- By Daniel TwiningDaniel Twining is Counselor and Asia Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
China’s deployment of advanced surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea contravenes a public pledge from President Xi Jinping to President Barack Obama not to militarize Beijing’s controversial claims to disputed islands far from its territorial waters. By deploying weapons capable of targeting military and civilian aircraft over a broad swathe of the South China Sea, China moves closer to asserting sovereignty not only over waters that carry 40 percent of world trade, but also over the airspace above them. Beijing’s brash unilateralism raises a broader question: in its effort to secure greater strategic space for its expanding interests, why is China not doing more to charm Washington rather than alienate it?
The more aggressive approach Xi has taken on an array of issues in U.S.-China relations has eroded the standing of important constituencies in America that once supported accommodation of Chinese interests. These include the community of Chinese scholars, free traders in Congress, Main Street business leaders, and Wall Street investment bankers. A smarter approach from Beijing would woo America to embrace a G-2-style “special relationship,” rather than fanning the flames of a strategic competition that could come back to stymie China’s progress. U.S. policymakers would be wise to resist this temptation. But America’s long fascination with China makes them soft targets for a disarming charm offensive.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, Chinese officials practiced “smile diplomacy,” promising to pursue a “peaceful rise” and “peaceful development” to build a “harmonious world.” For a time, this strategy was quite successful. America focused its energies on other foreign policy priorities such as NATO enlargement and the Middle East. The Chinese approach reassured its neighbors and tempted some of them into China’s orbit and away from America’s.
Not even U.S. military allies were immune from Chinese whispers. A Japanese government led by the Democratic Party pursued an explicit policy of “equidistance” between Washington and Beijing, seeking to move beyond the U.S.-Japan alliance in pursuit of an “Asian Community.” A sitting Australian foreign minister declared publicly that Canberra would not support its American ally in a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. South Korean leaders for a time prioritized relations with China as it became their country’s largest trading partner, even as it simultaneously provided a lifeline to their declared adversary in Pyongyang.
Conventional wisdom today is that Chinese revisionism in Asia, in both the South and East China seas, as well as substantial advances in Chinese military power, have spooked many Asian countries and pushed them to boost security ties with Washington. This includes not only longstanding U.S. allies, all of which have heightened military collaboration with America, but also non-traditional partners such as India and Vietnam, which seek closer security partnership with Washington to add ballast to a shifting Asian balance of power. Although China is placing acute pressure on U.S. interests in Asia, America in fact has more diversified and capable military partnerships there, starting with Japan, than it did even a decade ago — and it partly has China to thank.
This blowback is a strategic problem for Beijing. Yet rather than pushing its neighbors into America’s arms, a smarter Chinese strategy would be to pull the distant superpower into a closer embrace, forging more intimate ties with Washington over the heads of other Asian powers. Despite the self-evident need for China to return to a policy of reassurance in its neighborhood, its best bet in the quest for regional leadership might well be to double down on forging a friendly global compact with the world’s primary power.
Geographic contiguity means its neighbors will fear and resist Chinese primacy to the extent they are able; America’s geographic distance from East Asia means it has more strategic latitude, a fact China could leverage. A more clever Chinese strategy would decouple America from its Asian allies through concessions and reassurance, rather than challenging Washington in ways that lead it to intensify strategic competition.
The allure of a special relationship with China would be dangerous to America’s interests in Asia, including solidarity with its treaty allies. But from a Chinese perspective, that would be precisely the point. Rather than ratcheting up tensions with the United States, Beijing would be wiser to pursue an indirect approach, using engagement, reassurance, and calm to erode the almost theological belief among U.S. officials in the sanctity of America’s Asian alliance relationships, and the U.S. military presence they enable.
American leaders have long sought a special relationship with China; its scale, markets, and civilization all too often have exercised a hypnotic quality on American officials. At the turn of the 20th century, Secretary of State John Hay propounded the Open Door Notes, which he presented as a noble American initiative to protect a declining Chinese empire from the ravages of European imperialists. Franklin Roosevelt elevated China as one of the “Four Policemen” of the post-World War II world, even though the country was in the midst of a ruinous civil war that would soon end in a communist revolution. Richard Nixon viewed his opening to China in the early 1970s as one of the most important American diplomatic victories of the 20th century, and venerated leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai — even as they oppressed their people more harshly than did the leaders of America’s adversary, the Soviet Union.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton flew over Japan to visit China for 10 days. In true G-2 form, he and President Jiang Zemin jointly condemned India’s nuclear weapons tests — a strange irony, given that New Delhi’s fear of Chinese power had inspired them. President Obama flirted openly with a U.S.-China condominium relationship in 2009 and 2010, alarming America’s Asian and European allies and leading Chinese officials publicly to dismiss the prospect of a G-2 relationship with America on the grounds that Beijing was not prepared to assume such global responsibilities.
Xi Jinping more recently has resuscitated the idea with his calls for “a new type of major-power relations,” a formula for coexistence between the sole superpower and its rising challenger. The catch is that this form of special relationship apparently requires a series of American concessions on what Beijing calls its “core interests.” Chinese officials struggle to explain why the U.S. should yield to China on issues like Taiwan even as Beijing challenges America’s core interest in upholding international norms like freedom of the seas.
A more subtle Chinese strategy — one designed to “win without fighting,” as the sage Sun Tzu recommended — would seek to draw America in, rather than to exclude it. It would present China as a benign great power, a peaceable “Middle Kingdom” with no interest in expansionism, rather than a threatening one working actively to erode the international rules-based order.
Under this strategy, China would not be the source of daily cyberattacks against U.S. businesses and government institutions. It would not deploy weapons systems designed expressly to strike American forces stationed in the region at the invitation of many Asian countries. It would not risk war over reefs and islets in the South and East China Seas.
A clever Chinese strategy would not overtly discriminate against American multinational corporations doing business in China, pursuing policies like “indigenous innovation” and restricting operations by the biggest names in the American corporate world, including Google and Facebook. Nor would it consciously work to create splits in core U.S. alliance relationships, as Beijing did in luring Washington’s European allies into membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This near-term tactical victory had the longer-term effect of hardening official opinion in Washington over China’s divide-and-conquer tactics.
The fact that China has been a punching bag in the U.S. presidential campaign suggests that Beijing’s recent approach is not winning hearts and minds in the American heartland. The fact that President Obama has pivoted from pursuing a G-2 relationship with China to warning the U.S. public and Congress that America must reinforce its military posture and enact the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to prevent China from gaining regional hegemony suggests that Beijing’s magic has not worked on America’s liberal elite either.
A smarter course for China’s Xi would be to woo the United States through a policy of engagement, reassurance, and threat-reduction, letting China’s sheer scale and growth elevate its position in Asia and the world without inducing the defensive counter-reaction its aggressive policies are provoking. Americans are lucky that China’s authoritarian system, which produces both repression at home and heavy-handedness abroad, may be incapable of generating such an astute strategy.
A version of this essay appears in the Nikkei Asian Review.
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