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China's Role in the "New Era of Engagement"

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
November 10, 2009

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Where does China fit into the U.S. vision of world order? Like former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama seeks a China that plays by global rules, which would require both political and economic liberalization. Regionally, Washington wants an East Asia that is open and free, filled with vibrant democracies and integrated into the global economic system. To prevent the region from being dominated by any single power, the United States will continue to serve as a regional stabilizer, strengthening bilateral security ties with its partners in the region and maintaining forward-deployed U.S. forces.

Unfortunately, as Princeton's Aaron Friedberg has pointed out, these two core U.S. goals conflict with the two main objectives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The United States wants a stable balance of power in East Asia and a gradual transition from one-party rule to political pluralism in China, but China wants continued CCP rule and China's emergence as the preponderant player in East Asia. Some Chinese commentators even describe the United States as pursuing a "two-handed strategy" of "engagement" to promote regime change in China and "containment" to stem its regional rise.

The Sino-American relationship is and will remain a complicated one, containing powerful incentives for cooperation as well as enduring elements of strategic conflict. The Obama administration, sensitive to the lessons of history, appreciates the risks of a geopolitical clash. But it by no means considers it inevitable. U.S. officials perceive China as neither a status quo nor a revolutionary power, but rather a modestly revisionist one. It possesses a sense of destiny and entitlement, and it is determined to adjust existing structures of global governance to reflect its emerging power and policy preferences. But as arguably the leading beneficiary of globalization, it is unlikely to mount a frontal assault against the Western-dominated order that has served its purposes so well.

Indeed, prospects for a broad institutional bargain between China and the United States are favorable, at least in the short and perhaps medium term. The United States and China's neighbors have a clear incentive to try to cement China's support for global and regional structures and to win its general commitment to self-restraint. China, likewise, has a near-term incentive to play by established rules and embrace the current global and regional order, both to discourage renewed U.S. unilateralism (which China might find unpleasant) and to ensure a continued U.S. regional presence (which provides stability to facilitate China's continued rise). By sacrificing some measure of policy autonomy, China can gain the international predictability it needs. Of course, this calculation may change as China's power expands, but for now, there is ample scope for a bargain. Over the past decade, the Chinese have articulated several conceptions (PDF) of world order, from "peaceful rise" to "peaceful development" and "harmonious world." All are relatively consistent with former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's notion of China as a "responsible stakeholder (PDF)."

Seeking 'Strategic Reassurance'

How can China rise without provoking geopolitical conflict? The key, the Obama administration believes, is for Beijing to adopt a posture of "strategic reassurance (PDF)." This would "rest on a core, if tacit, bargain" between China, the United States, and other states in Asia. As Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg explains, "Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China's 'arrival'... as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others."

The Obama administration will be more sympathetic to China's aspirations to have a voice in major structures of global governance when these are backed by tangible Chinese contributions to world order.

Bilaterally, the Obama administration is seeking to foster strategic reassurance through intensified dialogues, designed (in Steinberg's words) "to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military, or economic." The centerpiece of this effort is the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue which involves ongoing conversations between cabinet officials. The two sides have generally shied from controversial topics like human rights, exchange rates, or protectionism. Nevertheless, the dialogue provides a useful forum for mutual understanding and confidence-building.

The main contribution to strategic reassurance, of course, will come from China itself. The United States, other Western countries, and China's Asian neighbors seek indications that China will emerge as a responsible stakeholder and become a net provider of-not merely a passive free rider on-global and regional public goods. China has often resisted major resource commitments to help solve global problems, such as climate change, on the grounds that it remains a "poor," "developing" country. The Obama administration will be more sympathetic to China's aspirations to have a voice in major structures of global governance when these are backed by tangible Chinese contributions to world order.

Beijing's Role in Global Security

Most fundamentally, the United States will be looking for evidence of China's peaceful intentions and its willingness to make tangible contributions to global stability. Given the potentially destabilizing impact of China's rapid military buildup, it is critical that Beijing introduce greater transparency into its military doctrine, force structure, and defense budgets-steps that will reassure its neighbors of its intentions, reduce regional tensions, and lower the likelihood of disastrous miscalculation.

Regionally, China has already taken important steps to foster multilateral cooperation and dialogue with many of its neighbors, through actions like signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and by leading the Six-Party Talks on the Korean Peninsula. Washington will look to Beijing to deepen its engagements on the Korean peninsula, place relations with Japan on more productive footing, and accept an ongoing role for the United States and its security partnerships in the Western Pacific (a presence that has the added benefit of constraining Japanese military ambitions).

Although Beijing continues to resist binding obligations and timetables for emissions reductions, it has taken significant steps in recent months, including adopting a comprehensive national climate strategy.

Globally, the Obama administration will look for Beijing to assume greater responsibility for international peace and security by playing a more active and constructive role, not only on North Korea but other hot spots like Sudan, Iran, and Myanmar. (These conversations are likely to be particularly fraught in situations where China's traditional concepts of sovereignty and non-intervention collide with the new international norm of a "responsibility to protect"). Washington also hopes China will expand its impressive and growing engagement since 2000 in UN peace operations, in terms of both funding and personnel, which would provide evidence of China's willingness to share responsibility for global peace outside its narrow national interests.

In the nuclear arena, China has already taken some steps to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. It is a member in good standing of the NPT, has recently joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and has good record on counterterrorism cooperation. At the same time, China must improve its export controls and its overall performance regarding states of proliferation concern. Given its special relationship with North Korea, China has a particular responsibility to counter Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Beijing's close cooperation with the Obama administration on UNSC Resolution 1874 testifies to China's capacity, to defend the nonproliferation regime from determined assaults, if so inclined. The Obama administration is seeking a similar level of Chinese determination to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions within the P5+1 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany] framework.

A Climate for Economic Cooperation?

In the economic realm, the United States will look to China for tangible steps. First, Washington will continue to press Beijing to permit appreciation of its artificially undervalued currency and to take other domestic steps to correct global financial imbalances, which helped facilitate the global crisis. Second, the United States will look to China to take a less defensive attitude toward trade liberalization within the World Trade Organization (especially in manufacturing and service sectors) and to enforce intellectual property rights more consistently. Third, U.S. officials will press China to shift away from bilateral trade for political and strategic objectives, which threaten to fragment the world economy. Fourth, the Obama administration will urge China to bring its development assistance policies into conformity with existing global norms and standards of transparency and conditionality, and to resist a "no strings attached" approach to foreign aid. Finally, the United States will encourage China to eschew policies of resource mercantilism designed to lock up foreign markets.

Beyond disrupting international markets, observes U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg, such an orientation "leads China to problematic engagement with actors like Iran, Sudan, Burma [Myanmar] and Zimbabwe and undermines the perception of China as a country interested in contributing to regional stability and humanitarian goals."

Finally, the Obama administration understands that there is no solution to the massive problem of global climate change without China, which produces 20 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions today and will be responsible for half of all emissions growth through 2030 (when its annual share of global greenhouse-gas emissions will be one-third).

Although Beijing continues to resist binding obligations and timetables for emissions reductions, it has taken significant steps in recent months, including adopting a comprehensive national climate strategy and announcing a willingness to adopt "reportable and verifiable" measures to cut energy intensity. At the same time, as CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi notes, the United States and other advanced economies will look to China to improve its uneven legal and governance capacity, so that it can actually implement these ambitious targets.

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