The end of the concept of “strategic reassurance”?

The end of the concept of “strategic reassurance”?

Multiple sources tell The Cable that the Obama administration will avoid Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg‘s idea of "strategic reassurance" with China during the President’s trip to Asia next week, as the U.S.-China policy community struggles to sort out the meaning and impact of the concept.

It seems that every Deputy Secretary of State these days should have a catchphrase to sum up the American view of how China’s rise should be managed, or more specifically, how the U.S. wants China to act as its rise becomes more and more pronounced.

In 2005, former Deputy Secretary 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 act in concert with the international community on a range of issues.

Steinberg, Zoellick’s successor, coined 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," Steinberg said, "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, U.S.-China relationship watchers on both sides of the Pacific have been trying to figure out the impact of Steinberg’s speech. Did this signal a softer or tougher line from the Obama administration on pressing China on points of contention? Was "strategic reassurance" meant to replace "responsible stakeholder" as the Obama team’s frame on how to think about China?

 "It caused a lot of confusion within the China-watching community," said former Pentagon China official Dan Blumenthal, now with the American Enterprise Institute, "It seemed like different administration officials interpreted it differently. Some took it as a new policy on which we remove Chinese-defined irritants and embrace them as a full partner on their terms. Others were talking very soberly about the Chinese need to reassure us about their military intentions."

Steinberg has been traveling to the region and is considered a highly-respected and integral part of the administration’s China team.

But inside the administration, there was a feeling that Steinberg had gotten out ahead of the rest of the team by announcing this idea as if it were policy. Several sources told The Cable that Steinberg hadn’t cleared his speech either with the National Security Council or down through the State Department’s Asia bureaucracy.

"While the speech text was not cleared, the idea had been previously discussed and is still being worked," a White House official told The Cable.

Michael Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, said that Steinberg’s concept was discussed at the White House and has subsequently come up in discussions between the Chinese and NSC officials. But "we are not going to preview at this point what the President intends to say during his upcoming visit to China," he said.

"I think it remains to be seen whether other parts of the government are going to embrace his concept of strategic reassurance," said Bonnie Glaser, China fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies "This was an instance of Steinberg organizing his speech and then trying to get buy in after the fact. My sense is that the speech was not very well-coordinated, unlike the ‘responsible stakeholder’ speech that was given by Bob Zoellick."  

Michael Green, who was senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, said Zoellick’s China mantra was debated and ultimately approved by the White House at the time.

Green and Glaser both predicted that President Obama won’t mention "strategic reassurance" during his trip to Beijing next week or in the joint statement to be issued by him and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"You probably won’t hear as much about it from here on out," said Green.