Seizing the opportunity to improve US–China relations

East Asia Forum (December 17th, 2012)

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President Barack Obama struck just the right note at the East Asia Summit in Cambodia when he called for restraint and the reduction of tensions arising from territorial disputes over small islands and energy resources in the East and South China Seas.

Those disputes could escalate to a confrontation between Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines with China that might draw in the United States and potentially lead to a wider military conflict.

President Obama’s trip to Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand clearly shows how much importance the US administration will place on relations with Asia during its second term. A key purpose of the trip was to help manage American relations with a rising China by strengthening ties with other Asian countries. More broadly, China’s political transition now offers Washington a window of opportunity to improve relations with Beijing. Rather than risk a continuing downward spiral in the critical US–China relationship, President Obama should move quickly in his second term to take advantage of this opportunity so the United States can benefit economically from China’s rise, strengthen Chinese advocates of human rights and avoid a new Cold War in the Asia Pacific.

The new generation of Chinese leaders who will take power in March 2013 face daunting challenges resulting from rapid economic development — including corruption and cronyism within the Communist Party, environmental degradation, frequent ‘mass incidents’, social unrest, inflation, and glaring social inequalities. China’s new leaders will welcome overtures from the United States along with any US policies that aim to assist the country in meeting its current challenges. But harsh American trade measures or increased US military pressure will likely be met with a tough response, as the new leaders seek to prove their mettle and their capability to defend China’s national interests.

Beijing’s political transition comes at a time when the United States stands at a crossroads in relations with China. Instead of hyping the dangers of China’s rise, the United States urgently needs to rethink its China policy to prevent doing permanent damage to US interests in Asia. Washington should strive to use America’s superior military, political and economic power to achieve a far better paradigm for US–China relations.

It is essential to remember that China’s rise strengthens the US economy and future prosperity. Trade with China — the third-largest US export market — has aided America’s recovery during the global financial crisis. Between 2000 and 2011, US exports to China increased by about 640 per cent, going from US$16 billion to US$104 billion. China is the largest growth market in the world for US exports and supports thousands of high-quality American jobs. The best way to overcome the ‘China threat’ and advance US interests in the region is by achieving a stable peace with China through the resolution of outstanding security and economic conflicts between the two countries.

Through a new policy approach, the United States can ensure China is a future partner and not a threat to the interests of America and its allies. This policy should embrace the following objectives. First, it should significantly reduce China’s current and potential military threat to Taiwan, thus securing Taiwan’s democracy. Second, it should achieve a pull-back of Chinese forces from a defined coastal security zone surrounding Japan and have China submit its maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas to an independent international judicial body. Third, the United States should expand security cooperation with China on both regional and global issues while increasing China’s military transparency, especially in the development of new weapons systems. Fourth, the policy should facilitate new bilateral and regional free trade agreements that will unleash unprecedented levels of international trade and investment, generating hundreds of thousands of new American jobs. Finally, it should greatly strengthen the advocates of human rights and democracy in China by depriving security forces of their ‘most dependable weapon’, in the view of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky: an external security threat from the United States which is now used to legitimise internal political repression.

In his second term, President Obama should seize the opportunity created by the emergence of China’s new leadership to stabilise US–China relations — by pursuing a diplomatic strategy that minimises conflict, emphasises peaceful coexistence, and significantly expands trade and investment between the two countries. The United States should keep in mind the profound words of former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski:

‘If the United States and China can accommodate each other on a broad range of issues, the prospects for stability in Asia will be greatly increased … [The] United States must recognize that stability in Asia can no longer be imposed by … the direct application of U.S. military power. Indeed, U.S. efforts to buttress Asian stability could prove self-defeating, propelling Washington into a costly repeat of its recent wars, potentially even resulting in a replay of the tragic events of Europe in the twentieth century’.

Donald Gross is a Senior Associate at Pacific Forum CSIS, and a former White House and State Department official. His new book, The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China’s Rise and Avoid Another Cold War, was published by Bloomsbury on 25 October.