Why US Keeps Hedging Over China

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Why US Keeps Hedging Over China

Hu Jintao will be in Washington next week. But improved ties with the US won’t change Chinese discomfort with Washington’s hedging in Asia.

Last year saw an unusually tense period in US-China relations.

First there was the large US arms sale to Taiwan in January. Then came US President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in February. Meanwhile, there were ongoing differences over alleged currency manipulation, protectionist trade practices, the two countries’ divergent climate change approaches, China’s Internet censorship and cyber espionage activities and mutual concerns about each other’s Korean policies (the United States has been frustrated by China’s refusal to condemn North Korean behavior, while Chinese policymakers worry the US might provoke Pyongyang with its military drills in the region).

All this has meant that China has so far failed to become the regional and global partner the Obama administration was hoping for, while Chinese policymakers for their part have expressed confusion over why the administration would confront Beijing on so many issues in 2010 after being so accommodating just a year earlier.

It’s true of course that the tone of Sino-US ties has improved in recent weeks. But the fact is that this is probably more about the Chinese wanting President Hu Jintao to have a good legacy trip in Washington on what will likely be his last state visit to the United States. Indeed, the decision to finally invite US Defence Robert Gates to China this past weekend can be interpreted as less connected to ending the freeze Beijing imposed on high-level military contacts following the Taiwan arms sale, and more as an attempt by China to ease tensions over bilateral military relations ahead of Hu’s arrival.

So how does China really view its ties with the US? Late last year, the official Xinhua News Agency ran several commentaries assessing the bilateral relationship that likely reflect the views of many Chinese leaders. One that ran at the end of December complained that the ‘return’ of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region had complicated regional relations, especially with Washington’s ‘new-found’ penchant for intervening in bilateral disputes between Asian countries.  The writer(s) presumably had in mind Washington’s diplomatic and military support for South Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other countries, many of which have territorial or other conflicts with Beijing.

Another commentary, published in the People’s Daily in November under the name of Li Hongmei, was even more explicit about Chinese grievances. It expressed, for example, irritation at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for having ‘waded into the China-Japan dispute over (the) Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea by calling for trilateral talks’ that would include the United States as well as China and Japan. Li also denounced ‘the irresponsible remarks made by some American high-profile officials over the South China Sea issue’ in addition to their support for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, US arms sales to Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. 

Xinhua was right to note a more visible US presence in the region. US support for some of China’s neighbours was evident not only in Obama’s trip in the autumn to some of Asia’s largest democracies—India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan—but through regular, ties-bolstering trips to the region by Clinton. In October, she indicated that, notwithstanding Chinese complaints, most regional governments are happy to see the United States once more assume a high profile in the region, claiming that, ‘The most common thing that Asian leaders have said to me in my travels over this last 20 months is, “Thank you, we’re so glad that you’re playing an active role in Asia again”.’

This past year has certainly seen a marked shift from the United States’ focus in recent years on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts had meant that American diplomats would regularly skip important East Asian meetings, and at least in the eyes of some anxious regional leaders led to the perception that there had been an outsourcing of North Korea policy to Beijing. Under the influence of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and others, the Obama administration has since strived to assume a more prominent position in the Asia-Pacific region, restoring good relations with Japan, initiating defence talks with Vietnam and seeking to impart new momentum to US ties with India.

Yet these policies should be seen less as an effort to contain China and more as a return to the kind of shaping and hedging policies that the Bill Clinton administration pursued on many security issues, especially relations with Russia. The principle behind this approach is that it will help shape the targeted actor’s choices so that it will pursue policies helpful to the United States and its allies. In the case of China, these policies would include not threatening to use force against other countries, moderating its trade and climate polices and generally embracing and supporting the existing international institutions and the global status quo. On the flip side, if these shaping policies fail, then the United States aims to be in a good position, thanks to its strategic hedging, to resist disruptive Chinese policies until China abandons them.

In many cases, Washington is fortunate that policies such as strengthening security ties with Japan or India contribute to both shaping and hedging. For example, conducting joint military exercises with South Korea can both encourage Chinese leaders uncomfortable seeing US aircraft carriers sailing in the Yellow Sea to apply more pressure on North Korea to rein in its threatening behavior, while also hedging against the eventuality that Chinese pressure might fail.

From Washington’s perspective, hedging against China makes perfect sense. After all, US security objectives in East Asia include ensuring freedom of navigation, averting destabilizing regional arms races and disputes, and above all preserving stability by preventing the use of force to alter the status quo. China, meanwhile, is the most prominent Asian military power with the potential to threaten these goals.

Even if ultimately unsuccessful, a Chinese attack against Taiwan or use of force in the South China Sea would disrupt East Asian commerce, heighten regional tensions and encourage arms races. In addition, aggression in the Pacific could also compromise US alliances if Washington's failure to react led East Asian countries to fear either abandonment or entrapment in a conflict with China.

But a more visible US presence in the region doesn’t mean Chinese leaders don’t have their own reasons why they might be inclined to challenge the status quo—balance-of-power considerations, economic resource needs, domestic political considerations, or perceived infringements on China's sovereignty or status could all put pressure on them to act. And, while China’s sudden adoption of more aggressive policies last year surprised many observers, we shouldn’t forget that during the last century, China rapidly and radically altered its policies towards several important foreign policy issues. Most spectacularly, Beijing shifted from allying with the USSR against the United States in the 1950s, to hostile neutrality toward both superpowers in the 1960s, to a defence alignment with Washington against Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, to a policy of wary cooperation with Russia and restrained antagonism toward the United States in the 1990s.

In some respects, China presents to Asia the same kind of challenge that Germany represented to Europe from 1870 to 1945. China’s huge population and dynamic economy provide it with immense military potential, making it a natural aspirant for regional hegemony and forcing many of its weaker neighbours to seek the help of an external balancer. And China also shares elements of the second dimension of the former ‘German problem’: its authoritarian political leaders seem dissatisfied with their country's place in the existing Western-dominated Asia-Pacific international system.

These two factors—China's potential military dominance and its possible revisionist foreign policy—mean that other Asian countries and Washington have no choice but to consider how to avert a potential Chinese drive for regional hegemony.

Even a failed Chinese grasp for Asian primacy would risk triggering a military confrontation with the United States and other countries—as well as severely damaging the Pacific economy. Yet if Washington were to stand aside, it would undermine its credibility as a guarantor of East Asian stability. Against this backdrop, other countries—notably Japan and South Korea—might respond by seeking to bolster their security by acquiring nuclear weapons, which would further undermine regional stability.

All this means that more than any other plausible arrangement, the status quo in East Asia best satisfies not just the security interests of the United States, but also its allies. And it’s a reality that means US policymakers naturally feel compelled to try to prevent China from even attempting to turn to force to resolve the region’s numerous territorial disputes.