National Security Network

Handling China’s Rise

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Report 19 November 2009

China China china Obama Administration US-China Relations


The rise of China is undoubtedly one of the most critical strategic developments of the 21st century.  While it may not rival Afghanistan or Iran in terms of immediate media salience, the President’s first visit to China has clearly demonstrated both the importance of this rising power and how the Obama administration relates to it.  With subdued atmospherics as backdrop, the Obama team has effectively worked for the past 10 months to advance our interests in a positive manner with China across several fronts, including through the first ever U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which was convened this past July in Washington.  The Administration can point to several major accomplishments on energy and climate change, the global economy and trade, and nonproliferation and international security.  

These moves by the Administration are intended to ensure that China becomes a responsible member of the international community.  

Yet despite noteworthy accomplishments, serious challenges remain, as the U.S. will be challenged to handle China’s rise to global prominence.  This is due to the fact that the last eight years have seen a China that has made serious progress on issues ranging from economic growth and competitiveness, to resource consolidation and technological development.  At the same time, the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has drained our energy, treasure, and resources while witnessing an unchecked increase in China’s involvement overseas.  In the near term, this diminished leverage vis-à-vis China is most evident on security issues like Iran or Afghanistan, climate change, the economy, and human rights.  In the long term, whether the U.S. will be able to correct course will have meaningful consequences for the trajectory of U.S. – China relations in the new century.  

How we handle China’s rise will define U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.  As President Obama remarked in his joint Statement with Chinese President Hu: “We meet here at a time when the relationship between the United States and China has never been more important to our collective future.  The major challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to economic recovery, are challenges that touch both our nations, and challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone.”  Brookings Senior Fellow David Shambaugh catalogued the list of issues comprising the U.S. – China portfolio, which include “financial recovery and stability; reforming the international institutional architecture; climate change and clean energy; global energy and natural resource supplies; Afghanistan-Pakistan; Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs; the balance of power in Asia and the western Pacific; nuclear arms control; and a range of non-traditional security issues (public health, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, piracy, human trafficking, etc.). Even Africa and Latin America are beginning to figure on the Sino-American agenda. In addition, the bilateral agenda includes a range of trade, currency, human rights, and military issues. Then there is the ‘hardy perennial’ issue of Taiwan. It is a crowded and complex global, regional, and bilateral agenda.”  

A new report by the Center for American Progress explained the importance of addressing these issues, and the larger stakes of China’s rise for the U.S., stating that China’s actions in such areas “will greatly influence how they affect U.S. security and prosperity…The extent to which China contributes to solutions to global problems matters to ordinary Americans—from the frequency and severity hurricanes to the quality of jobs to the degree of protection they enjoy against pandemics and hostile nuclear states.”  The report’s authors added: “President Obama’s foreign policy will be judged, in part, on whether it persuades China to play by the rules and use its leverage to strengthen the system and solve global problems. The Obama administration is explicitly framing the bilateral relationship in terms of a strategic collaboration—arguing that the United States and China are both global powers that must work together, and through the international system, to tackle transnational threats.” [President Obama, 9/18/09. David Shambaugh, November, 2009. CAP, 11/6/09]

Obama’s China visit is the culmination of 10-month effort to advance U.S. interests along several key fronts.  Over the last 10 months, the Obama administration has acted steadily and without fanfare to advance U.S. interests towards China in a positive direction.  Obama’s visit to China served as a symbolic recognition of the progress made over the last several months and also included substantive achievements:

