This week, top American and Chinese officials will meet in Washington for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The dialogue, which the Obama administration began in 2009, was once touted as one of Washington’s most important bilateral meetings, potentially even a de facto G-2, where the world’s two dominant powers would not only settle their differences but shape Asian, if not global, economic and political issues. Experience has proved a bitter teacher, however, and the hopes of just a few years ago have dissipated as the desired strategic partnership has devolved into an undeniable strategic competition.
It is long past time to reevaluate our relationship with China and, more important, to put to pasture failed initiatives such as the S&ED in favor of a more realistic and self-interested engagement with Beijing.
It will be particularly difficult this year to pretend that Sino-American relations are anything other than increasingly competitive. Just this month it was revealed that Chinese hackers penetrated the U.S. government’s personnel files in 2014, potentially gaining access not only to the files of nearly every government employee, but also to the sensitive and private information of Americans holding government security clearances. Some believe that American intelligence has been gutted by this invasion. At least 4 million, and possibly as many as 14 million, Americans may have had their personal information stolen by the Chinese (I may well be one of those persons). This act alone should result in a radical rethink of U.S. strategy toward China.
Meanwhile, our nascent military competition is heating up. Over the past several months, Washington has focused on China’s land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea, which are unprecedented in their scale. Beijing is building new territory in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei in addition to China, and which sit astride some of the world’s most important trade routes.
China has warned away U.S. surveillance flights, which have revealed that the Chinese are militarizing the islands, building landing strips and emplacing radars. Beijing has asserted that the islands will be used for military as well as civilian purposes and has rejected American demands to stop the land-reclamation process. Even China’s recent announcement that the project will be completed this summer leaves open the door to further militarization of the islands and the construction of new ones in the future.
America’s overriding interest in the South China Sea is freedom of navigation, and the Defense Department has pledged not to respect China’s claims of 12-mile territorial limits around the islands. But Beijing’s new territory can be used as forward bases for Chinese planes and ships, which would shift Asia’s balance of power further toward China, even if Beijing did not go so far as to directly interfere with freedom of navigation. At a minimum, it will cause other Asian nations and Spratly claimants to consider how risky it is becoming to uphold their own claims.
Pretending that relations with China are ‘normal’ or are experiencing just a few bumps in the road is not a responsible position.
No one should be surprised that a rising power is flexing its muscles. But we should worry that American policy appears to be to turn the other cheek. There is no rule of statecraft that demands that a status quo power do everything possible to avoid upsetting relations with a rising challenger. Indeed, unless the status quo power (the U.S. in this case) is satisfied with a steady diminution of its credibility, influence, and even comparative power, then it must respond to the destabilizing actions of the challenger precisely so as to try and maintain stability.
Pretending that relations with China are “normal” or are experiencing just a few bumps in the road is not a responsible position. Nor, quite frankly, is it a prudent one. So far, one can only conclude that America’s reluctance to impose some type of cost on China for its destabilizing actions has merely abetted more assertive behavior, which even President Obama has called “aggressive.”
One might argue that the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia is either (a) an appropriate response to China’s actions or (b) the catalyst for China’s increased aggressiveness. But the pivot remains more rhetoric than reality, good plans that have not yet come to full fruition and don’t really add up to a significant change in America’s posture in Asia. Instead, Washington needs a root-and-branch reexamination of its policy toward China.
How much more hacking will the American people or their representatives accept? What happens if Chinese-backed hackers turn off part of the electrical grid or water supply, simply to make the point that they can, and that Washington should be wary of pushing China even further? Then our inaction will have led us to being blackmailed. The same question applies to how far Washington wants to let China change the balance of power in the South China Sea or other parts of Asia, until one day the risks of future intervention seem too high to bear.
It is time to put Beijing on notice that their own actions force us to consider our relationship with them to be an adversarial one. It is not enough to simply call such actions “a significant source of concern,” as White House spokesman Josh Earnest did yet again last week, and then return to old nostrums such as that we need China to help us keep stability in the South China Sea. China increasingly is the aggressor, not the protector.
Solving the China problem means, first of all, admitting that it exists. Second, it means moderating our own behavior. That includes no longer participating in diplomatic Potemkin villages like this week’s S&ED. Jaw-jawing does little either to solve our problems with China or to moderate their behavior, but the Chinese get global credibility from the pomp and circumstance the United States affords them. Let’s talk when we have a real reason to, not because we fear not to.
Similarly, we should be curtailing military exchanges like the one that brought a top Chinese general to the Pentagon last week. We certainly should not be inviting China to participate in our most coveted military exercises, like the naval RIMPAC gathering, to which Beijing has garnered yet another invite despite sending a spy ship along with its participants last year. It may even mean taking some tit-for-tat cyber action, to show that Chinese choices have consequences.
With its inaction, the American government does not look confident or prudent in the face of China’s growing assertiveness. It looks weak and feckless. And that invites more brazen actions that will keep us in a cycle of frustration and confusion, weakening our position abroad and our security at home. It’s time to start solving the China problem.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review.