Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg spoke about the Sino-U.S. relationship yesterday at the Center for a New American Security. The main themes were that all countries, including China, have common interests and common concerns about global threats; that established powers trying to contain emerging ones always fail; and that the new framework for relations with China should be “strategic reassurance.” As far as I can tell, the “strategic reassurance” concept seems to mean the following: we reassure China that we are not containing them while they reassure us about their strategic intentions, including about their increasing military capabilities.
Regarding Beijing’s strategic intentions, Steinberg mentioned in particular China’s moves to keep us from conducting lawful actions in their Exclusive Economic Zone, and their continued deployments of coercive capabilities pointed at Taiwan.
There is in fact nothing new about “strategic reassurance.” Leave aside the open historical question of whether containment works (didn’t it work pretty well against the Soviets?). Since President Nixon went to Beijing, we have followed the policy set out by Steinberg. Since the 1972 rapprochement, we have never been containing China. We have never sought to keep it weak or exclude it from the framework of international politics or economics. We have, in fact, encouraged it to integrate deeply into the international system (remember PNTR and our push for its WTO ascension? What about our push to have China take the lead in North Korea disarmament talks?). If countries acted in accordance with rational actor theories of political science, the Chinese would be pretty well assured that we are not going to contain it. We have made clear across administrations that we welcome China’s rise as a great power and urge it to act as a responsible one.
But countries do not act in accordance with political science theories. China is a big place. There are tens of millions of members of the Communist Party alone. There certainly are Chinese of influence who agree that China should rise peacefully and continue to benefit from engagement with the international system. But there are many other forces at work in China. It is still a one-party dictatorship, though it is apparently no longer polite to say so. The Chinese Communist Party constantly has to convince its people that it is worthy of its monopoly on political power. One way it does so is through nationalist-revanchist appeals to “unify the motherland”–a line of thinking and talking that sounds very 19th- or 20th-century, and very different from the 21st century “smart power” approach outlined by Secretary of State Clinton. The CCP, though it has evolved over the past 60 years, is, in many ways, still the party of a Mao Zedong who proclaimed at the end of the Chinese Civil War, that “China has stood up.”
A big part of party’s stated raison d’être is that it and only it can right the wrongs of the past and reclaim China’s rightful position in the world. This is by definition a revisionist position-China wants to change what it sees as the results of a “century of humiliation.” It is not in the natural order of things that Japan is so strong and powerful and that the United States plays such a dominant role in Asia. Not all Chinese leaders believe this. But many do. Righting the wrongs of the past also means settling scores with the Japanese, who invaded China and committed many atrocities. Now Japan is a very different place. It has wholly embraced liberal and pacifist values. But historical memories linger.
That kind of revisionist thinking leads China to do some of the things that Steinberg mentioned–act unlawfully in its maritime periphery, continue to deploy a dizzying array of military capabilities against Taiwan (a place that is not a threat, unless you are a Chinese revisionist), and as I wrote here a few days ago, develop ever more sophisticated ways of raising the costs to us of accessing the region to defend our allies and help keep the peace. In these cases, China wants to revise the rules of maritime behavior, revise Taiwan’s status as a de facto independent nation, and change the balance of military power by making it harder for us to operate in the region.
China is not the only country that is rising. So is India. But we do not worry about India’s rise. That is because India is a democracy. Almost everything it does is transparent to us. We share liberal values with India, including the desire to strengthen the post-World War II liberal international order of open trade and investment and the general desire among democracies to settle internal and external disputes peacefully and democratically. The fact that China is not a democracy matters greatly as it rises. It makes its rise more disruptive as countries have to divine its intentions and observe the gap between its rhetorical policy of a “Peaceful Rise” and some of its actions that are inconsistent with a peaceful rise.
Steinberg is on his way to Asia. He will visit China. He will also visit Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia. It is the latter countries that need our “strategic reassurance.” Thus far they do not have much reason to be assured. The Obama Asia policy thus far is notable for what it has not done. There has been no leadership on trade and investment liberalization. To the contrary, the trade pact we negotiated with South Korea sits frozen in the Congress without even a nudge from the Obama Administration. Meanwhile China is signing multiple free trade agreements. As scholar Ellen Frost has pointed out, free trade agreements in Asia are taking on the same symbolism as security treaties. They show that we are present and engaged in the region-or not, as the case may be.
Obama has not bolstered alliances and partnerships to maintain a balance of power that keeps China from dominating the region. Potential partners like Vietnam are concerned about Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. How about a closer U.S.-Vietnam maritime relationship? South Korea and Japan cannot be happy that we intend to go back to the old playbook, as Steinberg announced, of relying on China to convince Kim Jong Il to denuclearize. We have tried this again and again to no effect. As Einstein is purported to have said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if China got on board with all the post-modern, feel-good notions about international politics put forth by the Obama Administration? In the 21st century, says the Obama team, all countries have common interests in confronting transnational issues like climate change and proliferation. Sorry guys, those who lead China think 21st century international politics will look more or less like it did in the past. They favor good old fashioned power politics. Unfortunately for Obama, that forces us to do the same.
Daniel Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.