U.S.-China Relations: Setting Priorities, Making Choices

The United States confronts increasingly urgent challenges around the globe.  Washington’s policies are widely seen as failing

The Obama administration has been doing a little better, but not good enough, with China.  There is no open conflict between the two, but tensions are high. 

Territorial disputes throughout the South China Sea and Sea of Japan could flare into violence.  North Korea is more disruptive than ever.  Other important issues lurk in the background.

While there should be no surprise when important powers like the U.S. and People’s Republic of China (PRC) disagree, the two must work through such issues.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is far better at making demands than negotiating solutions.  In particular, Washington seems to ignore the interdependence of issues, the fact that positions taken in one area may affect responses in others.

For instance, the U.S. famously initiated a “pivot” to Asia, or “rebalancing” of U.S. resources to the region.  The U.S. implausibly claimed that the shift had nothing to do with China. 

But the residents of Zhongnanhai are not stupid.  For what other reason would America reaffirm military alliances and augment military forces in Beijing’s backyard?

Yet at the same time the Obama administration was pressing the PRC to apply greater pressure on North Korea to end the latter’s nuclear program and constant provocations.  Step on Pyongyang’s windpipe and force North Korea to yield, said Washington.

The U.S. acted as if it was asking for a small favor.  In fact, no one knows how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would react.  Worst geopolitically for China would be eventual Korean reunification, which would leave an expanded U.S. ally hosting American troops on the Yalu.

The latter would be unpleasant for Beijing even without the “pivot.”  A unified Korea could play a significant role in any campaign to contain the PRC.

The Obama administration’s attempt to moderate territorial disputes in the region runs into the same problem.  America is committed to one side, maintaining defense relationships, deployments, and treaties with several interested parties including Japan.  Washington’s endorsement of the status quo favors America’s friends and allies.

The PRC likely would be skeptical even if it saw the U.S.-led bloc as benign.  However, America’s senior ally is Japan, still remembered for its World War II depredations in China. 

The U.S. has sought Beijing’s aid in overthrowing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and forcing Iran to abandon any nuclear weapons ambitions.  The PRC’s acquiescence would expand American influence and even perhaps create a new U.S. client state.  That is not obviously in the PRC’s interest, especially when America is seen as attempting to maintain its dominance in East Asia.

Other issues also cannot be considered in isolation.  While human rights are not a security question, American pressure on Beijing to respect political activities hostile to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power may be seen to be no less threatening than Washington’s military moves. 

Moreover, U.S. attempts to convince Beijing to combat climate change by limiting energy use—which would inevitably slow China’s economic growth—look more sinister when Washington is working to constrain the PRC’s influence. 

There inevitably will be disagreements and misunderstandings between America and China.  The two nations must manage such controversies.  As I point out in a new article on China-U.S. Focus, “the world’s superpower and incipient superpower must strive to develop a sustained cooperative relationship, as did imperial Great Britain and rising America.”

Doing so will require recognizing that issues are interrelated.  In particular, the U.S. cannot be seen as leading a coalition against Beijing if it hopes to convince the PRC to adopt policies seemingly against its own geopolitical interests.  Washington will have to relearn the art of diplomacy as it better sets priorities.