The pageantry surrounding the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping, China’s next leader, reflects the best tradition of U.S.-China summitry since 1972. There is no symbolism in international politics like that presented by meetings between the leaders of the world’s two most powerful nations, with their utterly different histories and traditions. Washington is preoccupied by the new Kremlinology : is Xi a reformer or a hard-liner ? Who will become his deputy responsible for managing the Chinese economy ? Are former rising star’s Bo Xilai’s allies being purged from the leadership group ? More broadly, American officials are grappling with the overriding question of how to stabilize U.S.-China relations amidst political contests in both countries — and growing strategic mistrust following China’s heavy-handed military assertiveness in 2009-10 and President Obama’s China-focused "pivot" to Asia in 2011.
In Washington’s internal debates over China policy, several schools of thought are vying for primacy. One — call it the "China-first" school — believes the People’s Republic is an ascendant superpower, whose newfound confidence is well-justified, and which America must do more to accommodate as the United States itself declines. In this view, America’s existing position in Asia is unsustainable. Military surveillance in international waters near China is too provocative to continue indefinitely. America cannot reasonably continue to control the maritime approaches to China, in the Western Pacific and East and South China Seas, without a justified Chinese counter-reaction. Washington must recognize that new power realities in Asia require it to cede China much more strategic space, in ways that will reassure its leaders rather than reinforcing indefensible red lines. Better to negotiate a new arrangement with China on our respective "core interests" now than to find ourselves forced into a confrontation — over Taiwan, access to sea lanes near China, or particular alliance relationships — that we cannot win.
For this school, it really is unduly provocative for the United States to be strengthening its military relations with China’s neighbors. If China were deploying troops and securing military access agreements in Canada and Mexico, wouldn’t the United States object ? Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to multilateralize a set of bilateral free-trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific appears, in this light, to be a form of economic containment of China, since the negotiations exclude it. The policy takeaway from this perspective is that Washington should back off its forward posture in Asia, drop the TPP in favor of trade and investment treaties with Beijing, do more to tangibly reassure China that we will not threaten its interests as a rising power, and otherwise reassure China that America sees the writing on the wall and will peaceably cede the primacy it has enjoyed. Such a policy, we are assured, would help encourage China to behave as a good international citizen.
A second school of thought - call it the "Asia-first" school — reverses the China-first logic of the perspective above. It focuses on influencing Beijing’s strategic choices by constructing a robust balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region that hedges against Chinese assertiveness — and reassures America’s many friends and allies that we will not subordinate their acute concerns about China’s growing strength out of deference to China’s grievances, real or imagined. It acknowledges the pluralism of Asia, America’s historic role as a Pacific power, and the central truth that none of Asia’s great and regional powers is willing to allow Beijing to speak for the region.
American proponents of this approach do not favor containing China. Indeed, they understand that stable U.S.-China relations are intrinsically in the U.S. interest — as well as enabling stronger U.S. relations with America’s Asian partners. But they believe that Chinese assertiveness is best managed through coalitions of states that share a determination to sustain the rules and norms that have made possible the Asian economic miracle. They also believe that American leadership is a surer foundation for continued stability in Asia than a managed American retreat.
This school of thought also understands that China, like the Soviet Union of George Kennan’s day, suffers from "internal contradictions" — an unsustainable growth model distorted by the heavy hand of the state, an increasingly restive citizenry fed up with corruption and the absence of rule of law, and a demographic time bomb. A prudential U.S. policy of shaping an Asian balance of power that China cannot control ultimately should create the time and space for China to undergo an internal evolution that mellows the dangers posed by its authoritarian power. This would allow its government to enjoy peaceful and cooperative relations with its people, its neighbors, and the West.
Such a policy approach calls for the intensification of President Obama’s newly robust approach to sustaining American leadership in Asia — through intimate relations with our allies, new and diversified troop deployments, expanded military prepositioning and access agreements, closer ties with non-traditional partners like Indonesia and Vietnam, and stronger leadership on free trade. It would be boosted by enactment of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s calls to increase the U.S. defense budget (rather than cutting it, as Obama would) ; increase naval shipbuilding (rather than overseeing the shrinkage of the U.S. fleet to its smallest since 1917, as Obama has) ; put allies rather than competitors first in formulating foreign policy ; and get America’s fiscal house back in order to give it the domestic capabilities to lead abroad (rather than proposing annual budgets that increase America’s national debt, as Obama has just done).
This second school understands that the audience for U.S. policy towards China is not just China’s leaders, but the Chinese public, as well as America’s many friends and allies in Asia. U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon points out that there is strong and growing demand for U.S. leadership in Asia, even as China’s economic and military power expand. Joseph Nye, Lee Kuan Yew, Robert Kagan, and other thought leaders correctly point out that China may well never surpass the United States in comprehensive national power, despite much-hyped predictions to the contrary. By extension, it would be strange indeed for America to peremptorily cede its leadership in Asia at a time when Asian states want more of it, and U.S. interests in the coming Pacific century so directly hinge on it.
The blind spot of the China-first school is its basic misunderstanding of the sources of regime anxiety in Beijing. Chinese leaders’ most deeply rooted insecurities do not derive from U.S. policies in Asia ; China has prospered mightily from them, in fact. Rather, the most acute fears of Chinese leaders derive from the danger China’s own people pose to the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party. America’s Sinologists should have a little more confidence that the United States can compete with China, not only in the contest for power but in the contest of ideas — which ultimately will determine whether Beijing and Washington can build a fruitful condominium of cooperation in the 21st century, or whether strategic competition will define our shared future.