The rise of fatalism in U.S.–China ties, and the need for reality-based strategy

The following is my contribution to this week’s Conversation from Asia Society’s ChinaFile. See the full conversation for entries by Hugh White, Mary Kay Magistad, Zha Daojiong, Vanessa Home, and Chen Weihua.

Three years ago, when the scholars Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal published a joint study of mutual distrust between the United States and China, they identified a frustrating reality faced by those working toward stable U.S.–China relations. Despite good faith efforts, many American and Chinese thinkers and negotiators were having a very hard time trusting one another. Three years later, it’s not just distrust but a new kind of fatalism that is surging in both countries—a Cold War–inspired notion that different interests and political systems inevitably will lead to rivalry and armed confrontation. Clearly change is necessary.

Some recent U.S. policy has been tactically clever. On several issues, the Obama administration has reached into the legal toolbox to put pressure on China—for instance through indictments of accused PLA hackers, arrests of commercial spies, and support for the Philippine arbitration case brought against China under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. These efforts can be dialed up or down: Sanctions could be levied, for instance, and freedom of navigation operations could be intensified or dropped. Meanwhile, notwithstanding modest investments as part of the “rebalance,” the U.S. government has avoided a more confrontational military build-up. These legal approaches, however, may never bear fruit in stopping objectionable moves online and in the South China Sea.

Engagement also has been relatively strong. Summits between the two presidents have galvanized their nations’ bureaucracies to reach agreements that might otherwise have languished. If negotiations toward a bilateral investment treaty go well, the benefits for both economies and bilateral ties could be great. The Obama-Xi agreement to push for real action at this year’s Paris climate summit also could pay off. But these affirmative efforts also could fail.

None of this has prevented the rise of a new fatalism. To turn that tide, the primary challenge for U.S. policy toward China is to develop a government-wide strategy and enforce discipline across the diplomatic, military, economic, and other areas of engagement. This means developing a coherent plan to advocate for U.S. interests affected by either disagreement or cooperation with China, and a move away from a reactive, “Whack-a-Mole” approach to strategic challenges. Developing such a strategy and making parts of it public could increase confidence on both sides of the relationship and undermine fatalism by helping ensure that the United States will push its interests without letting slip the dogs of war—even the dogs of cold war.

The foundation of this kind of thinking is a realistic assessment of the limits to the considerable power the United States possesses. Strategists should take David M. Lampton’s advice and abandon the pursuit of “primacy” in favor of discussing realistic objectives with an understanding that the U.S. government can’t always get what it wants. They should follow Michael Swaine in seeking a pragmatic balance in the South China Sea. Efforts to counter Chinese initiatives should be based on interests, not suspicions. Pushing for a reckoning on cybersecurity, for example, makes sense; opposing China’s efforts to play an international role (see the AIIB) does not. At root, the U.S. government must pick its battles and work in a coordinated fashion based on a sober assessment of U.S. interests and capabilities.

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