Features | Politics | Security | East Asia

Forget Grand Bargains with China

When it comes to U.S.-China relations, there are advantages to thinking small.

By Taylor Washburn for

As the United States seeks to navigate China’s rise, analysts have suggested several grand swaps between Washington and Beijing — sweeping deals, either tacit or explicit, in which the U.S. would back away from one of its long-standing Asian commitments in exchange for Chinese assistance on a separate matter of strategic importance.

The superficial appeal of such trades is obvious. Although the world’s two premier powers share more interests than is sometimes supposed, they remain at odds on a range of important security questions. Why not look for a swap that might eliminate two major points of contention at once?

Following last month’s Sunnylands summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Isaac Stone Fish, writing in the New York Times, considered one such hypothetical deal circulating in the Chinese press. In light of Beijing’s dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea, “would the United States trade its unfettered support of Japan for support from China on dealing with North Korea?”

The answer to this question is, or ought to be, an emphatic “No”. But before I elaborate, let me return to two other grand U.S.-China swaps proposed in the last decade, each of which helps illustrate why an exchange of important and incommensurable concessions is unlikely to resolve any of the core issues dividing Washington and Beijing.

Back in 2005, the strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett proposed that Washington should unilaterally drop its security assurances and arms sales to Taiwan to secure Chinese help in ousting the government of North Korea. “Preemptively declaring a permanent truce in the Taiwan Straits is the quid we offer for Beijing's quo in the solution set that really matters in East Asia today,” Barnett wrote — namely, “the reunification of Korea following Kim Jong-il's removal from power.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Then, in 2011, Paul Kane took to the New York Times op-ed page to recommend that the United States abandon Taiwan for something simpler: cold hard cash. The White House “should enter into closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the $1.14 trillion of American debt currently held by China,” Kane argued, placing on the table the U.S. defense arrangement with Taipei and all military assistance to the island.

As a host of critics were quick to note, Kane’s idea was based on mistaken assumptions about the danger posed by the national debt as well as the capacity of the People’s Bank of China to forgive 7 trillion RMB in U.S. Treasuries. But considered alongside Barnett’s proposition, it also points to a broader set of problems likely to beset any deal to rearrange longstanding Asian security relationships.

One limitation of such grand bargains — that is, bilateral trades involving mutual concessions on separate issues of great strategic importance — is that they are less likely than narrower deals to constrain the participants when circumstances change.

Parties to any agreement have an incentive to defect when the cost of doing so sinks below that of continued adherence. (Legal scholars refer to such calculated defections as “efficient breach.”) One price of abandoning any deal is reputational, while another is the risk that your counterpart will similarly walk away from its obligations. Where a trade involves core matters of national security, however, such costs are liable to be trumped as soon as a changing regional environment gives rise to new political imperatives.

If this sounds abstract, consider a rhetorical question: how much weight would either Beijing or Washington accord a promise to the other in the event of a looming crisis in Korea or the Taiwan Strait?

Second, no grand swap can succeed if it treats secondary powers as pawns of their patrons. Washington cannot deliver Taiwan to Beijing any more than the Chinese can hand a unified Korea to the United States. Repeal of the Taiwan Relations Act might remove one obstacle to the mainland’s absorption of the island, but Beijing would still need to charm or, more likely, coerce a population of 23 million that has shown virtually no interest in reunification. North Korea is an even tougher nut to crack: mercurial, armed to the teeth, and hardly a Chinese pet.

Finally, East Asia’s entrenched security relationships cannot be severed or circumscribed without sending waves across the region, introducing new complexity and unpredictability to an environment already rich with both. How would other U.S. allies and partners react if Washington sold one of their number out to Beijing? How would China respond if applying real pressure to Pyongyang led to the Kim regime’s collapse?

Without answers to these questions, and others like them, we cannot know if a grand swap designed to reduce Sino-American tension might instead throw the contest for regional supremacy into sharper relief.

Unfortunately, while it is alluring to imagine that the U.S. could extricate itself from the Senkaku spat and eliminate the North Korean missile threat in one fell swoop, each of the “grand bargain” problems I’ve identified would also attend any Sino-American deal involving the islets and Pyongyang.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In his editorial on the Sunnylands summit, Fish describes the quandary facing Washington as follows: “Is protecting a group of small islands in the East China Sea more important than preventing North Korea from being able to shoot missiles at the United States?” But this formulation does not fully capture the terms of the deal that he describes, nor does it hint at the peril that might accompany it.

Beijing’s unique leverage over the Pyongyang does not mean it can dictate terms to its pugnacious ally – not, at any rate, without risking its paramount priorities of peace and stability. Xi has already called for a denuclearized Korea (most recently, at a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye), but the North runs on an ultra-nationalist ideology that fetishizes military power, and Beijing has a rational concern that coercive measures tough enough to bring the regime to heel could also lead to its collapse.

Exclusion of the Senkakus from the scope of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, meanwhile, would do nothing to mitigate the underlying territorial dispute, on which the U.S. is already neutral – and could indeed have the opposite effect, emboldening Beijing while heightening defensive anxiety in Tokyo. Japan and China are closely matched at sea, meaning the many thousands of U.S. Marines in nearby Okinawa would be hard-pressed to remain aloof if China attempted to seize the islets and Japan responded with force.

By agreeing to limit the alliance in exchange for a promise of Chinese assistance on North Korea, Washington would thus hand China a much-desired rift between its two great strategic rivals and obtain little tangible in return. Indeed, the fantasy that the U.S. and China can settle both issues by consensus is as likely to produce conflict as limit it, ignoring as it does the agency of Tokyo and Pyongyang.

To be sure, those working on both sides of the Sino-American relationship are wise to seek out opportunities for compromise, as well as structural safeguards that could reduce the risk of military conflict. Indeed, there may even be times when this involves placing pressure on allies – as appears to have taken place in May, when China cut ties with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank while the U.S. pushed back against self-destructive Japanese historical revisionism.

Rather than grand swaps, however, Washington and Beijing should focus on making deals that can succeed regardless of the calculations of other autonomous regional players. To the extent that divisive issues like the U.S.-Japan alliance, North Korea or the status of Taiwan are to be linked, any concessions should be bounded and take effect quickly, so that neither of the great powers entertains illusions as to how the other might respond to an unforeseen crisis.

Pragmatic cooperation of this kind will not erase any of the fault lines in the region overnight, nor will it eliminate the possibility that American commitments could someday draw the U.S. into conflict with China. Yet by embracing a more realistic understanding of state action and East Asia’s power dynamics, Washington is more likely to realize the kinds of modest gains it can actually hold.

Taylor Washburn is a lawyer studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was previously a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @washburnt.