Yes, America Does Have a “China Strategy”

Recent Features


Yes, America Does Have a “China Strategy”

It’s not that the U.S. lacks a China strategy, it’s just that few understand or like the plan.

A hot topic these days in D.C. is the quest for what is quickly becoming the foreign policy holy grail — a U.S. foreign policy strategy towards the People’s Republic of China. The quest in many respects makes sense. After the declaration of a “pivot” to Asia, many in America’s foreign policy community expected a major push by the Obama Administration to clearly define some sort of strategy towards Beijing incorporating a number of broad areas of importance — defense, economic, and cultural interactions.  Considering China’s growing power on the world stage, having some defined set of principles to guide such interactions seems quite rational.

Unfortunately, Asia hands were quickly disappointed. The pivot, so boldly declared in 2011, would be spun into a  “rebalance” as various pundits complained it was too focused on the defensive dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship. Sprinkle in problems in the Middle East thanks to Egypt, Syria and Iran and it is now clear many believe the pivot to Asia is all but dead.

I have a different take. Pivot or no pivot, America does have a China strategy — it’s just no one really likes it and few understand it, causing it to get lost among all the chatter and endless analysis.

Case in point, last Wednesday I attended a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommitee on Seapower and Projection series on Asia-Pacific Strategy, which looked specifically at China’s naval modernization efforts.  Many of America’s top China scholars offered their expert testimony concerning Beijing’s military and naval rise, A2/AD strategy, and America’s defensive posture in Asia. The most striking interaction between the various congressional members and those giving testimony was a question raised by Congressman J. Randy Forbes, well known to readers of The Diplomat for his interest in China’s rise and growing military might. Forbes asked towards the end of the hearing “Do each of you — you are some of the best experts we can bring on this — you write, you study, you look at it all the time. Could any of you — I am not asking you to do this — but could you articulate a U.S.-China strategy right now that exists for our country? And would you be able to articulate that to members of Congress or to our allies?” The answer by most of the panel in a nutshell: no.

Truthfully, such an answer makes sense and Forbes’ question was more based on defense and naval matters than a quest for a grand strategy on China per se. However, besides throwing around terms like AirSea Battle, pivot, rebalance and others, there is no concrete set of principles that guides Washington’s strategic interactions with Beijing across multiple domains — let alone a concrete foreign policy or even something that would guide our defensive strategy in the event the U.S. and China ever came to blows.

However, I would argue Washington does have a China strategy. While poorly articulated, and certainly not formalized in the same bumper sticker style as the pivot, it is there for anyone to see. Clearly, America is all about hedging its bets when it comes to Beijing.  It might not be sexy, it might not have the bang of AirSea something or other, but Washington is all about hedging its risks in the Asia-Pacific.

So there it is — a plain and simple hedging strategy. In such a strategy, America continues to emphasize trade and economics in its relationship with China, while working defensively with allies in the region to ensure Beijing will not become a regional hegemon.  Among its strengths is the fact that the strategy is simple and takes into account America’s national interests. Its limitations are that its poorly articulated, it is certainly unloved and does very little to demonstrate Washington’s growing concern over China’s military buildup — especially on the high seas or in its growing A2/AD weapons systems — or what to do about it in the years to come beyond slogans that are poorly understood (yes, I am talking about you, AirSea Battle).

America’s present day relationship with China is a complex one to say the least, so a hedging strategy does have some appeal.  With $500 billion dollars in year-over-year bilateral trade between them, the two largest economies on the planet, dollars and cents certainly trump any strategic or defensive interactions that have been in the news of late. Yet, Washington knows China is slowly but surely challenging the status quo in Asia. Beijing over the last several years has confronted its neighbors in disputes over various islands in the South China Sea and now seems locked into a long-term struggle with Japan over control of the Senkakus in the East China Sea. Beijing’s recent decision to declare an ADIZ certainly rattled nerves, yet Washington took a balanced approach, reassuring Japan yet not going as far as Tokyo would have liked and publicly calling for a rollback of the ADIZ. America hedges its bets once again — it hopes China will not go too far yet continues to reassure allies in the region that it will be there in a crisis.

The ultimate challenge in such a strategy is that hedging its bets might not work out so well in a time of crisis. Will Washington be able to continue such a balancing act if Japan and China start shooting at each other over the Senkakus? What if Beijing declares an ADIZ over the South China or Yellow Seas? One must also consider the possibility that the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship’s importance many diminish over time, reducing the need to hedge.

With Washington working on TTIP and TPP, America could at least in theory begin to develop stronger trading ties with other parts of the world, which could lessen the importance of the U.S.-China trade relationship for Washington. Beijing would be wise to consider this scenario. As Washington would have a lot less to loose, its interactions with China could take a tougher line as it would not have the economic incentives to continue on with such a dynamic relationship. Would hedging its bets be so appealing if the economic aspects of the relationship became much less lucrative? In the coming years, we might just find out.