Barack Obama approaches his first official trip to China with his Asia policy unclear. Much depends on his view of China's future and what he thinks America's priorities should be.
Too many Americans, particularly business leaders, see China as a monolithic economic power, inexorably growing until its aggregate economy shortly surpasses America's. China's large U.S. debt holdings, its substantial foreign currency reserves and trade surpluses, its population size and its rapacious global search for raw materials, combined with the long-standing (if usually unfulfilled) allure of its domestic market, all have their impact in the United States.
Understandably, the hope is that China will be a "responsible stakeholder," which would befit a major global economic power. Where many err, however, is in transforming this hope to current reality and believing, therefore, that propitiating China will ensure it acts responsibly. Thus, neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have pressed China enough to do what it can uniquely do to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Moreover, Mr. Obama has been unwilling to oppose China even on so basic an issue as the U.S. dollar's remaining the world's reserve currency. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, flying to Beijing, famously announced that China's human-rights record would not impede broader dialogue. Her remark may or may not have been wise, but one can at least ask whether Washington shouldn't have got something back for throwing human rights under the bus.
Pre-emptive concessions rarely convince another important power that the United States is serious about asserting and defending its own vital interests. Nor is the reflexive inclination of some analysts to resolve essentially all Asia-related policies with Beijing, rather than balancing China by relying on traditional U.S. allies. But, more fundamentally, the model of China on which the deferential, Sino-centric policies of the past several administrations have been based is badly flawed.
We cannot know China's future course, disturbing but for the reality that China itself does not confidently know its way ahead. The paradigm of continued economic growth, a straight line from Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, is one possible future, but far from the only one.
Rather than just the past few decades, look at China's previous century: the collapse of the last imperial dynasty, the rise and repeated fall of the Republic of China, internal chaos among belligerent warlords, invasion and subjugation by Japan, civil war between Communists and Nationalists, Mao's dictatorship--which brought two of world history's greatest tragedies, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution--and then the 1989 repression at Tiananmen Square, just for starters. This is a hundred years of radical discontinuity, and straight-lining that century rather than just the most recent decades predicts a very different future.
We also cannot ignore that the Communist Party remains China's dominant political force, and that the People's Liberation Army is the party's hardest of hard cores. China is upgrading and expanding its strategic nuclear missile capabilities and its air force, implicitly threatening Japan and other Asian countries--and which should be of growing concern to the United States itself.
China is modernizing its huge but technologically immature ground forces, and rapidly building blue-water naval capabilities that could undermine U.S. pre-eminence in the western Pacific for the first time since the Second World War. No wonder China's neighbours are worried, and worried also about the Obama administration's response.
And China's internal situation is far from rosy. The "one child per family" policy has left tens of millions of Chinese men with no realistic prospect of marriage, ever. China's creatively derived economic statistics conceal huge unseen armies of unemployed, both in coastal cities and deep in the interior, with only remote job prospects. These and other factors portend potentially enormous social and political instability.
An effective U.S. Asia policy, therefore, should not assume an economically omnipotent China or ignore or understate the still-critical role of close allies such as Japan. Nor should we shrink from imposing intense pressure on issues important to the United States, such as North Korea's nuclear threat or substantial trade barriers and internal rule-of-law problems China poses on issues such as intellectual property. If we simply assume it is too risky to be firm with China, Beijing wins by default, and American interests suffer.
China is frailer internally than its propaganda admits, and other Asian nations are far from ecstatic about a rising China and a declining America. We need a U.S. policy that does not uniformly defer to China but that asserts U.S. interests unapologetically. China would respect such an approach, because it appreciates how great powers routinely treat each other on vital national interests. The question for Barack Obama is whether he understands that it is not a strong American policy that could provoke China, but a weak one.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.