26 August 2015

Obama and Asia: Confronting the China Challenge

Rigorous, measured, nuanced analysis–always in insufficient supply generally, but particularly on the vital issue of U.S.-China relations!

Thomas J. Christensen, Obama and Asia: Confronting the China Challenge,” Foreign Affairs 94.5 (September/October 2015): 28-36.

China’s rise poses two broad challenges for U.S. foreign policy: how to deter the People’s Republic from destabilizing East Asia and how to encourage it to contribute to multilateral global governance. Although China is not yet a military peer competitor of the United States, it has become powerful enough to challenge U.S. friends and allies in East Asia and to pose serious problems for U.S. forces operating there. And although China is still a developing country with significant domestic problems, it has become an important enough actor that its cooperation is necessary to solve global problems such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and international financial instability.

At the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S.-Chinese relationship was heading in the right direction on both fronts. Under President Barack Obama, significant progress has been made on some issues, but the U.S.-Chinese security relationship and the Asia-Pacific region in general are far more tense today than they were at the start of 2009. That is not necessarily the Obama team’s fault, however, because Chinese actions bear much of the blame. China emerged from the global financial crisis cocky on the international stage but insecure at home, a toxic combination that has made managing relations with it even more difficult than usual. With some exceptions, the Obama administration has generally done well under what have been extremely difficult circumstances. The next administration will face the same double challenge and will need to build on its predecessor’s accomplishments and learn from its successes and failures.

Highly-recommended related reading:

Thomas J. Christensen, “China’s Military Might: The Good News,” Japan Times, 8 June 2015.

…While China’s buildup indeed creates security challenges for the U.S. and its Asian allies, the consequences are more subtle and complicated than some alarms would suggest. Despite its quickly increasing defense budgets in the last 20 years, China still lacks the ability to project combat power in a sustained way far from its shores, and the U.S. maintains full-spectrum military superiority, even in East Asia. Chinese forces lag far behind their U.S. counterparts in quality of equipment, experience and training.

Unfortunately for the U.S., the good news ends there. China doesn’t need to be a peer competitor to pose serious problems in East Asia, a region of great importance to America and the rest of the world. …

One of the biggest advantages the U.S. has compared with China is its network of allies — some 60 countries, which (including the U.S.) account for some 80 percent of global military spending. China has a formal alliance only with North Korea and a strong security partnership with one other Asian country, Pakistan. It has defense cooperation and an arms trade relationship with Russia, but mutual mistrust between the two historical rivals makes it hard to label this an alliance.

So after laying out the evidence showing continued American superiority, why am I still concerned about the bad news? Measures of the overall balance of power between two countries are most relevant when considering wars of survival, such as World War I and World War II. But most international security politics involves coercive diplomacy and limited military engagements short of full-scale war. In such struggles, geography, politics, psychology and perceptions can play an even more important role than the military balances of power. …

Thomas J. Christensen, “Managing Disputes with China,” Japan Times, 9 June 2015.

China isn’t an enemy of the United States. But coercive diplomacy with China today is arguably more complicated than it was with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, at least after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

One reason for this is that no consensus exists in East Asia on the territorial status quo, as there did between the two Cold War camps in most regions of the world. China, in the center of a region of great importance, has maritime sovereignty disputes with several of its neighbors, including two formal U.S. allies (Japan and the Philippines) and one security partner (Taiwan). …

We should take no comfort in the apparent sincerity of all the claimants. If all actors truly feel they are defending rightful claims against the revisionism of others, the chicken game of international security politics is more likely to lead to a deadly collision. …

If the situation sounds hopeless, it’s not. It helps mightily that China and the U.S. aren’t enemies and that both would be severely harmed by a conflict across the Pacific.

For Americans, it is important to fixate less on China’s potential to catch up to the U.S. in total military power and more on analyzing which U.S. and allied strategies since the end of the Cold War have been effective in specific geographic and political contexts.

