Bull in the China Shop

The Obama administration is welcoming China's presumptive next leader, Xi Jinping. But how can it make good policy when the strategy is a mess?

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Last month, as Barack Obama’s administration began to prepare for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, someone close to the U.S. vice president leaked that Joe Biden would "take over" China policy. The leaker made the case that Biden had a good rapport with Xi, thus priming the U.S. vice president to add the China mandate to his portfolio. According to a number of administration sources, however, this leak was nothing more than an instance of a Washington-style power play — or score settling. But the episode does demonstrate how important the China relationship has become in the Washington power game, how the portfolio is troublingly up for grabs, and how wildly elbows swing (or pivot) to take control of it.

How important is the relationship between top U.S. and Chinese leaders? And shouldn’t China policy be about more than a single relationship?

If one judges by the seriousness of purpose with which Chinese and U.S. officials are taking Xi’s visit, the answer to the first question is that top-level engagement is very important. By all accounts, Xi is the putative next leader of China, and both sides want a successful visit for different reasons.

For Xi, the purpose of his visit is to consolidate his power over an ever more complex Chinese political system. This is no easy feat. Xi needs to demonstrate to rival party factions, to the People’s Liberation Army, to the growing business class, and increasingly to the public that he is in command of the most important foreign-policy portfolio. His various constituencies will search for signs that he is 1) tough enough on the Americans; 2) committed to continuing economic reform; but 3) not overly committed — lest he ignore what China calls "social tensions." Obviously, these tasks are somewhat contradictory, and in the end, form will be more important than substance. It’s not as if it’s all going to be settled by a day or two in Washington. Chinese leaders will be satisfied if there are no major missteps during the visit.

The Obama administration will look for some of the same things. But true to American political culture, U.S. officials will also always try to divine whether the new leader is "someone we can work with." This is particularly true now, as relations with China have been especially tense during the current term. There have been contretemps over the South China Sea, North Korea, Taiwan, and trade issues. Administration officials have all but given up on President Hu Jintao. They view him as too risk-averse and hope that Xi represents a new kind of leader, one who is more cosmopolitan and open-minded then his predecessors. They hope Xi will finally be the Chinese leader who accepts the U.S. view that China does best by embracing the made-in-America rules of the road.

Alas, U.S. officials are likely to be disappointed. The Chinese system simply will not allow Xi to govern in bold strokes. As the first leader without the blessing of China’s revolutionary generation (it cannot bless from the grave), Xi will likely be as risk-averse as Hu and more beholden to consensus within the Politburo Standing Committee, more deferential to the People’s Liberation Army, and less likely to undertake liberal reforms given current social conditions. Although he seems to have Hu’s support, there are other ambitious politicians who would gladly take advantage if Xi slipped up.

And such missteps are not out of the question. Beijing has been understandably confused about America’s China policy. The Obama administration cannot seem to decide whether it thinks America is weak or strong, whether it should accommodate China or confront the country, or whether it wants to deploy more U.S. forces to the Pacific or cut the very forces that would be deployed. That Xi might adopt ill-conceived foreign policies (as Hu did in 2009 and 2010) is not out of the question.

So does Washington’s top-level engagement with China matter? Yes, it does. Even though Xi will be limited in what he can accomplish, the need for very close coordination on strategic matters is vital to continued stability in Asia, especially in light of the Obama administration’s attempt to focus more attention and resources on the region. U.S. leaders will have made progress if they can put candor before niceties. And it is time to explain how dangerous things can become if direct lines of communication continue to be held hostage to Chinese whim. To increase the likelihood that the Sino-American competition will not lead to conflict, the two countries need sustained dialogue over matters such as military activities by both countries close to China’s shores, the risks of the perennial flashpoints (Taiwan, Korea, and now the South China Sea and Indian Ocean), and new domains of warfare — including cyberspace. These are not topics that China particularly enjoys discussing.

