Be unashamedly wary of China’s rise

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  • The #American political establishment has excelled at ignoring unpleasant facts about #China for over 20 years.

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Jane Perlez's and William Wan's articles in today's papers (the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively) stand as a minor but important milestone in elite understanding of international relations in the 21st century. Though they provide only a summary of a Brookings monograph - the product of a joint effort with the International Institute for Strategic Studies at Peking University - it's headlined in breaking news fashion: "Chinese Insider Offers Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions," the New York Times tops Perlez's piece. 

The Chinese in question, Wang Jisi, most definitely qualifies as an insider in the Communist Party, People's Liberation Army, and the Chinese foreign ministry. And his contribution to the study is indeed a varnish-stripped assessment of how the Chinese leaders view the United States. To the big men in Beijing, we're no longer "that awesome."

That would come as no surprise to anyone who's actually been paying attention to the course of things over the last 20 years, but the American political establishment has excelled at ignoring unpleasant facts about China for a lot longer. Glimpses into attitudes among Chinese leaders aren't really all that rare; the Defense Department, to take but one example of many, has been doing annual assessments of Chinese strategy since the mid-1990s. Indeed, the China-watching industry has been growing almost as fast and as long as the Chinese economy.

So the real news story remains the American response to China's rise; the cardinal aspect of the Brookings study is the part written by Brookings scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, a former National Security Council official and one of the most influential China-watchers of the past several decades. Lieberthal's views have long been and remain a reliable indicator of received, center-of-mass opinion on China.

In this context, it should be no further surprise that the title of the study is, "Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust." At least the point of departure for establishment discussion of China now allows that the Chinese think of the "relationship" in traditional power-politics terms, "very much a zero-sum" game, as Lieberthal admits. At least Washington understands there's a problem.

And it's an even bigger sign of progress that the nature of the problem is defined as essentially military and strategic. Lieberthal concedes, "China's military is investing heavily in developing force projection capabilities in the Western Pacific with a likely view toward enhancing its global reach in coming decades." China-watchers (and, to be fair, American military leaders) have long pooh-poohed the PLA's modernization efforts, and even now discount the level of competence of Chinese commanders and units. And Lieberthal's accurate but anodyne summary misses the central strategic point: China's buildup is a challenge to U.S. military power in the region, to our allies and others, and, indeed, to the international security architecture-a Pacific challenge is in fact a global challenge.

But if the American China-watching community now accepts the facts, they remain at sea about a strategic or military response, and fundamentally unwilling to alter their traditional policy prescriptions. Lieberthal's chapter in the study is less about developing American attitudes about China's rise than about how Americans fail to appreciate where the Chinese are coming from. Thus the responses, in the concluding "Building Strategic Trust" section of the study, are a compendium of recycled ideas for better structures, ranging confidence-building military measures to economic measures to "minilateral dialogues" (a new and seemingly cool term, if not a new idea).

And, in any case, trust is a very slender reed upon which to premise the future global balance of great powers or American security interests. Arguably, there have been occasions of such trust in international affairs, but the examples that leap to mind stem not only from shared strategic interests but a broadly shared political and strategic culture: I think of the Dutch and British in the early modern era or Great Britain and the United States from the late 19th century until the present day. Whatever "strategic trust" means, it's one of those character-of-the-regime qualities, not something that stems from structures of power or even shared security interests. And it's hardly clear that China and the United States have anything like genuinely shared security interests; if the commonality of interests had been as obvious as the architects U.S.-China policy have believed, there wouldn't be a trust deficit today.

Rather, the United States ought to be unashamedly wary of China's rise. Certainly the rest of East Asia and an increasing number of other nations across the world are wary. Nor should "strategic wariness" necessarily lead to hair-trigger confrontation or conflict.  But it does suggest the need for a serious deterrent military posture (beginning, alas, with a nuclear deterrent), primarily in East Asia but elsewhere as well. It requires more than a token "pivot," that's for sure.

The fault in a trust-building strategy is that it presumes the outcome: that the Chinese (whether they know it or not) will conclude that they are better off playing by the international rules that the United States and its allies have set.  That may be true; these rules, first and foremost the "security rules," have been the framework that has allowed for China's rise. But if the Wang Jisi "revelations" mean anything, they mean that the conclusions about China's willingness to play by our rules - the premise of American policy for several decades - are premature if not flatly wrong.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI.

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