FPI Analysis: Time for a Strategic Reassessment of U.S. Policy toward China

January 17, 2011

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As Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week, China is becoming increasingly assertive.  With a rapidly growing economy, a population of more than 1.3 billion people, and a swiftly modernizing military, China’s actions over the past two years have raised questions about whether its rise will continue to be a peaceful one.

President Obama’s policy toward Beijing has evolved since he entered office in January 2009.  After initially pursuing a strategy of engagement that failed to bear fruit, the Obama administration today seems much more realistic about Chinese actions.  Hu Jintao’s visit represents an opportunity for the administration to show that it is serious about forging a U.S.-China relationship that reassures our allies in Asia, and sends a message to Beijing about long-term U.S. interests in the region.

Background

The President traveled to China in November 2009 with the goal of gaining support on a host of global issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and the stability of the global economic system.  At the time, administration officials argued that their policy toward Asia was aimed at restoring American leadership after a perceived American absence from the region due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As the United States increased its presence in the region, “strategic reassurance” regarding U.S. actions in Asia became the watchword of the Obama administration’s China policy.

As FPI Director Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal pointed out at the time of the President’s first trip to Asia, this concept of “strategic reassurance” represented a shift from the strategy pursued over decades by administrations of both political parties that previously sought to “give China a greater stake in peace, while maintaining a balance of power in the region favorable to democratic allies and American interests.”

The Obama administration eventually argued that strategic reassurance was in fact a description of the actions China needed to take to assure its neighbors that, as Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg put it in a speech, “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.”

The pivot on strategic reassurance was necessitated in large part because of Chinese actions.  China remains an autocratic state controlled by the Communist Party apparatus.  Its three million-person military, the People’s Liberation Army, appears to be increasingly exercising more control over Chinese foreign and security policy.

China’s military modernization has been married with a growing assertiveness in its neighborhood.  Chinese actions have had the unintended consequence of pushing its neighbors toward each other and toward the United States.  To its credit, the Obama administration has appeared to realize this and taken greater action to assuage U.S. allies about U.S. staying power and interest in the region.  But only time will tell whether this administration has permanently replaced its initial efforts at engagement with a tougher tone and actions.

President Hu Jintao’s visit thus comes at a key moment in U.S.-China relations.  As the Obama administration enters the second half of its term, it is important to examine the elements that will define China’s growing role in the world in the years to come.

Military Modernization

China’s systematic modernization of its armed forces has been well-documented, but poorly understood.  The strategy of the People’s Republic appears to be to neutralize and subsume Taiwan, push American power out of the western Pacific, and secure China’s hold over its maritime claims.  These claims include its 200-mile “Exclusive Economic Zone” and the South China Sea, and are outside the norms of international law.  To establish this, China has placed a strong emphasis on ballistic missiles, attack submarines, and other “anti-access” methods to exploit American vulnerabilities.  Chinese strategy was recently encapsulated by Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie, who told China’s state-run press that “In the coming five years, our military will push forward preparations for military conflict in every strategic direction.”

In an annual report to Congress, the Department of Defense recently assessed that the People’s Republic has a thousand short-range ballistic missiles in range of Taiwan, and is in the process of increasing their range, payload, and accuracy.  The military is also developing a medium-range conventional ballistic missile capability that will be able to threaten American carrier groups. The Congressional Research Service estimates that China now has 31 modern attack submarines in service.  At their rate of production and purchase, China may be able to sustain a force of nearly 80 submarines.

Meanwhile, as the Project 2049 Institute has documented, China is establishing a large-scale anti-satellite program that will put at risk many American communications and reconnaissance assets in low-earth orbit. The People’s Republic has repeatedly tested and fielded direct-ascent missiles and a ground-based laser (which temporarily blinded an American satellite in 2006) as part of this program, and is developing a submarine-based anti-satellite missile, as well.  An anti-satellite strike against American assets would be crippling, as it would decisively eliminate our information-based advantage over other powers, and render our forces deaf, blind, and mute.

Although questions remain about the expected operational date for the J-20 stealth figher referenced earlier, the speed with which China has developed the prototypes being tested has caught analysts by surprise.  This comes as the United States has decided not to build more F-22s, raising questions about whether China’s J-20 will eventually be able to challenge U.S. air dominance in East Asia, including the Western Pacific.

In response to these provocative developments, the Obama administration has attempted to reopen military-to-military discussions since they were suspended a year ago, following the announcement of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.  In principle, there is nothing wrong with maintaining open and frank military ties between the United States and China.  However, the Chinese reaction to America’s outstretched hand is instructive.  In June 2010, China refused to allow Secretary of Defense Gates to visit Beijing.  Even after his trip to China last week, Secretary Gates was unable to convince the Chinese to agree to a regular schedule of exchanges even though China did agree to send a senior military official to the United States.

The breadth and scope of China’s modernization, as well as the doctrines guiding it, give ample reason for the United States to regard China as a clear threat to U.S. allies as well as American forces in the region.  In both official and estimated figures, China has tripled its military budget over the past 14 years, doing so at a time when every other major power was cutting military expenditures and despite the fact that China itself faces no obvious external threat.  Certainly, the enormity of that expenditure underscores the importance that the Chinese have placed on establishing a modern military force, and should give policymakers reason for extreme circumspection regarding China’s long-term goals.

