The Debate on U.S.-China Relations: Make Room, Make Way, or Make Hay
Image Credit: The White House

The Debate on U.S.-China Relations: Make Room, Make Way, or Make Hay


The Asia security field is a crowded one these days, and that is a good thing. The region is confronting a number of destabilizing threats: disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas, weak governance in several Southeast Asian nations, and continuing uncertainty over North Korea’s intentions and capabilities, among others. All are long-term, ongoing challenges, and the more ideas that get out there about how to manage these issues, the better.

No issue gets as much attention, however, as the U.S.-China relationship and what it means for regional security. For most, it boils down to whether the era of U.S. primacy is over. If it is, what should the next stage look like and how does China fit in? If not, how does the United States preserve its role as the fundamental security guarantor in the region and how does China fit in?

Three recent, thoughtful reports/papers attempt to address this question: the first, “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China” by my CFR colleague Robert Blackwill and Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis; the second, “The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose” (pdf) by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd; and the third, “Beyond American Predominance in the Western Pacific: The Need for a Stable U.S.-China Balance of Power” by Carnegie Endowment scholar Michael Swaine. Each adopts a different approach and arrives at different conclusions, although the Rudd and Swaine analyses are largely compatible. Blackwill and Tellis explicitly seek to develop a roadmap for continued U.S. primacy in the Asia Pacific. Rudd and Swaine, in contrast, argue that such an effort is unrealistic, even harmful, given the realities of U.S. commitments and domestic politics, as well as China’s intentions and growing capabilities. Both Rudd and Swaine seek to have the United States and China sacrifice near-term interests for a longer-term greater good. However, Rudd places a much greater burden of compromise on the United States, while Swaine is more even-handed in his call for accommodation by both sides.

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I was most eager to read the Rudd report. I have heard the former prime minister speak on a number of occasions and have always been impressed by his insights. In his report, Rudd assumes the role of peacemaker—trying to bridge the gap between the “private or semi-private narratives each side [the United States and China] may have about the other.” Although ostensibly designed to speak equally to Chinese and U.S. policymakers, the report is, for the most part, designed for a U.S. audience—explaining China and the Chinese perspective to Americans and offering recommendations for Washington.

Rudd’s argument is premised on his belief that Chinese President Xi Jinping is someone with whom the United States can work, that he is prepared to take calculated risks, and that there is now a window in China for Washington and Beijing to strike a grand bargain. According to Rudd, it is up to the United States to use this space as creatively as possible, while it lasts. While this is an appealing narrative, the report does not make clear why Rudd believes this. Rudd also leaves the reader hanging when he asserts that China will become a more active participant in the reform of the global rules-based order and that it will bring a “new, forthright Chinese voice in the world.” It would have been helpful had the prime minister explained whether this voice will mean more Air Defense Identification Zones or more Asian Infrastructure Investment Banks or both. The implications for the region are vastly different.

There are also some off-putting notes. Rudd begins by announcing that the Chinese economy will continue to thrive, noting: “Sorry, but on balance, the Chinese economic model is probably sustainable.” It is an awkward pronouncement that assumes that Americans want the Chinese economy to fail—something very few Americans, in fact, desire. (What Americans do want is a thriving Chinese economy that offers a fair and open trade and investment environment.)

While bold and fun to read, Rudd’s analysis of Xi’s presidency and the potential for significant new cooperation with the United States—should only the United States seize the moment—ultimately falls short because it is difficult to find the evidence to support it. Xi may well have the political capital to strike a grand bargain, but Rudd’s faith in him notwithstanding, it remains unclear that he wants one.

The lack of demonstrable Chinese interest in a more accommodating regional security posture makes me initially sympathetic to the dominant theme of the Blackwill and Tellis report. As Blackwill and Tellis note, the current Chinese leadership has offered little indication—either in words or action—that it does not have as its endgame supplanting the United States as the regional hegemon. However, the report adopts such an uncompromising stance on any potential for the United States and China to find common ground that it loses me along the way. There is a built-in assumption that China necessarily wants to supplant the United States—not simply this regime at this moment in time. Such a deterministic understanding of Chinese politics and interests ignores ongoing debates within the country and the potential for new understandings to emerge

The recommendations (as in the Rudd report) run several pages, and for the most part, they represent a coherent strategy for the United States. Blackwill and Tellis have flipped the current hedging strategy from its emphasis on engagement with limited containment to containment with limited engagement. Much paper is devoted to strengthening military and economic ties with our allies. Still, it is difficult to understand, at times, how the containment and engagement will all work together—for example, “agreeing on enhanced security confidence-building measures between the two sides” while the United States establishes a new technology-control regime and levies an across-the-board tariff on Chinese economic goods in response to Beijing’s cyberattacks. Whatever its weaknesses, however, the report raises appropriate alarm bells concerning the challenge that many current Chinese economic and security behaviors pose for U.S. interests and the necessity of addressing them directly.

Ultimately, I thought the quietest piece—the one released with the least fanfare—was the most thought-provoking and compelling. Swaine offers a reasonably even-handed assessment of both the U.S. and PRC perspectives and tackles head on the problem that Beijing and Washington have concerning “clashing assumptions and beliefs about the requirements for continued order and prosperity in Asia.” He also identifies several very specific areas for potential cooperation, including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and the management of maritime territorial disputes, and then proceeds to lay out how actual progress might be realized through various trade-offs. For example, he suggests that the United States halt arms sales to Taiwan in return for credible assurances by Beijing that it will not use force against Taiwan (except in the case of a dejure declaration of independence) and acceptance that unification would be peaceful and must involve the consent of people of Taiwan. One can agree or not with all of Swaine’s analysis or prescriptions, but in a much shorter piece, he takes the reader deeper and farther into understanding the challenges at hand and the potential roadmap for resolution.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s FutureThis post appears courtesy of and Forbes Asia.

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