This weekend, President Obama will meet with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, for a two-day meeting in California. As the first meeting between the two since President Obama began his second term and President Xi became the leader of China, the event provides them with the chance to articulate their respective views on the future of the bilateral relationship.
For the United States, this is an opportunity to explicitly state U.S. concerns of Chinese activities that jeopardize improved relations. In particular, President Obama should call out concerns about Chinese harassment of U.S. treaty allies in Asia, Chinese government support for cyber espionage activities against U.S. targets, and China’s encouragement of U.S. intellectual property (IP) theft. While these concerns should not be relayed as threats, it is important to make clear to China that the onus for improving the relationship lies squarely with China.
In recent years, as China’s power has grown, it has increasingly asserted its parochial interests in East Asia. China has bullied U.S. treaty allies Japan and the Philippines over disputed maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. Chinese maritime security vessels frequently harass Japanese and Philippine fishing and coast guard vessels around these disputed territories. Oftentimes, Chinese naval vessels back up its civilian maritime forces, increasing the risk of escalation.
A second area of concern is Beijing’s continued support for cyber espionage activities against U.S. targets. Just this past weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel expressed concern about China’s cyber activities against U.S. civilian and government targets. Public evidence shows that these activities are not the actions of lone hackers, but rather part of a Chinese state-sponsored program. Chinese cyber espionage harms both U.S. economic and military security.
A third alarming trend is China’s continued theft of American IP. As a recent report by the independent Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property asserts, “China is the world’s largest source of IP theft.” More alarmingly, the Chinese government actually encourages the theft of U.S. IP. Such activities not only harm U.S. economic competitiveness, but ultimately put U.S. citizens out of work.
To dissuade China from continuing such behavior, President Obama should articulate three points to his counterpart. First, the president must make clear that the United States is firmly committed to supporting its allies in East Asia. Should China continue to pressure Japan or the Philippines over disputed maritime claims, it will be met with increased U.S. support for these long-time allies. Obama should also emphasize that the U.S. military will continue its forward presence in the Asia Pacific to minimize escalation by all sides.
Second, the president should stress that Washington will not stand by idly as Beijing-supported hackers continue to exploit U.S. civilian and military knowledge. China should be made absolutely aware that such behavior will not be tolerated. Should China ignore this warning, then the United States will have no choice but to develop the means to defend and eliminate this cyber threat.
Third, Obama should convey to President Xi that if China continues to support the theft of U.S. IP, the United States will be forced to respond. Such responses could include, at a minimum, strengthening U.S. legislation prohibiting the import of Chinese products containing stolen U.S. IP, and preventing known Chinese firms involved in IP theft from investing or operating in the United States.
Some argue that China is not an enemy, so don’t treat it like one. This is true, but only to an extent. Although China is not an enemy, its behavior often reflects malicious intent. If China does not wish to be seen as an enemy, it must refrain from such activities. Others maintain that Beijing is likely to ignore such warnings as it has so many times in the past. This may be true, but the point is not simply to persuade China to change its behavior. Rather, it is to stress that if China doesn’t cease such behavior, it alone will bear the blame for any future downturn in the relationship.
This weekend, President Obama has an excellent opportunity to express U.S. concerns about China’s behavior to his Chinese counterpart. All indications are that he will do just that. However, it remains to be seen whether China’s president will hear Obama’s warnings, or allow China to continue to push the relationship towards animosity and distrust.
Daniel M. Hartnett is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council, www.trumanproject.org, and a research scientist in the China Studies Division at CNA. The views here are his own.