Foreign Policy

Coupled with its expansion of military capabilities, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy has raised concerns throughout the region and the world.

In East Asia, Beijing has shown an unwillingness to exert significant pressure on North Korea even as North Korea makes great strides in its nuclear weapons and missile programs, which Secretary Gates said last week are now expected to threaten the United States by 2015.  China remains North Korea’s primary political patron and provider of both food and fuel.  If it wished to use its leverage to send a message to Pyongyang that its behavior was intolerable, it could easily do so.

China’s belligerency is upending the East Asian security situation.  Australia and Japan have recently announced changes to their defense strategies in response to China’s increasing strength.  India, which has border disputes with China, has similarly embarked on a large scale military modernization.  The People’s Republic’s claim on islands in the South China Sea has even pushed their fellow communist neighbor, Vietnam, increasingly into America’s camp.

Outside of its immediate neighborhood, China maintains an extensive network of alliances with actors aligned against U.S. and Western interests. Beyond North Korea, this rogue’s gallery also includes Burma, Venezuela, Iran, and several African autocracies. The relationship is symbiotic: China’s agnostic approach to the world’s worst human rights violators allows them to do business where responsible powers will not, while tyrannical governments are propped up by Beijing’s patronage.

Carolyn Bartholomew of the U.S.-China Commission told attendees at the 2010 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum that global autocrats view China’s mode of authoritarian capitalism as a successful model to be emulated.  In contrast to the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s development program, through which the Bush administration attempted to link development funds to transparency and accountability, China’s development assistance to tyrannical governments comes without any political strings attached.

Perhaps one of the biggest developments over the last decade has been China’s willingness to use its power in the United Nations and related organizations to advance and defend its interests.  The Obama administration’s approach on these issues, whether it is Iran or North Korea, has been to seek Chinese acquiescence to new Security Council resolutions and other measures like the Six Party Talks.  But China often uses the process to delay and water down the intended effect of such sanctions.  Iran and North Korea, therefore, were afforded years of precious time over the past decade to establish and advance their nuclear programs.

Democracy and Human Rights

Though many Americans may perceive China as a relatively open, business-friendly country due to its development of managed capitalism, China remains an authoritarian state.  The country is indisputably a one party-autocracy; human rights activists are placed under surveillance, harassed or imprisoned; due process does not exist in any meaningful sense; citizens attempting to address grievances are often summarily detained; the flow of information via the news media and internet is heavily monitored and censored; and the government severely represses ethnic minorities and religious groups (including a burgeoning Christian movement) that are not sanctioned by the regime.

The Communist Party maintains strict control and responds quickly and severely to challenges to its monopoly on power.  A brief period of extremely limited political reform ended with the crackdown on democracy protesters in 1989.  Since then, the Communist Party has refined its methods of repression, pouring money into surveillance of the Internet, often achieved with Western technologies, and attempting to coopt Chinese elites and the middle class.  

China’s human rights situation is deteriorating and initiatives by activists, lawyers and others have met with an uncompromising response from the regime.  Human rights lawyers and activists belonging to the wei quan or “rights defense” movement have been targeted for harassment and several were unable to renew their law licenses.  Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative, a law advocacy group, and other organizations have been shut down or constrained in recent years and their employees harassed.  Grassroots activists seeking to hold the government accountable for building collapses during the Szechuan earthquake and scandals regarding tainted milk formula have been jailed.

The signers of Charter 08, a democracy manifesto inspired by the Czechoslovak Charter 77 movement that helped bring down communism in the Soviet bloc released in late 2008, have met with harassment including detention, surveillance, raids and seizures of property.  The most prominent signer, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested and tried on subversion charges and is now serving an 11-year sentence.   His wife is living under house arrest, virtually incommunicado, and she was unable to travel to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on Liu Xiaobo’s behalf.   His receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2010 provoked an intense reaction from the Chinese government and led to a sustained effort by Beijing to bully other governments not to attend the ceremony in Oslo.

In its policy toward China, the U.S. has subordinated democracy and human rights to other interests, such as North Korea, Iran and climate change.   Officials insist that they “raise” cases with the Chinese but they do not make progress on democracy and human rights a condition of U.S. relations.  The Obama administration is perceived as less concerned with human rights than the Bush administration.   Tibet is one example: George W. Bush attended the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the Dalai Lama, a rare public show of support for Tibet, whereas President Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama and the State Department weakened its position on Tibet in a report to the Congress.

Like its predecessors, the Obama administration places too much stock in the so-called Human Rights Dialogues with Chinese officials, and not enough in support to activists and intellectuals inside China.  However, the Obama administration has been perceived as especially weak toward China due to frank admissions by administration officials indicating that human rights is not a priority or suggesting equivalence between the U.S. and Chinese systems of government.

