The Myth of a US-China Grand Bargain
Image Credit: Official White House Photo

The Myth of a US-China Grand Bargain


A number of scholars have tried to advance the well-intentioned proposal that U.S. concessions to China’s many concerns will somehow facilitate a peaceful order in Asia. While I agree with the sentiment and recognize that there are areas of international life where Sino-U.S. cooperation is essential, the idea that U.S. accommodation of China will produce a peaceful and stable order in Asia isn’t just unrealistic; it’s irresponsible.

Though it wasn’t the first, Hugh White’s China Choice was an early and pointed call for the United States to form a “G-2” with China in which the two countries would work together to set the terms of the regional order, requiring that the United States accommodate the demands of a rising China. Jim Steinberg’s and Michael O’Hanlon’s Strategic Reassurance and Resolve reiterates many of White’s points, but with better theoretical grounding. Lyle Goldstein’s Meeting China Halfway argues far more persuasively than many in this lineage, and some of his specific recommendations merit serious consideration—not least because they would incur no great cost to try. But there are equally serious reasons to doubt the transformative ambitions attached to U.S. concessions.

The latest salvo in this “America must accommodate China” literature hails from an accomplished political scientist at George Washington University, Charles Glaser, writing in the most recent issue of International Security. Glaser makes the sweeping and somewhat unhelpful claim that military competition is risky and therefore undesirable. As an alternative he suggests that if only the United States would abandon commitments to Taiwan, China would be willing to resolve its territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, thereby sidestepping military competition.

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Prior to around 2008, proposals for U.S. accommodation of a rising China made much more sense, or at least could be taken more seriously. But times have changed. China’s ambitions have changed. And so has its foreign policy behavior. These contextual changes matter for whether and when accommodation can have the desired effect. More to the point though, there are a number of problems with the grand bargain line of argumentation.

First, any proposal for a Sino-U.S. solution to regional problems is by definition taking a great power view of Asia that marginalizes the agency and strategic relevance of U.S. allies and the region’s middle powers. In the brief period (five to ten years ago) when a G-2 concept was taken semi-seriously in Washington, allies—especially South Korea and Japan—chafed. The region’s middle powers would be unlikely to simply follow the joint dictates of China and the United States without being part of it, and attempting a G-2 could ironically create a more fragmented order as a result. Including others, at any rate, is antithetical to the concept of a Sino-U.S. G-2 arrangement. As early as the 1960s U.S. officials tried to rely on China to deal with regional issues spanning from North Korea to Vietnam. It was almost always to no avail.

Second, and as I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, Asia is rife with security concerns that have nothing to do with China directly, so any understanding reached with China would leave unresolved many of the region’s latent sources of potential conflict. Sino-U.S. grand bargain proponents forget that China and the United States only have real conflicts of interest by proxy. Every conceivable conflict scenario involves China and some other Asian state—Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Korea. The United States only becomes part of the picture because of a commitment to regional order, including its alliance network.

Third, as its recent stock market crash makes all too obvious, China remains a “fragile superpower,” to quote Susan Shirk. Many factors in its domestic political situation—corruption, growing wealth disparities, and many forms of civil challenges to government legitimacy—make it an unpredictable player. Nor is China showing meaningful signs of political liberalization. There’s so much brewing underneath the surface in China that dealing with China today as if it were a hegemon tomorrow assumes too much, and grants China too much credit too soon.

Fourth, there’s a defunct theory that’s been smuggled into arguments about changing Chinese behavior through U.S. accommodation. Political scientists call it “neofunctionalism,” a term rarely used these days, even though its spirit is pervasive in grand bargain arguments. Neofunctionalism came about in the 1950s as a failed way to account for and push for European integration.The basic idea involved an assumption that low level and innocuous types of cooperation would “spillover” into still more and better quality cooperation. Comity among nations, it was thought, would be the eventual outcome of mundane socioeconomic interactions. But by the 1970s, the theory had become largely discredited.

Nevertheless, echoes of neofunctionalism remain in contemporary claims that properly calibrated restraint, accommodation, or appeasement can have a transformative effect on a relationship. Ironically, these arguments tend to come from scholars, not policymakers. The idea that the United States can induce China into resolving its East and South China Sea disputes by “giving” it Taiwan reflects precisely this type of expectation, as do calls for the United States to make small concessions to China in hopes that it will enable a more stable situation.

None of this means that accommodative gestures or strategies should be outright dismissed. There were numerous periods of detente with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and that rivalry was much more confrontational. China and the United States, moreover, have a number of overlapping—not just conflicting—interests. I might even go as far as saying that neofunctionalism has a bit of a bad rap; there are times when trivial or non-costly forms of cooperation can lead to greater and deeper cooperation, but political scientists haven’t convincingly figured out what those conditions are.

But grand bargains rarely work. There’s a dangerous naivete in abandoning U.S. commitments on the hope that China will then be more willing to resolve its other disputes. And policies of accommodation will not suspend military competition because that involves more than present day concerns with surveillance overflight missions, territorial disputes, and current political commitments. Regardless of the policy and crisis management decisions we make today, military competition plays out over years and decades; it relates to force structure investment and doctrinal decisions that can’t be sacrificed for political promises.

China’s concerns will only be assuaged when the United States divests of the military force structure that makes it possible to project power globally, uphold its commitments, and bolster the regional order. The U.S. military will be unable to pursue such a course as long as China maintains openly expansionist geopolitical ambitions and a force structure designed to achieve it. Competition, it seems, is the logic of the situation. We ignore that at our own peril.

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