There is an obvious and a far from obvious reason the approach to the U.S. and China relationship, spelled out in a new book by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, deserves much more attention than it has received so far. The obvious reason is that the authors of Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty First Century are two of the best minds deliberating on this vital subject. James Steinberg, who served as the deputy secretary of State to Hillary Clinton, is known in academic and think tanks circles for his tough mind—but constructive approach—when it comes to China. Michael O’Hanlon is a major voice in all matters concerning national security in Washington, though he is far from a dove.
Much less obvious is the merit of the strategy they lay out, which relies much more on tit-for-tat measures of self-restraint and de-escalation (of the kind previously discussed here) rather than negotiated agreements. By “tit for tat” I mean measures that each side takes unilaterally but for which each side expects the other side to reciprocate with similar measures. The merit of a tit-for-tat approach is that it does not entail the kind of lawyerly haggling over texts, layers of approval by various departments and authorities in both nations, and above all, U.S. Senate approval (or a similar one by a Chinese legislature) that is often not obtainable.
A strong example of the ways such a tit-for-tat approach can be effective is found in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s Strategy of Peace. It was launched with a speech at American University on June 10, 1963 at the height of Cold War tensions. The president announced the first unilateral initiative: the United States was stopping all atmospheric nuclear tests and would not resume them unless another country did. The Soviet response was to publish Kennedy’s speech in full in the Soviet government newspapers, Izvestia and Pravda, with a combined circulation of 10 million readers—a degree of attention rarely accorded a Western leader in those days. Radio jammers in Moscow were turned off to allow Russians to listen to Voice of America’s recording of the speech. This was reported in the United States and had some tension-reduction effects of its own. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev followed by matching the Kennedy initiative.
On June 11, the Soviet Union removed its objection to a U.S.-favored initiative to send UN observers to war-torn Yemen. The U.S. reciprocated by removing its objection to the restoration of full status to the Hungarian delegation to the United Nations.
The implementations of a direct America-Russia communications link, proposed by the United States in 1962, was suddenly agreed to by the Soviet Union on June 20, 1963.
True, many of these were minor steps whose value was largely symbolic, but they reduced tensions between the major powers of the day and opened the way to bilateral negotiations.
Steinberg and O’Hanlon now suggest applying a similar strategy to U.S.-China relations (although they do not explicitly refer to it as a unilateral reciprocal approach and do include a few bilateral negotiated items in their list of 22 special recommendations). Thus, for example, they call for:
- “For China, level off military budget growth as military budget approaches 50 percent of the U.S. level.”
- “For the United States, adapt Air-Sea Battle to Air-Sea Operations, and for China, limit development and deployment of antiship ballistic missiles and similar prompt attack capabilities to reduce the risk of preemption and quick escalation in crisis.”
- “For China, commit to exclusively peaceful means toward Taiwan in response to U.S. commitment not to support unilateral Taiwanese declaration of independence.”
- “For the United States and China, provide advance notice of military exercises and deployments in the South China Sea and East China Sea.”
The authors themselves acknowledge that each of these recommendations is modest compared to the importance of the challenge of preventing the U.S. and China from slipping from a fairly cooperative relationship into one that leads to an arms race and confrontation. However, they correctly point out that the suggested measures point to an approach that can avoid an escalation of tensions and conflicts—and open the way to much bigger deals.
Above all, Steinberg and O’Hanlon stress that the U.S. and China are at a crossroads. Unless both nations embrace a strategy of the kind they outlined (and similar to the one advocated in a MAR position paper, endorsed by 30 American and Chinese public intellectuals), the two nations may well fall into what has been called the Thucydides Trap, according to which when a new power rises, it inevitably ends up confronting the dominant power, which is too reluctant to make accommodations with the new power, out of fear of seeming weak or losing its special status. The two highly regarded Washington analysts hence repeatedly state that the American pivot to the Far East is “premature”—but not that its time may never come.