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Assessing America’s Strategic Options toward China, Part VII: Which Will Prevail?

This is the seventh 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, the fourth at integration, the fifth at accommodation, and the sixth at offshore balancing.

As this series has made clear, future U.S. leaders will have at their disposal a virtual marketplace of ideas for responding to China’s rise. A common thread, however, runs through these disparate strategies, which says much about U.S. attitudes toward China. These attitudes will colour Sino-American relations for the foreseeable future. While differing substantially on assumptions of Chinese intentions and capacities, and on appropriate means for countering them, all future strategic options are rooted in suspicion of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and wedded to containing the expansion of its power.

With the exception of offshore balancing, which still advocates a forceful response to any potential Chinese grab for regional hegemony, all China strategies surveyed in this series favour the retention of a U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific and the maintenance of regional alliances. In this sense, the popular practice of branding certain approaches as “dovish” and others as “hawkish” can be misleading; the tactics vary, but the objective of containing China is consistent and is understood as such in Beijing.

While the radical option of confrontation will most likely never be enacted, its core assumption that the emergence of China as a peer competitor should be resisted is typical of mainstream U.S. thinking. For example, the Obama administration’s initial emphasis on enticing China to assume greater responsibility in global governance, a “dovish” strategy of integration that nevertheless raised Beijing’s suspicions, was essentially a means of extending U.S. hegemony by increasing the PRC’s stake in upholding the American-led liberal world order and ensuring that its rise occurred within the confines of U.S.-inspired norms.

Similarly, some proponents of political engagement with China argue that an overtly aggressive stance toward the mainland will only alienate regional allies wary of provoking the PRC and stiffen their resistance to expanding security cooperation with the United States, thereby “hindering America’s ability to shape the region in ways that can deter, defeat, and punish Chinese aggression.”

China’s assumption of America’s opposition to its unfettered rise, which is hardly unwarranted, matters greatly for the orientation of its future foreign policy. Its own internal debate on views of the United States mirrors America’s discourse on China in terms of a wide spectrum of policy proposals, ranging from “nativists” distrustful of the outside world to “globalists” keen on playing a constructive international role. For now, influence rests with those Chinese analysts who, much like enhanced balancers in the United States, argue that the country should focus on maximizing its strength in preparation for long-term competition with America.

As with U.S. policy toward the PRC, China’s relations with America are subject to many fluid determinants: the progress of its economic and military modernization, the cohesion of its political elite, the standing of various leadership factions, popular sentiment, and the actions of regional powers. Yet so long as Beijing remains convinced that Washington’s various tactics are hostile, whether they are the inclusive ones of integration or the more heavy-handed ones of enhanced balancing, the opportunities for muting strategic tensions and developing a cooperative agenda on matters of mutual concern will be few.

It seems clear that whichever course America’s China strategy takes, it will contribute to escalated strategic tensions between the two countries. The least threatening option to China, offshore balancing, stands little chance of being adopted. Falling in this same category is confrontation. The relatively conciliatory alternative of accommodation, in which the U.S. shares power with China in hopes of forging a strategic partnership, is more viable, but only if U.S. power suffers a sharp downward spiral. Even so, expectations of close coordination are far-fetched in light of the disparity in political values between the two countries and the belief of each that the other is its greatest rival for regional influence.

This leaves enhanced balancing, containment and engagement or integration, or a mixture of these views, as the most likely strategic options future U.S. administrations will pursue. Most worrying to Beijing, all three champion the political liberalization of China and a substantial American military footprint in Asia as a hedge against Chinese expansionism. So long as Washington remains convinced that Beijing aims to supplant U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific, an impression that has been recently cemented by the PRC’s steady military modernization and efforts to test America’s fidelity to its alliance commitments via sabre rattling in the East China and South China Seas, the appeal of these approaches will grow. U.S. policymakers will be more likely to be assured of China’s peaceful intentions if it moves toward democracy at home and further integrates itself into the liberal world order.

Economic interdependence, an aversion to conflict, lingering hope for collaboration on various issues of global governance, and the backing of powerful domestic constituencies for existing policy will preserve at least an element of engagement in future strategy toward China. The prediction of one analyst that the trajectory of Sino-American relations will encompass a hybrid of “cooperation, competition, and limited conflict” is surely correct. Pervasive economic ties between both countries limits the extent to which each can threaten the other without hurting itself, rendering remote the possibility of a Cold War-type conflict that some alarmingly predict.

How prominently cooperation will feature in this blend, however, is open to debate. There are grounds for thinking that this relationship will be increasingly weighted more toward competition, in which case enhanced balancing may step to the fore as a strategic option. Should the power gap between Washington and Beijing narrow, future administrations may seek cover in strengthened defence cooperation with China’s nervous neighbors. Alternatively, an American revival could tempt U.S. leaders to press their advantage by discouraging the PRC from entertaining hopes of “catching up.”

It says much about America’s distrust of China and its determination to preserve its regional leadership that policy toward China has hardened during the Obama administration, which has often been ambivalent about exerting U.S. influence abroad and has governed during a period of prolonged economic lethargy and multiple crises outside of Asia. Obama’s successor will almost certainly display fewer inhibitions. A combative narrative has taken hold among Republicans and liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party that this president’s caution has eroded U.S. credibility and invited aggression from the PRC and other actors.

It’s not difficult to imagine the next administration, having campaigned on the theme that a more muscular foreign policy is needed to restore U.S. leadership, being even less coy in responding to an assertive China and building on the enhanced balancing ideas represented by Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. Indeed, over the long term, a less restrained stance toward China would not be inconsistent for a nation with an exalted sense of its place in the world and that is prone to flexing its muscles. For at least the next two or three decades, an increasingly tense Sino-American relationship marked by perpetual jostling for leverage is the most likely prospect.

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.