How to Make Compromise Compelling: Christensen and Goldstein on U.S.-China Relations
Image Credit: The White House

How to Make Compromise Compelling: Christensen and Goldstein on U.S.-China Relations


Sitting on the beach—or less fortuitously in an office—with nothing better to do in the last weeks of summer than read a few books on U.S.-China relations? You might want to pick up the new books by Thomas Christensen and Lyle Goldstein, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power and Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging U.S.-China Rivalry, respectively. They are not light reading, but they will situate you well for the barrage of media attention sure to accompany the late September summit between Presidents Xi and Obama.

On the face of it, Princeton Professor Christensen and Naval War College Professor Goldstein are cut from the same cloth. They are both serious China scholars, with a particular expertise on security issues. Their books address many of the same issues in the U.S.-China relationship, such as maritime security, North Korea, and the environment, among others. (Surprisingly, neither book addresses the critical issue of cybersecurity.) And they both speak from the same gospel: the United States and China can find common ground and realize a more stable and productive relationship.

Yet the two books diverge noticeably in their understandings of how common ground can be achieved, their perspectives on U.S.-China relations, and ultimately, the audiences for which their books are most relevant. Christensen provides a more straightforward historical accounting of the evolution of the U.S.-China relationship over the past few decades, with a few personal notes interspersed from his time during the George W. Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, responsible for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia. He frames much of his book as a bridging exercise between two extremes in the U.S. China community—the optimists and the pessimists—with his analysis serving as the bridge. He notes, for example, that China’s defense modernization poses real problems for the United States, but then continues on to argue that the scope of Beijing’s newfound military power is often exaggerated by scholars and officials. In every challenge, Christensen sees opportunity: “If global governance issues are handled deftly, China may become more assertive internationally and more constructive at the same time” (275).

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It is difficult to find any fault with Christensen’s analysis. There are a few small points with which I might take issue—he makes the somewhat odd argument, for example, that while the United States and Europe can point fingers at China on the issue of intellectual property theft of green technology, China can point back on the issue of accumulated carbon (272). I am unsure what one has to do with the other. Moreover, he appears to suggest that simply by dropping the word “Western” and substituting “institutions that support high standards of compliance,” Chinese patriots would not object to U.S. efforts to spread democracy (51). This seems like little more than wishful thinking.

Goldstein, in contrast, seeks to bridge the gap between the United States and China by establishing spirals of cooperation that ask Washington and Beijing each to make sacrifices in order to arrive at a more stable balance in the relationship. Goldstein places a greater burden on the United States, arguing that it should “both create the appropriate conditions for cooperation spirals and also, crucially, make the first moves” for two reasons: first, because Washington is more powerful and the standard bearer for the global order; and second, because as historian John Fairbank put it, historically, “the West expanded into China, not China into the West” (41). I don’t find these reasons compelling, but I appreciate the fact that Goldstein so clearly articulates his rationale. A real strength of Meeting China Halfway is that Goldstein offers a brief history of each issue area that he discusses, providing a useful framework for understanding how the United States and China have arrived at their current relative positions. In addition, his cooperation spirals—the real guts of the book—are quite specific. He offers such recommendations as Beijing should legalize independent trade unions, and the United States should press Taiwan to begin treaty negotiations with the mainland toward reunification.

The two books also differ in their narrative perspective. The word that kept coming to mind as I read Christensen’s The China Challenge was “reasonableness.” For every argument he makes, he also provides the counter-argument. It was eminently reasonable in his mind, for example, that Cornell University (where he earlier taught as an assistant professor) invite alumnus Lee Teng-hui to speak after he was elected president of Taiwan. However, Christensen also comments that he wished Lee would have been invited after he had left office in order to avoid any potential disruption to the U.S.-China relationship. If you disagree with one side of Christensen’s argument, you will likely find yourself in agreement with the other.

Goldstein offers a more distinct perspective—one that seems to lean most often toward trying to ensure that the reader at all times appreciate the Chinese perspective. His clarity of argument is appealing, but it also demands greater vigilance from the reader. For example, Goldstein quite clearly believes that some form of “one country, two systems” arrangement is a desirable outcome for Taiwan in the context of the U.S.-China relationship; and one of his cooperation spirals explores this as an endpoint. Along the way, he argues that Hong Kong and Taiwan can help develop political reform in China, an argument that I think is hard to justify in the current Chinese political environment. However, my concern is less with the substance of the argument—because people can reasonably disagree over the merits of an argument—and more with the framing. As he acknowledges, the issue of Taiwan is one of the great debates in the China scholarly/analyst community. However, in defining the two camps in this debate, he identifies those who support his view, such as Bruce Gilley, Admiral William Owens, and Charles Glaser, as “American scholars and senior decision makers” while those who do not, such as Nancy Tucker and Bonnie Glaser, in significantly less prestigious terms as “Washington analysts.” While neither appellation is technically incorrect—although Tucker was a professor at Georgetown University, not a Washington analyst—no one in the China field would ever elevate the first group above the second when it comes to analyzing U.S.-Taiwan-China relations (58-59). Goldstein is poorly served by trying to bias the reader in this way. The latter two are well recognized for their genuine expertise, with Tucker having been one of the country’s most renowned Taiwan scholars.

For the reader who can already navigate the waters of U.S.-China relations well, the Goldstein book is the better choice. His work is more challenging but also more engaging than that of Christensen. He offers stronger argumentation and takes the reader further in terms of thinking how the U.S.-China relationship might advance. I agree with some of what he proposes and disagree with much—indeed, he is openly critical of my own work on U.S.-China relations. Nonetheless, some of his ideas have stuck with me, and I think the book makes a significant contribution to the field. For the reader who is only ankle- or knee-deep in the field, however, the Christensen book is the better bet. It is thoughtful and reasonable, and the reader does not have to worry about semantic shadings. What you see is what you get.

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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