For example, the George W. Bush administration successfully mixed the credibility of the American commitment to the security of Taiwan (by selling it large tranches of weapons and warning China against aggression across the Taiwan Strait) with reassurances to Beijing that the purpose of the U.S. defense relationship with the island was not to support permanent Taiwan independence from the Chinese nation. (For example, the U.S. publicly opposed a 2008 referendum that called for seeking United Nations membership for the island under the name Taiwan.)

The Obama administration has successfully signaled to the Chinese that the U.S. supports Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku Islands (for example, when the president reiterated in Tokyo in 2014 that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan covers the disputed islands). But his administration also has reportedly called for restraint from Japan as well, and even criticized Tokyo publicly for actions that seem to whitewash Imperial Japan’s actions in World War II.

Both of these examples show how a combination of U.S. power and resolve on the one hand, and diplomatic assurances on the other, can calm potentially volatile situations involving emotional sovereignty claims and a rising China. These episodes also demonstrate that U.S.-China relations are not a zero-sum game — and that it’s dangerous to act as if they are.

Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015).


This compelling assessment of U.S.-China relations is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the globalized world.

Many see China as a rival superpower to the United States and imagine the country’s rise to be a threat to U.S. leadership in Asia and beyond. Thomas J. Christensen argues against this zero-sum vision. Instead, he describes a new paradigm in which the real challenge lies in dissuading China from regional aggression while encouraging the country to contribute to the global order. Drawing on decades of scholarship and experience as a senior diplomat, Christensen offers a compelling new assessment of U.S.-China relations that is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the globalized world.

The China Challenge shows why China is nowhere near powerful enough to be considered a global “peer competitor” of the United States, but it is already strong enough to destabilize East Asia and to influence economic and political affairs worldwide. Despite China’s impressive achievements, the Chinese Communist Party faces enormous challenges. Christensen shows how nationalism and the threat of domestic instability influence the party’s decisions on issues like maritime sovereignty disputes, global financial management, control of the Internet, climate change, and policies toward Taiwan and Hong Kong.

China benefits enormously from the current global order and has no intention of overthrowing it; but that is not enough. China’s active cooperation is essential to global governance. Never before has a developing country like China been asked to contribute so much to ensure international stability. If China obstructs international efforts to confront nuclear proliferation, civil conflicts, financial instability, and climate change, those efforts will falter, but even if China merely declines to support such efforts, the problems will grow vastly more complicated.

Analyzing U.S.-China policy since the end of the Cold War, Christensen articulates a balanced strategic approach that explains why we should aim not to block China’s rise but rather to help shape its choices so as to deter regional aggression and encourage China’s active participation in international initiatives that benefit both nations.


  • Hardcover:400 pages
  • Publisher: W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (June 8, 2015)
  • Language:English
  • ISBN-10:0393081133
  • ISBN-13:978-0393081138


“Can a rising power and an established power cooperate toward mutually beneficial aims? The China Challenge presents a thoughtful analysis of this question through the lens of recent developments in U.S.-China relations.” — Henry A. Kissinger

“There is no one I would rather read on China than Tom Christensen. He has the rare ability to transcend the conventional either/or debates about China and to see the country simultaneously as a power with the potential to disrupt global politics in many negative ways and as a country that the United States must engage as a partner in solving global problems. He also has a deep and much needed understanding of how Chinese domestic politics shape Chinese foreign policy. If you read only one book on China, make it The China Challenge.” — Anne-Marie Slaughter, president, New America Foundation

“The rise of China is one of the prime challenges for American foreign policy. Thomas Christensen uses his first rate credentials both as a scholar and a practitioner to give a clear and compelling answer to this challenge.” — Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Harvard University, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense

“Christensen is one of the world’s leading China experts, an experienced senior policymaker, and a top-notch international relations theorist. The China Challenge is outstanding, a must-read for anybody interested in China, American foreign policy, or global affairs more generally.” — Gideon Rose, editor, Foreign Affairs


Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Thomas J. Christensen is the William P. Boswell Professor of World Politics and director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.