U.S.-China Peacetime Competition: Next Steps

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In the wake of the 2012 U.S. elections, the People's Republic of China is now beginning its own major political transition. The Chinese Communist Party is finishing up meetings in Beijing to formally install the country's so-called "fifth generation" leaders into key party posts. Most notably, current Vice President Xi Jinping is being named the the party's new general secretary and is expected in early 2013 to succeed President Hu Jintao as the country's head of state for the next decade. However, China's change in leadership is occurring at a time of great uncertainty not only about the country's domestic situation, but also the future direction of Chinese foreign policy.

As President Barack Obama prepares for his second term and Vice President Xi readies to assume China's presidency, Washington and Beijing remain locked in a long-term strategic competition with fundamentally different—and potentially irreconcilable—views about the international order and its future. It is imperative that U.S. policymakers and lawmakers not only recognize this reality, but also fully accept and grapple with its implications.

Indeed, it is clear that the United States and China remain deeply divided on many critical economic, human rights, diplomatic, and security issues. U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should recognize that, by itself, a strategy of engagement with Beijing cannot fully bridge the two country's deep divisions. Instead, Washington must craft and refine an approach that seeks to actively advance not only America's vital interests in the Asia-Pacific over the long haul, but also its core values. In partnership with the new U.S. Congress, the second Obama administration should therefore pursue the following policies as part of an integrated long-term strategy towards China:

  • Encourage China—as it further allows the Yuan's value to appreciate—to fully respect intellectual property rights, reverse massive government subsidies to state-owned enterprises, and roll back other anticompetitive practices. While politicians in Washington often focus narrowly on the need for China to allow its currency to fluctuate, it is critical that the United States press China on other key issues. China remains one of the world's largest sources of counterfeit goods and its negligent enforcement of international rules regarding intellectual property rights continues to damage key sectors of the U.S. economy.

  • Prioritize human rights promotion as an integral aspect of America's public agenda with China, especially at the presidential level but also at the agency levels, and pursue more concrete policy goals. The United States should not only incorporate human rights promotion into every government-to-government dialogue with China, whether at the presidential or agency level, but also set clear benchmarks for progress and impose consequences for abuses. 

  • Press Beijing not to block the U.N. Security Council and other traditional international institutions from taking strong stands or actions against threats to international peace and security. China's economic and military growth is fueling an increasingly assertive foreign policy in Asia and globally. Indeed, Beijing's obstructionist posture in traditional international institutions continues to effectively shield rogue regimes—such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea—from international scrutiny. If China works to prevent global institutions from taking strong stands or actions against threats to international peace and security, the United States should not hesitate to work outside these institutions with like-minded allies and partners.

  • Make consistently clear to Beijing through U.S. defense strategy, force structure and posture, and alliance policies that China's developing military capabilities should not be used to undermine the Asia-Pacific's longstanding regional security and stability. The growth of China's military mightspecifically, its new aircraft carrier, next-generation fighter aircraft, antiship missiles, and conventional ballistic missilesposes serious risks and potential challenges to the United States and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific. Additionally, Beijing's forward leaning—and often confrontational—political and military posture in the region has heightened tensions and risks encouraging an arms competition throughout the region.

As Xi Jinping and other members of China's new generation of leaders assume power, America's long-term strategy towards China faces a crossroads. To be certain, Washington should not balk at engaging with Beijing. But engagement should be pursued without sentiment or illusion, as Beijing's foreign and domestic policies will continue to be aimed at the preservation of party rule. U.S. policymakers must fully accept this reality, and not shy away from forging a long-term, multifaceted strategy that is rooted in America's democratic values, military strength, diplomatic engagement, and support for its traditional allies and emerging partners.

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