Time For a New U.S.-China Relations Strategic Maxim?
The George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations each produced strategy reports outlining their visions and overall strategy for Asia, coalescing around a catch phrase that would guide U.S. policy. In 2005, former US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick announced his idea that China become a “responsible stakeholder”, calling for Beijing to become increasingly integrated in international institutions so that they might see it as in their interest to act in concert with the international community (a euphemism for the West) on a range of issues. The Clinton administration’s concept of building a ‘‘cooperative strategic partnership’’ was an effort to redefine relations in positive terms after years of mistrust and friction. Thus in preparation for president Obama’s first trip to Asia and China, experts on both sides have been waiting to see if the Obama administration will continue with the Bush administration’s “responsible stakeholder” axiom or come up with a new phrase to describe the bilateral relationship.
They might have gotten their answer. Recently, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Zoellick’s successor, formulated his own China paradigm, “strategic reassurance”, in a September 24 speech at the Center for a New American Security.
“Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if tacit, bargain. Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival’… as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others. Bolstering that bargain must be a priority in the U.S.-China relationship. And strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic.”
Since that day, it has been unclear whether the term “strategic reassurance” represents a new formalized framing of relations on the part of the Obama Administration or simply Steinberg’s own construction. Many experts had previously pointed to the April 1 Obama-Hu agreement to work together to build a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship’’ as being the new, mutually agreed upon catch phrase.
Either way, this appears a wise choice and a welcome departure from the previous two slogans. The “responsible stakeholder” idea, while now understood and generally supported by both sides, was initially contentious since many Chinese saw it as too judgmental - there was disagreement over who got to decide what behavior was ‘responsible’ and what ’stake’ China actually had in the international system. Similarly, the earlier pledge by the Clinton administration of a “cooperative strategic partnership’’ made some US allies nervous out of concern that this proposed arrangement would somehow supersede Washington’s other alliance relationships. The phrase came to be symbolic of the Clinton Administration’s “naivete” in dealing with Beijing, much as conservative critics in the mid-70s had associated “detente” with the alleged naivete of US policy toward Moscow. This new phase seems to split the difference and keeps both sides on equal footing.
The good news is that both sides seem committed to trust-building and enhanced cooperation. The decision to establish a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with Secretary of State Clinton and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo chairing the ‘Strategic Track’ and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan chairing the ‘Economic Track’ is a positive development in helping the two sides flesh out important bilateral issues. What a difference the word ‘and’ makes. During the Bush administration there was a Strategic Economic Dialogue but the focus was almost exclusively on ‘economic’. Now the dialogue can truly become strategic and sensitive security issues have and will be put on the table and seriously discussed.
A realistic and pragmatic policy should recognize and accept China’s growing political and cultural influence in the Asia-Pacific, focus American strategy away from visions of military conflict and toward the arenas of economic, political and cultural cooperation and competition, and prioritize areas of policy concern, recognizing that human rights, military modernization, energy competition and environmental issues all require ‘‘different tools and different levels of effort and emphasis’’. The opportunity – and the need – for cooperation in these non-traditional security areas has never been greater. In a speech soon after becoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made it clear that the Obama administration rejects the view promulgated by some pundits and former Bush administration officials that a rising China is automatically or inherently an adversary. ‘‘To the contrary,’’ Secretary Clinton has argued, ‘‘the US and China can benefit from and contribute to each others success.’’
In short, the engagement policy followed by every US president since Richard Nixon is likely to continue under the Obama administration. Whether or not Steinberg’s speech represents a comprehensive articulation of the Obama administration’s China policy, however, remains to be seen.