China-US Relations: The Obama Administration Record


2012-10-22 by Richard Weitz

The government of China will play a key role, either positively or negatively, in whether the next U.S. administration will achieve its foreign and domestic objectives.

The Obama administration’s increased focus on China and the Asia-Pacific region enjoys widespread bipartisan support in Washington and even a Republican president would likely seek to continue along the same lines.

The Barack Obama administration has accepted China’s rise as inevitable while trying to channel the ascent in mutually beneficial directions by inducing Beijing to accept U.S.-backed regional security procedures and economic goals.

This goal centers on a vision of mutually-shared peace, stability, and prosperity, which can be achieved if the United States can persuade China to accept international law, multilateral responsibilities, and international norms.

President Obama and senior U.S. leaders have repeatedly expressed an interest in peacefully settling territorial disputes, freedom of maritime navigation, military transparency, and fair commercial practices—among other issues.

In terms of tactics, the Obama administration relies heavily on making declarations of benign intent, strengthening international norms and institutions, increasing U.S. diplomacy and military engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasing the interaction between PRC and U.S. civilian and military agencies.

The administration denies it has followed a “soft” or “appeasement” policy toward Beijing. Administration officials have repeatedly criticized the Chinese government for currency manipulation, cyber espionage, human rights violations, regional bullying, and ties with Iran.

The administration is committed to building a regional economic and security architecture that not only will engage ASEAN members through bilateral trade and security agreements, but also will constrain China’s potentially disruptive behavior. Yet, they see the U.S. and Chinese economies so interdependent that any effort to hurt China’s economy would invariably adversely affect the United States.

But the Obama administration has also modified how it addresses Chinese concerns regarding its decisions.

During Obama’s first two years in office, the administration strived to avoid offending the Chinese by not—for example—meeting with the Dalai Lama or selling the Taiwanese all the arms they wanted. But the Chinese still protested U.S. policies and—in some cases—elevated their demands in the face of the softer U.S. policies; in addition, the PRC confronted the United States over its naval presence in the South China Sea.

Whereas a decade ago, “Chinese defense technology was nothing short of primitive,” in the past decade, “China’s defense industry capability has been growing in leaps and bounds.” In some areas “such as aerospace, Chinese manufacturers have leapfrogged two generations of technology.” Developing countries now can circumvent Western-Russian efforts to limit regional arms races by purchasing advanced arms from China. Credit Image: Bigstock 

More recently, the Obama administration tries to do whatever is in the United States’ best interest regardless of what Chinese leaders think, because they believe the Chinese will still cooperate with the United States whenever it is in their interest. The Obama Administration also takes care to tell the Chinese in advance what it plans to do; this not only avoids embarrassing and potentially dangerous surprises in the Sino-American relationship, but also makes it difficult for the United States to proceed in an alternative direction regardless of the Chinese reaction.

In addition to a wider geographic focus, the Obama administration has strived to expand security cooperation beyond counterterrorism to encompass regional defense arrangements extending from India to Australia to the Philippines.

Current efforts focus on boosting U.S. military ties with the Philippines (moving beyond countering Islamist militants to include modernizing the country’s armed forces), Singapore (preparations proceed for basing U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships at Changi Pier), Indonesia (new arms sales and joint training and education opportunities), and Vietnam (expanding engagement to encompass port visits, joint exercises, and defense dialogues).

In any case, budget strictures are already disrupting some initiatives, such as the proposed transfer of Marines from Japan and Okinawa to Guam and the provision of opportunities for Japanese troops to engage in joint exercises with these forces on Guam’s much less constrained training ranges. Defenders of the new approach argue that the Obama initiatives are the best that can be secured given current economic and diplomatic constraints and that the deployments will provide a sufficiently tangible expression of U.S. strategic commitment to Asian-Pacific security to promote U.S. deterrence and reassurance objectives.

To keep defense spending limited, the United States hopes to compensate for China’s relative rise by leveraging alliances, partnerships, and institutions.

Perhaps the most original Obama administration tactic is attempting to build a regional economic and security multilateral architecture, consisting of diverse bilateral alignments, international organizations, formal rules, and informal norms, which constrain Chinese behavior according to U.S. preferences. U.S. officials note that—if successful—this constraining architecture could potentially reduce the need for active U.S. management and compensate for the anticipated decline of U.S. resources relative to those of the Chinese in the long run.

