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China’s UnSexy Watchword

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China Power

China’s UnSexy Watchword

Trying to capture what US China policy should be in a single word is a waste of time, says Jim Arkedis.

As promised, here’s a guest post from Jim Arkedis,director of the National Security Project at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, on the China event PPI hosted last week:


Foreign policy wonks love chasing the ‘Kennan Prize’—a parlour game that seeks to whittle down US foreign policy strategies to bumper-sticker size slogans.  George Kennan won the first—and only—trophy when he cabled DC from the Embassy in Moscow detailing plans to contain Soviet Communisms expansion. Et voila, ‘containment’ was slapped on car fenders everywhere.

While ‘containment’ accurately described a mechanism to prevent Soviet ideological, diplomatic, and military expansion in the Cold War, simplistic formulations of policy aren’t always a safe bet in 2010. The American relationship with China—the topic of discussion at a Progressive Policy Institute conferencein DC last week—is so complex in today’s interconnected world that boiling it down to a simple phrase is almost laughable.  

Consider me relieved as Prof. Joseph Nye—coiner of the Kennan-esque term ‘soft power’, no less—dismissed word-smithing as wholly unproductive:  

‘We should avoid looking for clever phrases…these things get in the way because they’re misinterpreted.  We should talk about wanting a normal, cooperative relationship…with China, and stress some of the areas where we, the American public, have something to gain from that relationship.’

To underpin that point, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Chip Gregson elaborated with the ‘three pillars’ of Washington’s approach towards having a ‘normal’ relationship with Beijing: Gregson wants efforts to sustain and strengthen bilateral cooperation; to strengthen relations with other Asian allies; and to have a rising China abide by global norms and international laws.  

But it’s a tough sell to a weary American public. During November’s mid-term election here in the States, candidates continually exploited the fear-factor associated with a ‘rising’ China sucking jobs, building nuclear plants and high speed rail, all while building Asia’s largest military.Just take it from Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who spoke at the event and highlighted his experience on the campaign trail.  He implied that Americans have an exaggerated view of China’s power, perhaps perceiving Beijing’s potential as its future.  

On the surface, it’s a logical conclusion: A rapidly expanding economy combined with growing military might and an authoritarian regime strikes a sense of looming fear into an American public conditioned to continually look for its next adversary (the Soviets, Al Qaeda, and now Beijing). That’s why Sen. Coons stressed the importance of measuring China in the absolute, not the relative, underlining that the United States remains the most powerful country in the world, and that it will be for the foreseeable future.  

But Beijing’s potential is why, according to James Fallows of The Atlantic, the United States must forge a productive relationship now, ‘engaging China in all ways and on all fronts’ over the near future, while daring the US public to believe that if the Chinese can build rail lines and power plants, then we can too.  

Fallows’ notion of consistent engagement isn’t a Kennanism, either. In fact, it’s a larger notion that includes a basket of issues, like human rights and cyber attacks, at which Beijing will certainly balk. But If China’s authoritarian rulers are to realize the benefits of being a productive member of the world’s steering committee, it’s in both countries’ interest to maintain dialogue in an effort to increase Chinese transparency and emphasize the benefits of openness.

It might not be sexy, it might not get on a bumper sticker, but a host of American China experts seem to agree that a normal working relationship is in both sides’—and the world’s—best interests.

Watch the video from the event on CSPAN here.

Jim Arkedis also writes at