Rethinking our China strategy

Tiananmen Square by ChameleonsEye /

Article Highlights

  • Let's not forget the Asia pivot in Senate confirmation hearings.

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  • China gains from the international economic system but has so far given little in return.

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  • On North Korea, Iran China shows little commitment to nonproliferation.

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Senate committees will soon be asked to vote on President Obama's nominees to head the departments of State and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Many, if not most, of the senators' questions will be focused on the nominees' views on the pressing security problems the United States faces in the greater Middle East and Afghanistan. But it would be a mistake for the committees to let the hearings pass without also examining the administration's own stated policy priority — the "pivot" or "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region.

A productive discussion of the pivot, however, will require a frank acknowledgment that the primary factor driving the change is increased nervousness in Washington and Asian capitals about China's rise and, in turn, recognition that the U.S. policy of engagement with China has not been as effective in shaping that rise as successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, had hoped.

On this point, it is particularly useful to reread then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's 2005 speech in which he famously invited Beijing to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. Since the late 1970s, the U.S. had been, as Zoellick put it, "opening doors to China's membership into the international system" with the expectation that doing so would lead to change in Chinese behavior as it saw the security and economic benefits of that system. By no means a China "hawk," Zoellick provided a reasonable set of benchmarks for judging just how successful engagement would be in moving China along the path of a benign rise to great-power status.

So, what does the score card look like?

To start, Zoellick noted that, although China had "gained much from its membership in an open, rules-based international economic system," its mercantilist economic policies put in doubt its commitment to that system's underlying principles. And little has changed on that front. China keeps its currency undervalued to promote its exports, limits foreign access to its markets and treats natural resources as exclusive national assets. The government has done little to rein in intellectual property piracy or commercial cyber-espionage. State-owned banks still dominate China's financial sector, and Beijing-driven industrial policies have increased, not decreased, in recent years.

Another point of contention Zoellick hoped the Chinese would address was the lack of transparency when it came to China's military buildup. But despite repeated U.S. initiatives, military-to-military exchanges have produced little of substance, and American intelligence continues to be surprised as some new Chinese weapons system is rolled out of its hangar or deployed at sea. Even during some of the roughest patches of the Cold War, the White House had a direct hot line to the Kremlin, and we knew, by mutual agreement, how many strategic warheads and missiles the Soviets had. With China, we haven't a clue.

As a responsible stakeholder, Zoellick said, China could and should do more to address the problem of North Korea and weapons proliferation more generally.

On North Korea, only Beijing has the ability to pressure or persuade Pyongyang to change behavior. Yet North Korea continues to stockpile nuclear weapons and is bent on perfecting missiles that threaten our allies and, soon enough, the United States.

If there is any good news, China's direct role in proliferating has lessened. And while the recent vote by Beijing in support of the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's last missile test is a small but positive step, Beijing has not used its considerable leverage with Pyongyang to stop North Korea's proliferation, and has dragged its feet on helping the rest of the world deal with the destabilizing impact of Iran's nuclear program. As Zoellick noted, "China's actions on Iran's nuclear program will reveal the seriousness of China's commitment to nonproliferation" and, so far, its record falls short of that mark.

And, finally, Zoellick said that "China's choices about Taiwan will send an important message too.... It is important for China to resolve its differences with Taiwan peacefully." However, despite the most conciliatory government in Taiwan since the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Beijing's military buildup across from the island democracy has not diminished. Since Zoellick's speech, China has taken an even more aggressive posture toward its neighbors, with confrontations with Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

So what does this assessment of Chinese behavior mean for U.S. policy in an Obama second term? First, it reinforces the administration's rationale for upping America's strategic game in the Asia-Pacific region. What the Senate should be looking to hear, however, is exactly how the new national security team will go about making that a reality, especially in an era of major cuts in defense spending.

Second, it means that, to the extent engagement is pursued, it should be with an eye to what is mutually and concretely beneficial, not with the expectation that the process itself will lead to China's transformation.

Finding the right balance in U.S.-China policy is a complex task. But the first step for the new secretaries of State and Defense in getting it right must be to understand what engagement can and can't do, and to realize it is unlikely that China will become a member in good standing of the liberal international order until its leaders have made the decision to become liberal at home.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Securities Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian Studies studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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