Earlier SLD articles have stressed the need to maintain U.S. command of the “global commons,” i.e., the maritime, air, outer space, and the cyber domain. This primacy gives the United States the ability to strike anywhere very quickly, and very hard, while at the same time allowing allies to benefit from U.S. extended security guarantees.

As long as the United States acts to keep the commons open to all legitimate users, other countries will support this U.S. hegemony because it directly benefits them—they are able to enjoy free use of the commons without having to pay the full burden of upholding it.

Unfortunately, China’s development of ballistic missiles and other anti-access, area denial, and asymmetric capabilities is challenging U.S. primacy in the sea and air near the PRC, as well as the cyber and outer space domains more broadly. The Chinese apparently aim to disrupt U.S. space satellites, computer systems, and use other vital DoD information and communication networks in an attempt to degrade U.S. military capabilities while the PLA uses the opportunity to establish a fait accompli, such as the occupation of Taiwan.

The Obama administration benefited from Chinese overreaching in 2009 and 2010, which alarmed many Asian leaders previously lulled by Beijing’s earlier non-confrontational policies in most of Asia.

The Chinese provocations prompted newly anxious Asian countries to seek greater U.S. involvement in the region. PRC policymakers have since tempered their approach, which over time could weaken regional demands for a larger and more visible U.S. security presence in Asia. U.S. initiatives are widely seen—partly due to U.S. rhetoric—as aiming to counter China, which could limit regional support for some U.S. policies.

Yet, Sino-American tensions over Taiwan, U.S. military patrols near China, and mutual military buildups are downplayed rather than resolved. This year should see continued restraint in Beijing due to domestic political preoccupations. But the long-term economic, ideological, and military sources of Sino-American tension persist and could easily manifest themselves in further confrontations over Iran, Korea, South China Sea, or Taiwan. And another crisis could easily emerge in the Middle East to redirect Washington’s attention to that volatile region.

A deliberate U.S.-PRC military clash is extremely unlikely given the mutual economic interests of both countries and the obvious incentive for Beijing to bide its time while China—which recently became the second largest national economy in the world after the United States—continues its peaceful rise to global power.

But the possibility of a military conflict through miscalculation always exists, so it is beneficial that both parties make clear their areas of security concern.

In particular, the problem of Taiwan could also loom large in future relations. As long as Beijing insists on reestablishing control over the island, the Taiwanese people insist on their right to exercise their hard-won democratic liberties independent of the mainland’s Communist government, and Washington insists on its obligation to provide Taiwan with weapons to resist a PRC military invasion, the Taiwan situation will remain an insuperable obstacle to better China-U.S. ties.

Some observers imply that a genuinely democratic Chinese government would present less of a threat to its neighbors than an authoritarian regime. They claim that democratic regimes generally pursue less aggressive foreign policies than authoritarian states because of their internal checks and balances, their populations’ reluctance to spend lives and money on military conquest, and their respect for the rights of other states’ citizens. These arguments may be true, but substantial political and economic barriers exist to China’s becoming a liberal democracy over the next few decades. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has vigorously resisted democratic tendencies for reasons ranging from self-preservation to genuine concerns over their huge and diverse country’s stability.   Chinese business leaders, even in the non-state sector, remain both unwilling and unable to challenge the political elite and China’s rent-seeking, mercantilist, clientism-cum-corporatism system.

The next U.S. administration and other foreign policy makers will need to make three general decisions as they consider how to shape China’s course towards one that is more conducive to international peace and stability.

First, U.S. policy makers should look for “low-hanging fruit” where the United States and China have obvious incentives to increase cooperation. The administration should move quickly to increase collaboration in these areas.

Second, U.S. officials will need to determine those issues where securing increased Chinese-American cooperation is vital. In these instances, the United States will probably need to leverage other areas of the bilateral relationship and make a full-court press to achieve its objectives.

Finally, U.S. officials will have to establish which non-vital goals will present the greatest obstacles to near-term Sino-American cooperation and thus will likely see the most gradual trajectory toward progress.

While remaining alert to unexpected opportunities, the U.S. government should in most of these cases devote fewer resources at present to these extremely challenging issues than those falling in the first two categories. Ideally, changing circumstances will allow for their longer-term resolution.

(Editor’s Note: Preparing to deal with the ripple effects of a hard Chinese economic landing will also fall within the purview of the next Administration.  For our look at the challenge see: