lecture.

September 21, 2013 at 05:53

i dont see how this would work as no chinese leader in their right minds would ever agree to this in its current form and circumstances. SALT (partially) worked because the US and USSR was at nuclear parity, and nuclear arms does not favor one side or the other, if both side has the same numbers of them(not to mention they both clearly still have enough to end each other and much more). on the other hand anti access weapons are very different and so the current china-us situation is very different from the US-USSR one. for instance the US does not need anti-access/area denial weapons nearly as much as china does given that the USN is unmatched, as such the US has every reason to push for the reduction and "limit the number and range of these missiles" because it benefits the US completely with nearly zero drawbacks. mean while, china's case is the complete opposite, it cannot yet match the US conventionally, thus it isnt about to willing give up one of its few very effective weapons against the US especially when the US gives up nearly nothing in return. the threat of japan having a few long range missiles is comparatively nothing considering the threat, the USN poses to china and this is a huge consideration for them because the US has treaties with several of chinas neighbors which it has disputes with. agreements are not going to happen if it is completely onesided as this imaginary treaty would be. now if the PLAN is ever at parity with the USN then the agreement would make much more sense.

to see a view from the other side. imagine if any US leader would ever agree to the following:

limit the number of east asian bases and the size of those bases and the chinese will do the same.

in addition, given the leaks about us cyber spying and supposed backdoor in everything from iphones to microsoft windows, i highly doubt anyone is in the mood to trust each other(see brazil). who is to say that one side wont just lie and say "sure yea we dont have plans on your electrical infustructure" and any evidence found will simply be dismissed as acts of indivisuals or groups without government affiliation. the problem here is lack of trust and inability to really verify.

furthermore, on a large scheme, the bit on border buffers is not going to fully work either . the US wont ever give up japan, korea, taiwan, philipphines if it can help it (aka giving up the military treaties, agreements, and exercises.). and while the US is on the border china isnt going to simply give up on north korea(which is a buffer but not the kind described here). but there is potential for other areas like various members of asean or pakistan/india.

but outside of the immediate east asian region there is plenty of scope for cooperation

September 21, 2013 at 05:32

“By MAR we mean that both powers adopt measures that would allow China to take the steps it holds are necessary for self-defense, without extending them to the point that they threaten other nations or the international commons. It allows for the United States to take the steps it holds necessary for self defense, while living up to its obligations to its allies in the region and maintaining the international order. MAR would fall in the category of the steps President Ronald Reagan defined as “trust but verify,” concepts very effectively embedded in SALT.”

So what is R for China? 2, 2.5 or 3 percent of gross GDP? Why can’t even  a cordial trade-partner spend up to 3 percent of GDP on defense?

The whole point is mute, basically.

Big countries will have big defense. How can a little bigger or a little smaller differ much over the course of 30-40 years?

China is sure to become a military power, greater than all perhaps (for a long time) except the USA. How can the degree of proximity to the USA, and the rate toward such, be the crux? Can 5-10 years sooner or later be crucial, for what?

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