But engagement among top leaders is not enough. China is far more pluralistic than it was when Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon made their secret deals with party leaders or when President George H.W. Bush secretly sent national security advisor Brent Scowcroft to toast the Chinese after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, China’s entrepreneurs want a truly free market. The less privileged want protections from a rapacious state. Reformers want more of a voice. U.S. engagement must expand to all levels of Chinese society, both within the Communist Party’s confines and outside them.

Ultimately, the top engager must be the president, with the secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury, as well as top military officials, playing a secondary role. That Vice President Biden thinks he has a solid rapport with Xi is of limited importance — remember how much good it did President George W. Bush, who thought he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul.

The limitations of one-on-one diplomacy mean that real strategy is needed to tie the ends of policy with the means of the relationship. And Washington’s China policy is, necessarily, a bit of a muddle. Thus it’s little surprise that it has been called the horribly named "congagement," a policy resting on the twin pillars of containment and engagement.

Engagement’s objectives are twofold: 1) to encourage China to become a responsible great power, and 2) to press for liberal reform. The aim of containment is to hold the line on a status quo — a liberalizing Asia — that has provided decades of peace and prosperity. But strengthening the pillars of congagement is a complicated and, at times, contradictory endeavor. Naturally, different U.S. cabinet officials work at cross-purposes to either contain or engage China. National security officials work to balance China’s power while economic officials try to deepen engagement. Somebody needs to orchestrate the cacophony.

That’s where strategy comes in. Strategic managers of the China relationship now have to contend with the Treasury’s interest in continuing to sell bonds to China, the Agriculture Department’s desire to sell more wheat to China, and the Navy’s need for more ships to meet the demands of deterrence. On top of that, domestic constituencies — from business owners to religious groups — interested in China are growing, commensurate with America’s increased interdependence with China. What will the United States do about China’s intellectual property theft? Undervalued currency? Treatment of Tibetans?

Even on issues of "high politics" (diplomatic negotiations, force-posture decisions, alliance relationships), where the prime actors are the secretaries of State and Defense and the national security advisor, strategy-making is problematic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has shown great vision and energy in her Asia policy, from demonstrating tough resistance to China’s claims to the entire South China Sea to pushing a multilateral Asia-Pacific free trade agreement to instituting a very important new trilateral relationship between Washington, Tokyo, and New Delhi.

But while the United States has deepened its commitments to more players in the region, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been under orders from the president to cut the resources needed to match the country’s diplomatic endeavors. For example, he is slowing the acquisition of the much-needed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and shrinking the Navy’s surface fleet — both crucial for force projection in the Pacific. This is classic "strategic insolvency," a term coined by Walter Lippmann that describes a strategy in which one’s commitments and one’s resources do not match. And insolvency is dangerous because it undercuts deterrence — aggressors can plainly see when the United States does not have the capabilities needed to follow through on its commitments. Tighter control of strategy-making — taking care that ends, ways, and means are better held in balance — would avoid this state of affairs. Strategic choices should be clarified. For example, either the United States makes fewer commitments to its friends and thereby weakens the containment leg of its policy, or it ensures that before it deepens commitments it is prepared to resource them adequately. Biden may have a relationship with Xi, but he has not played much of a role in the making of grand strategy, which is precisely what the China lead must do.

Good strategy, not rapport diplomacy, is critical to making sure containment initiatives serve those of engagement — and vice versa. Effectively deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, for example, enhances U.S. efforts to encourage peaceful resolution of disputes there. Once Beijing comes to believe that intimidating others will not achieve its goals, engagement with Washington improves. Ultimately, U.S. policy must work to make a responsible China feel welcome as a great power while successfully deterring its attempts to change the status quo. Unfortunately for the White House, Xi will arrive to a Washington that is in a state of confusion about the "what" and the "how" of its policy. At least the confusion will be recognizable to Xi — China has even less confidence in what it should do about America.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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