The state visit of Hu Jintao provides the opportunity for the president to demonstrate support for democracy and human rights by meeting with dissidents, speaking about the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo and generally bringing bring human and democracy concerns into public and private encounters with the Chinese leader.  It will be important to remember, as President Obama hosts the President and other Chinese officials at a state dinner on January 19th, that Liu Xiabo and countless others fighting for the same rights that we enjoy as Americans remain in prison. 

Economy and Trade

Following the end of the Cold War, and the adoption of liberalizing economic reforms, the Chinese economy has rapidly expanded, elevating the People’s Republic to the world’s second-largest economy.  However, China is still hampered with deeply-ingrained structural limitations on its growth.  Analysts have argued that without further liberalization, China’s continued economic rise is not so certain.

Beijing’s growing economic power, the interwoven nature of its trade with the United States, and financial holdings of U.S. debt are often cited as a national security issue.  This notion has been built up to the extent that during his November 2009 trip to China, President Obama was portrayed by the media as a supplicant to Beijing, pleading with our financial masters for Chinese assistance on a range of issues without meaningful leverage.  As the administration has grown more frustrated with Beijing, this discourse has pivoted to a more assertive stance.

Unfortunately, the two countries are tied-together economically, something that must be factored into both Washington and Beijing’s strategic calculus. Those in favor of closer U.S.-China relations have often used these economic facts to argue for closer political ties, claiming that we cannot afford confrontation with China. But, even in a conflict scenario, it is not clear that it would be in China’s interests to begin to liquidate its vast holdings of U.S. debt.  Such action would undoubtedly have a severe impact on the Chinese economy, just as it would on the United States.

Much of the Obama administration’s economic agenda with China over the past two years has been focused on encouraging Beijing to allow its currency to fluctuate.  Legislation has also been introduced in Congress that would penalize China through the imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports.  The administration has rightly refused to support such efforts, given the likelihood that they could lead to a trade war with China and in recent months, China has pledged to take action on its currency. However, despite those reassurances, the economic relationship between Washington and Beijing is likely to remain volatile.

As Derek Scissors of The Heritage Foundation argues, China’s astounding growth may prove to be meteoric. Mainland China will be hampered by “serious and unavoidable long-term economic problems,” and “within the next ten years China is either going to have to undergo a sharp economic course change or they're going to hit a wall.”  The one child policy has ensured that China’s dramatic population increase will end in the next five years, and slowing increases in labor productivity means that Beijing may not be able to rely on the remaining workers to meet the regime’s needs of astronomic expansion.  China has also mismanaged its land allocation policy, and is receiving increasingly less returns on its enormous capital investments.  Chinese growth, Scissors argues, “is essentially going away.”

Moving Forward

America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China will remain a continuing strategic challenge rife with pitfalls for American policymakers.  For several decades, U.S. policymakers of both political parties have pursued a strategy that couples engagement of China with hedging.  The consensus was that this engagement would eventually lead to China’s political liberalization over time.  Unfortunately, China’s political system has not liberalized as its economy has, resulting in its current system of managed capitalism. 

President Obama should permanently abandon his initial attempts to build a “G-2” style of bilateral relations with Beijing.  Instead, Washington should reassert and rebuild American military and economic power in the interest of approaching China from a position and posture of strength.  The administration must accept the reality that China remains a one-party dictatorship that is fundamentally disinterested in adopting Western values, even as its economy grows. 

Thus, President Obama should, in cooperation with members of Congress, take the following actions:

  • Solidify America’s relationships with our Asian allies to counter-balance the increasing capability and reach of China’s military.  Increased arms sales to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and India; as well as an expanded regional missile defense architecture to counter China’s ballistic missile threat would dramatically improve the East Asian security situation.  The United States should also encourage these allies to increasingly conduct joint political meetings as well as military exercises.
  • Abandon Secretary Gates’ policy of accepting mid-term risk with states like China in America’s force posture.  The United States should restore production of the fifth-generation F-22 fighter; and maintain funding for the Navy’s 12-carrier, 313-ship plan.  A larger modern military will help maintain America’s qualitative edge against China, and reassure our Asian allies regarding U.S. staying power in the region.
  • Continue long-standing U.S. policy of support for Taiwan.  Recent reports that the United States will sell Taipei upgrades to its F-16s are encouraging; however, because the increasingly modern Chinese air force is overshadowing Taiwanese capabilities, the Obama administration should begin discussions immediately regarding selling Taiwan the F-35, as it will with Japan and Australia, as well as explore other means to bolster the island’s defensive capabilities, such as through missile defense or submarine sales.
  • Elevate concern for democracy and human rights.  Speak out against Chinese human rights abuses in every available forum at every available opportunity.  Establish linkage between American policy towards the People’s Republic and its human rights behavior.  Recognize that the best long-term solution for American concerns about Chinese behavior is its eventual democratization and expose the connection between the nature of China’s communist regime and its behavior at home and abroad.
  • Seek solutions to major international issues without China.  Though the P5+1 and Six Party Talks were, conceptually, an innovative method to deal with Iran and North Korea; in practice, they have served as another mechanism by which Russia and China continue to resist efforts to compel their client states.  Instead, the United States, in concert with its democratic allies, should seek other avenues to impair these regimes’ capabilities. 

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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