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Assessing America’s Strategic Options toward China, Part V: Accommodation

This is the fifth article in a seven-part series examining America’s future strategic options toward China. The first looked at confrontation, the second at enhanced balancing,  the third at containment and engagement, and the fourth at integration. This piece considers the strategy of accommodation.

Much like the strategic option of integration, accommodation seeks a cooperative Sino-American relationship as an alternative to competition or conflict. Yet while integrationists contend that such cooperation on regional security and global governance issues can be achieved largely on U.S. terms by assimilating the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the existing liberal order, accommodationists are fatalistic about the minimal prospects for the West’s continued material and ideological supremacy, and argue that China will have to be met halfway.

Accommodation’s most notable champions, former national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, cut their teeth as scholars of European great power relations and later helped steward U.S. foreign policy during the 1970s, a challenging time when priority was placed on restricting America’s expansive overseas commitments as its resources were waning. Implicitly drawing a parallel between their time in government and the contemporary challenge of contending with a growing China, a development neither Kissinger nor Brzezinski believes a fiscally constrained United States can derail, they stress the need for Washington to share power with Beijing. The 19th century’s Concert of Europe, a grouping of roughly equal great powers that worked in tandem to preserve a balance of power on the continent and prevent an outbreak of war, is commonly cited as a model to emulate.

While this school of thought has floated various ideas for a Pacific Community, G-2, and Concert of Asia, the operating principles behind each are the same. Neither the United States nor China will be able to dominate Asia in the future, which leaves either a draining, inconclusive struggle for influence or a modus vivendi of sorts as a possible outcome. While tensions in the relationship cannot be avoided altogether and both powers will pursue agendas that sometimes conflict, a foundation needs to be laid for a common Sino-American enterprise that can both manage regional crises and resolve transnational issues of mutual concern, such as climate change and financial stability.

For such an arrangement to function, accommodation stresses that each side will have to display appropriate restraint and work to disarm the other of its greatest fear –China of its sense that the United States is determined to block its rise, America of its suspicion that China aims to drive it out of the Asia-Pacific. On those matters that are more important to China and where it cannot afford compromise, the United States will need to give way and divest itself of commitments and policies that needlessly provoke the PRC and undermine prospects for constructive strategic interaction. Painful concessions, such as abandoning criticism of China’s human rights record and pressure for its democratization, and gradually backing away from the defence of Taiwan, are unavoidable.

In accordance with diminished American capabilities and out of deference to China’s sensitivities and increased clout, accommodationists advise a reduced U.S. geopolitical presence throughout Asia. In such a design, longstanding defence ties with countries that have relied on U.S. assistance for their security – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia- would be retained, but China’s influence on the Asian mainland would be tacitly recognized. As Brzezinski writes, “The United States must recognize that stability in Asia can no longer be imposed by a non-Asian power, least of all by the direct application of US military power.”

In Brzezinski’s construct, America’s lower Asian profile would resemble Britain’s traditional balancing role in Europe: serving as a mediator when disputes arise and intervening when power imbalances between regional rivals arise, but avoiding military entanglements on the Asian mainland when its treaty commitments or direct security are not at risk. A more impartial role would also give Washington the necessary credibility to promote reconciliation between China and Japan, which Brzezinski views as necessary for soothing Tokyo’s anxieties over the “closer and globally more extensive American-Chinese partnership” that he prizes.

Accommodation faces many obstacles to becoming the strategy of choice toward China. It requires much greater self-denial than Americans are traditionally accustomed to when thinking about their role in the world at large and Asia in particular, where they have worked to maintain regional preponderance for over half a century. As even greater economic power becomes concentrated in the Asia-Pacific and the stakes for U.S. engagement there rise commensurately, it is difficult to envision American policymakers willingly sharing power with, and surrendering much of their diplomatic leverage to, an actor that is regarded in increasingly competitive terms. For such a concession to be forthcoming, the U.S. would have to suffer a dramatic diminishment in its capacity for projecting power overseas, a development that by no means can be taken for granted in the coming decades. Even if such a shift occurred, U.S. leaders, as their great power predecessors have historically responded to a decline in status, can be expected to stubbornly cling to their strategic advantages.

Other problems related to the functioning of various accommodation schemes illustrate the substantial barriers to enacting this strategy. Even if the United States gave way to China on crucial irritants such as democracy promotion and Taiwan, Chinese suspicions would hardly be alleviated should America retain defence ties with major Asian allies, which accommodationists like Kissinger and Brzezinski advocate. As China’s self-confidence grows, a major U.S. regional military presence will surely be seen as increasingly intolerable.

Additionally, as one sceptic notes, the Concert of Europe emerged after the Napoleonic Wars as the result of a convergence of political values and a mutual interest among conservative powers in guarding against the forces of revolution and radicalism. The yawning gap in polities and the absence of a mutual agenda works against sustained collaboration between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, given the underlying strategic distrust that defines much of the Sino-American relationship, it would probably take a compelling common interest, such as terrorist attacks aimed at both countries, to forge a strategic partnership. Full-scale accommodation, then, is not impossible, but is unlikely.

Part VI of this series will consider the strategic option of offshore balancing.

Michael Lumbers
Michael Lumbers is Program Manager of Emerging Security and co-host of Coffee Talk, the NATO Association of Canada's most popular podcast. He is also a Visiting Fellow at The Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. He obtained his PhD in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His dissertation, which examined U.S. policy toward China during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, was published as Piercing the Bamboo Curtain: Tentative Bridge Building to China During the Johnson Years by Manchester University Press. A specialist in U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, presidential decision making, Sino-American diplomatic history and contemporary strategic relations, and East-Asian security, his various articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The National Interest, Diplomatic History, Journal of Cold War Studies, Jane’s Intelligence Review, and other publications.