Balancing Beijing

February 23, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the National Interest (Online) on February 23, 2009

After a rough start with the EP-3 spy plane confrontation, the Bush administration forged a good relationship between the United States and China. Washington realized that it needed Beijing’s help in dealing with North Korea, winning UN Security Council approval for U.S. objectives, and forging a profitable trading relationship.

The Obama administration risks getting off to an equally difficult start, though for different reasons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocates “a comprehensive dialogue with China” and her visit to Beijing went smoothly, but of necessity little of substance was decided.

With economic fears rising and international trade declining, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a convenient target for an administration inclined toward protectionism. Moreover, Democrats have more often emphasized human rights in American diplomacy, another point of controversy with the PRC. At the same time, conservative concerns over Beijing’s rising geopolitical ambitions remain unabated, while the business community, which typically has supported expanded economic relations, has lost influence. The potential exists for a perfect political storm over China.

In the case of U.S.-China relations, the Obama administration should take the Hippocratic Oath as its basic objective: first do no harm. Whatever the day‐​to‐​day vagaries of bilateral ties, there is no more important long‐​term relationship. The United States continues to dominate international affairs as the globe’s sole superpower, but China is the most significant rising power, with increasing regional and beginnings of global reach. The PRC’s growing wealth enables Beijing to bolster commercial relationships in the Third World and enhance its military power at home.

The effects of this transformation are many. Perhaps the most important is that Washington is losing its ability to dictate to China.

For instance, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has charged China with “manipulating” its currency. Whether that is the case is a matter of dispute. However, both countries have much at stake in the bilateral economic relationship and are facing significant economic challenges. The Obama administration is in no position to make unilateral demands, especially since it expects China, which already owns $700 billion dollars in government securities—nearly a quarter of foreign holdings—to absorb much of the new borrowing by the U.S. Treasury this year. Sanctions would amount to economic mutual assured destruction, harming both nations in a downward retaliatory spiral.

So, too, with the issue of human rights. On such issues as religious liberty, freedom of speech and democratic elections, the gulf between America and the PRC is wide. Several human‐​rights groups recently wrote Secretary Clinton insisting that the United States tell Beijing that China’s relationship with America “will depend in part on whether it lives by universally accepted human rights norms.”

The temptation to insist on change is strong, but futile. The United States has moral right on its side and should demonstrate its commitment to human rights. Indeed, then‐​Senator Clinton urged President George W. Bush not to attend the Beijing Olympics to protest China’s human‐​rights practices. However, Washington is in no position to force a proud government of a growing nation representing an ancient culture to transform itself. In moving beyond using the bully pulpit, Washington would find itself alone, abandoned by its Asian and European friends. And what would be its weapons, other than diplomatic huffing and puffing? Trade sanctions and military threats? For the United States to issue an ultimatum, especially in public, likely would result in a Chinese response in kind. The PRC is changing: reforms have begun and are likely to continue, but will have to be driven by domestic forces. Indeed, unrelated to American pressure, social unrest in China is severe and growing.

So Washington should exhibit humility about its ability to force change. As Secretary Clinton observed, “We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere” with cooperation on other issues. Ultimately a positive relationship with Beijing is more likely to lead to a more liberal China. The result is not foreordained, but as always engagement offers the better bet. The United States shouldn’t hesitate to promote its ideals, but it must recognize its limits in enforcing them.

Washington also should look on benignly as the PRC expands its commercial and diplomatic ties around the world. Even a sober military analyst like Tom Ricks of the Washington Post recently warned: “I am not sure what China is up to in Africa. But I have the nagging thought that we will figure it out in 15 years and be sorry.”

Yet the United States and Soviet Union spent most of the cold war sparring for influence in the Third World to little meaningful effect. Money was spent and lives were lost, but in the end it didn’t much matter who was numero uno in Vientiane, Kinshasa, Luanda or Managua. It matters even less today. As my Cato colleague Ben Friedman puts it, “There is little that China can do in Africa to make it stronger or to damage U.S. interests.” If Beijing wishes to invest heavily in places with little geopolitical heft, why should the United States object?

Even more important, Washington needs to back away from any kind of arms race with the PRC. The latest Pentagon Joint Operating Environment 2008 ominously declared that while Beijing doesn’t “emphasize the future strictly in military terms,” the Chinese do calculate “that eventually their growing strength will allow them to dominate Asia and the Western Pacific.” The annual Pentagon assessment of PRC military spending appears to show Beijing’s conscious effort to build a force capable of deterring American intervention against China in East Asia. As a result, Aaron Friedberg, until recently Vice President Cheney’s chief foreign‐​policy adviser, worries that the balance of power “is beginning to shift in way that, under the wrong set of circumstances, could increase the risk of miscalculation and conflict.”

Yet the question is, what balance of power? Beijing poses no threat to America’s homeland or even Pacific possessions and will not do so for decades, if ever. The United States possesses a far stronger military to start—eleven carrier groups to none, for instance—spends five or more times as much as the PRC on defense (excluding the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq) and is allied with most important industrial states in Asia and Europe. There is no Chinese threat or potential threat to America.

At issue is relative influence in East Asia and the security of Washington’s friends in that region. Yet the PRC so far has been assertive rather than aggressive and those nations, particularly Japan and South Korea, could do much more individually and collectively for regional security. Washington should not hesitate to sell arms to friendly states, including Taiwan, despite Chinese protests, but should leave them with responsibility for their own defense. Of course, a policy of continued restraint by Beijing will make it far easier for the United States to back away.

In any case, there is little that Washington can do, at least at acceptable cost, to maintain U.S. dominance along China’s borders, as the PRC—whose economy already ranks number two or three, depending on the measure, in the world—continues to grow. Washington would have to devote an ever larger amount of resources to the military, in the midst of economic crisis, to ensure its ability to overcome far more limited Chinese capabilities. Even then, Beijing is unlikely to forever accept U.S. hegemony. Confrontation if not conflict would be likely.

The better option would be to temper America’s geopolitical pretensions and accept a more influential PRC in its own region. China will grow in power, irrespective of Washington’s wishes. America’s chief objective should be to ensure that this rise is peaceful, as Beijing has promised.

U.S.-China diplomatic relations passed the thirty‐​year mark last fall. The relationship has survived great challenges and is likely to face even greater ones in the future. But despite inevitable differences between the two nations, much depends upon strengthening their ties. The twenty‐​first century will turn out far differently—and positively—if America and the PRC prove willing to accommodate each other’s economic and geopolitical ambitions.

About the Author