18 August 2014

Can America “Just Say No” to China?

A trenchant, thought-provoking analysis by CNAS Research Associate and rising star in the China/Asia-Pacific studies field Amy Chang on contradictions in U.S. China policy and what to do about them. Whether you agree with Amy or not on the specifics, her argument is reflective of growing concerns in many U.S. and allied quarters…

Amy Chang, “Can America ‘Just Say No’ to China?The National Interest, 18 August 2014.

“One of America’s clearest and most compelling interests is to develop a positive and constructive U.S.-China relationship.”

Secretary Kerry’s statement at the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) is consistent with President Obama’s priority for the United States to make a military, diplomatic, and economic rebalance to Asia. And while the President and his administration have taken great strides to improve ties with regional partners Japan and Korea and serve as an arbiter of maritime and territorial disputes, the U.S.-China relationship has emerged as the United States’ highest priority. President Obama said in March 2014 “that this bilateral relationship has been as important as any bilateral relationship in the world,” aspiring to realize Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposition of a new type of major power relations.

China has taken advantage of this dynamic: undermining U.S. credibility in the region with allies and partners, successfully advocating for imbalanced cooperation efforts, and derailing progress on more substantive issues by putting the United States on the defensive in order to prove its priorities in the region.

The United States has overemphasized the engagement aspect of the U.S.-China relationship and has disregarded what Kerry referred to as the “constructive” part of the picture. Absent reciprocation or behavior modification from China, however, a true major power relationship is an unattainable goal.

As it reassesses its priorities for the bilateral security relationship, the United States should also ensure its messaging to China is consistent and resilient. The United States should be selective on issues of engagement: prioritizing substantive, productive issues such as cybersecurity and eschewing counterproductive, incongruent agendas such as counterterrorism cooperation. The United States cannot forgo consideration of larger strategic interests (such as protecting intelligence and military capabilities) or avoid contentious but important issues (such as tensions in maritime Asia, avoiding conflict escalation) so that it may engage with China. It runs the risk of cooperating for cooperation’s sake.