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US-China Relations: The Long View

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Trans-Pacific View

US-China Relations: The Long View

Insights from Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy

US-China Relations: The Long View
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with Ambassador J. Stapleton (Stape) Roy – Distinguished Scholar and Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Career Ambassador, the highest rank in U.S. State Department service, during which he participated in the secret negotiations that led to the establishment of U.S.-PRC diplomatic relations and held ambassadorial assignments to Singapore, China, and Indonesia, and Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research; and recipient of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Award for Distinguished Public Service – is the 56th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Ambassador Roy, with a U.S. diplomatic career spanning 45 years and leadership role in facilitating U.S.-PRC rapprochement in 1978, what worries and encourages you most about the future of U.S.-China relations?

Frictions in Sino-U.S. relations are a normal feature of relations between major powers, especially when the rapid rise of one is eroding the dominant position of the other. Much is at stake. If sensitive issues such as Taiwan are mishandled, hostile rivalry could be the result, and even conflict. Fortunately, leaders in both countries do not see this as a desirable outcome. Bilateral U.S.-China trade is booming, and the flow of Chinese investment into the United States is on the upsurge.

Moreover, the bilateral mechanisms for handling problems are the best we’ve ever had. When properly utilized, these mechanisms can help contain frictions, damp down controversies, and explore possible resolutions. In short, a confrontational U.S.-China relationship is not foreordained.

So why should we worry? Because the strategic rivalry between China and the United States has not yet been stabilized. Neither side is handling this fluid situation with the skill and constancy necessary to strengthen confidence in the future of the relationship. Mutual suspicions abound, and this nurtures public attitudes that can be inconsistent with longer term policy objectives.

Assess the U.S. pivot to Asia and how it might evolve under a new U.S. administration.

The U.S. rebalance in East Asia is a well-conceived program intended to demonstrate that the United States has both the will and the resources to remain fully engaged in East Asia. The purpose is not to contain China but to deter irresponsible behavior and retain the confidence of our allies and friends in the region.

However, the rebalance is far from perfect in its execution. It is excessively weighted on the military side. The non-military components are underfunded. U.S. friends and allies welcome our robust military presence but wish to see the United States balance China economically as well as militarily. Failure to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership will further exacerbate this problem.

Any new administration will have to cope with the reality that the rise of China poses the major strategic challenge facing the United States. Washington cannot afford to neglect the region. Regardless of what it is called, the substance of the rebalance is likely to remain in place.

With the recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the South China Sea dispute and the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership hanging in the balance, how is China positioning itself strategically in Southeast Asia vis-à-vis U.S. leadership in the region?

Under President Xi Jinping, China is moving more assertively to promote its interests in East Asia. It is generating a host of new initiatives that bear a made-in-Beijing stamp. Given China’s rapidly growing economic, political, and military clout, this development is neither unnatural nor surprising. Xi’s proposals have not been designed to exclude the United States.

Nevertheless, China’s emerging activism poses an obvious challenge for the United States. This is not so much one of leadership as of full and sustained involvement in regional affairs. U.S. friends and allies do not wish to be forced to choose in a contest for leadership between China and the United States. They seek confidence that the United States will remain actively engaged in East Asia, both economically and militarily.

The conflicting claims to land features and resources in the South China Sea are part of this larger picture. The predominant U.S. interests are in preserving freedom of navigation, strengthening a rules-based order, and in fostering peaceful resolution of the disputes. The building blocks for such an approach are in place but are underutilized. U.S. interests will be best served by adhering to strict neutrality on the territorial claims, lowering the profile of its freedom of navigation operations, and giving greater weight to diplomacy in its approach.

What elements are integral to crafting and implementing an effective U.S. China policy? 

U.S. policy towards China should be based on realistic assumptions. China is surrounded by powerful neighbors. Beijing can no more dominate East Asia than the United States can retain the type of dominance it enjoyed when China was militarily weak. The goal should be to forge a stable military balance with China where each side possesses capabilities sufficient to deter the other from using force to resolve serious differences, while lacking the dominance that could, in the eyes of the other, foster aggressive intentions.

Beijing is learning that assertive behavior alienates its neighbors and drives them into the arms of the United States. When it displays readiness to accommodate the interests of countries on its periphery, and relies on consultations and peaceful negotiations to resolve disputes, its neighbors seek the benefits of economic cooperation with China. We should capture and utilize this dynamic in our policy approach, neither provoking China nor giving it free rein to run roughshod over the interests of its neighbors. For effective implementation, this means we must tightly integrate our economic, defense, and diplomatic strategies in East Asia.

How should the next U.S. president – Democrat or Republican – convey the relevance of U.S.-China relations to the American people amid the current populist political climate?

Wise leaders appreciate that effective foreign policies must be formulated in terms of the objective world outside our borders, not based on subjective and often ill-informed popular passions. Leaders bear the responsibility not only to make astute foreign policy choices, but also to gain the requisite public and congressional backing. To be successful, they must have the courage to defend and justify what needs to be done. This applies equally to both countries.