During this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Washington officials presumably will demonstrate their recognition of a new reality in America’s Asia policy. In the immediate term, regional and global security requires the United States to contain China’s expansionism. Long term, the interests of the Chinese people, as well as regional and global security, can only be served by American support for regime change in China.
The first task, containment of aggression, whether overt or attenuated, is encompassed within international law and norms. The undertaking is mandatory, and it contemplates the possible use of force. The second challenge, openly pursuing change of China’s communist system, is prudential but optional, and lawful as long as it is done by peaceful means.
China has long claimed that virtually any external opposition to its actions or any U.S. policy it disagrees with are part of a Western plot to contain China’s peaceful rise; so Washington’s emerging new approach constitutes both Chinese vindication and American bluff-calling.
Beijing’s blanket charge that Washington seeks to “keep China down” is absurd on its face since American policy from Richard Nixon’s opening to the present has been designed to help China shake off historic shackles, lift its people out of poverty, and bring it into what Richard Nixon called the family of nations. The policy succeeded beyond Nixon’s dreams, but Xi Jinping’s China Dream has become a potential nightmare for the West.
Yet Beijing’s permanent persecution complaint has proved useful, constantly keeping Westerners on the defensive, making concessions, striving to prove our benign intentions toward China in order to expiate “the century of humiliation.”
In recent years, however, the ploy of Chinese victimhood, deeply resonant in Western academic circles, has begun to wear thin. China has used its new economic power in ways the West did not expect: building up its military beyond conventional mainland defense needs, threatening its neighbors, constricting regional freedom of navigation and overflight, and jeopardizing the maritime stability that facilitated China’s rise and the new prosperity of the region. Washington has apparently decided that enough is enough.
Despite hollow American denials, the U.S. pivot or rebalance to Asia was a direct response to what has fast become the non-peaceful rise of China. Beijing’s protests that it is not trying to push the U.S. out of East Asia rings equally false.
As China escalated its assertive posture – its neighbors call it simple aggression – so too has Washington upped its rhetoric and its security cooperation with countries in the region. What has emerged is a policy of containment lite, more narrowly focused than the across-the-board anti-Soviet strategy of the Cold War. It offers a blunt new message to China: You are free to thrive but not to threaten.
In pursuing this limited counter-expansionism approach, the United States has made explicit its core interests in the region. In the East China Sea, it has defied Beijing’s Air Defense Identification Zone and extended the security guarantee of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty to Japanese administration of the Senkaku islands (known as the Diaoyu in China). In the South China Sea, it has gone beyond declaring neutrality on the various maritime claims and calling for an enforceable code of conduct for peaceful dispute resolution.
In both areas, as well as the Taiwan Strait, Washington now explicitly warns China that freedom of navigation and overflight are historic American interests and will be preserved and exercised now and in the future.
The United States Navy will continue the enforcement role it has played for seven decades. American naval and air operations will keep East Asia’s seas and airspace open to normal international use and Beijing is on notice that it will not be allowed to constrain the maritime commons on or over the waters.
It will be China’s choice to stop or continue disturbing regional stability in the new quasi-Cold War environment its actions have created, and it will bear responsibility for any conflict that ensues. But that calculation will depend on U.S. action, not just rhetoric, and U.S. hesitation does not serve to intimidate Beijing’s hardliners.
While resistance to China’s aggressive posture is the pressing immediate priority, its overall challenge to the international order will remain as long as the Chinese Communist Party is in charge of China’s destiny.
This is not because of the so-called Thucydides trap, where an established power is invariably threatened by a rising power. Since World War II, the United States has not felt under threat from Japan or Germany, its former enemies, despite their resurgent economic power; indeed American policies were designed to encourage that success. Nor are vital American interests endangered by other contemporary rising powers such as India or Brazil.
Yet countries like North Korea, Iran, and even smaller, poorer ones do constitute threats to the United States, because of the nature of the regimes which run them – especially when they possess or aspire to nuclear weapons, with China’s direct or indirect help. The leaders of the People’s Republic harbor a worldview that has much in common with those rogue rulers. (Putin’s Russia does too, but Putinism is a transitory, personality-driven phenomenon, unlike the Communist Party that has controlled China since 1949.)
The transition of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany (and Fascist Italy) to thriving, peaceful democracies did not occur without a cataclysmic world conflict. War is certainly not the desired path to China’s transformation (unless it is somehow triggered by a Chinese miscalculation on how far it can push).
The way forward to genuine peaceful coexistence and long-term friendship with the Chinese government – to match the bonds of respect and affection long shared by the Chinese and American peoples – is for that government to shed its hostile anti-Western ideology.
Since such change cannot be imposed by direct foreign intervention without unacceptable human costs, it must come from enlightened reform within the communist system itself , and from sustained pressure from the Chinese people – just as happened in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, South Korea, and the example that China’s rulers hate most, Taiwan.
For its part, the West must provide a level of support comparable to the role it played in those earlier cases, not the least of which is moral and informational. Reinvigorated and adequately funded, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia can help do [in China] what VOA and Radio Free Europe did in the Cold War.
Beijing will continue to rail at this outside intervention in its internal affairs and charge the West with trying to subvert its system. We should openly concede the point – that is precisely what the entire human rights and democracy movement is all about. Human rights are naturally subversive of despotism; democracy inherently subverts dictatorship. After all, China has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Chinese constitution itself espouses human rights and democratic values. A Chinese government that respects the rights and dignity of the individual, institutes a genuine rule of law with an independent judiciary, allows freedom of expression and religion, and ultimately submits its power to the consent of the governed, will, by definition, no longer be an oppressive Leninist system or a threat to its people.
Such a government will also no longer disdain and defy the shared norms and institutions of the international community nor threaten its neighbors or the peace of the world. History tells us so; without apology, we need to help China get on the right side of it. The regime must change itself, or the Chinese people, with the West’s help, must change the regime.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.