  • U.S. and China take meaningful steps toward addressing climate change, surprising some U.S. observers.  President Obama and President Hu of China agree to take “significant” action to reduce carbon emissions, with Obama calling for an accord at Copenhagen to go into “immediate operational effect.”  As Center for American Progress Fellow Nina Hachigian pointed out that the two sides “agreed to launch, among other programs: “an electric car initiative; a joint clean-energy research center; a partnership on developing clean coal technologies; a collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory; and a U.S. – China Energy Cooperation Program…” [Reuters, 9/17/09. Nina Hachigian, 9/18/09]
  • Renewed a commitment to continue cooperating via the G-20 - to address the global economic crisis.  A year ago, the world stood on the precipice of economic collapse.  Since then, the U.S. and China, together with the worlds other top economies, as represented in the G-20, have taken swift action to begin the tough process of recovery. In a Joint-Statement signed in Beijing, the U.S. and China “commended the important role of the three G-20 summits in tackling the global financial crisis, and committed to work with other members of the G-20 to enhance the G-20’s effectiveness as the premier forum for international economic cooperation.” [U.S. – China Joint Statement, 11/17/09]
  • On human rights, President Obama urges the Chinese to take action on several fronts.  NPR reported that the President “urged China to stop censoring the Internet to respect the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities and quickly reopen talks with the exiled leader of Tibet.”  Obama spoke directly to President Hu on the subject of Tibet, calling for the “the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama…” [NPR, 11/17/09]
  • Establishing an effective military to military relationship after decades without a dialogue.  Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Michael Schiffer explained the importance of setting up a framework for U.S. – China military to military relations, saying to the Washington Post: “Our militaries are coming into increasing proximity and increasing interactions. But we don't have any good mechanism to help us clarify misunderstandings.”  With that in mind, “[t]he Obama administration has held a series of high-level contacts with the Chinese army that will culminate with a visit to the United States this month by Xu Caihou, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and the highest-ranking Chinese military official to come here in years,” said the Post. [Washington Post, 10/15/09]
  • Advancing the full bilateral relationship through the new U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.  The New York Times reported on the Obama administration’s successful convening of the first ever U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue this summer: “The meetings, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, are a successor to a wide-ranging consultation begun during the Bush administration by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. Mrs. Clinton pushed for the State Department to take an equal role in the talks, previously weighted toward economic issues,” an action which allowed the U.S. and China to forge “common cause” on a range of issues. [NY Times, 7/28/09]
  • Responding to U.S. encouragement, China has played a constructive role in working to resolve the North Korean crisis.  After North Korea’s displays of belligerence earlier this year, the U.S managed to secure sanctions which the New York Times deemed “tougher than previous versions,” primarily because it had gained Chinese (and also Russian) support for a tougher response.  More recently, “China has used its leverage to get North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to rejoin negotiations over its nuclear program after a lengthy hiatus, and Obama is eager to engage,” according to Time Magazine. [NY Times, 6/26/09. Time, 11/18/09]

The U.S. - China relationship is full of strategic opportunities on a broad variety of issues, yet serious challenges remain.  In a new report for the Center for American Progress, Nina Hachigian, et al, write that “China is a fundamentally more powerful and more global actor than when George W. Bush took office. China’s gross domestic product (the sum of a nation’s goods and services) has grown to $4 trillion today, compared to $1 trillion in 2000, with its foreign currency reserves now totaling more than $2 trillion, compared to $165 billion. In 2000, the United States was the top trading partner for Japan, South Korea, India and Brazil. In 2009, China was number one for each... Slowly but surely, China is returning to an earlier historical role as a pivotal power on the world stage. China’s leaders are coming to terms with China’s major power status and displaying increasing confidence in their ability to protect their growing interests.”  And a recent report from the Center for New American Security (CNAS) writes that “Beijing is becoming more strategically conscious in its global engagement and is more willing to push its interests in competition with those of the United States.”  Some areas of competition include:

Resource Competition: Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg recently said that “Resource competition is ... [an] area of concern. With its rapid growth and large population, China’s demand for resources, whether oil, gas, or minerals, is surging, but resource mercantilism is not the appropriate response. China’s moves in that direction have raised legitimate concern not only in the United States, but also among our other partners and among resource-rich developing nations.  The problem is not just that China’s mercantilist approach disrupts markets; it also leads China to problematic engagement with actors like Iran, Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe, and undermines the perception of China as a country interested in contributing to regional stability and humanitarian goals.” 

Technology Development:  Another area of competition is in the technology industry, particularly “green technology” that seeks to address climate change and energy security issues.  The CAP report says that, “Beijing is determined to have the best energy technology... ‘The Chinese leadership really believes that there is a new technological future, and they don’t want to be left behind because they believe that whoever dominates technologies will dominate the 21st century.’”

International Security:  Liz Economy and Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations discuss how different views of the sovereignty and the international system affect the bilateral relationship, writing in Foreign Affairs that, “A significant obstacle to effective U.S.-Chinese cooperation is the dramatically different view of sovereignty, sanctions, and the use of force that each country brings to the table. Beijing's need for resources and export markets, along with its oft-repeated mantra of not mixing business with politics, clashes with the West's efforts to prevent human rights abuses and improve governance in the developing world.”

International Business: The Center for American Progress report discusses China’s business practices in relation to the international system, saying that, “While it has acted as a strong engine of growth for global economy and has lifted hundreds of millions of its own citizens out of poverty, China’s insufficient attempts to stem intellectual property piracy, aggressive efforts at industrial espionage, corrupt business practices, mercantilist tendencies on the procuring of energy resources, and its undervalued currency, as discussed, make it a less than responsible international economic actor. All of these practices do not comport with international standards and serve to weaken the system.”

Climate Change:  Liz Economy and Adam Segal write, “[c]ooperation on climate change may prove ... challenging. As Washington weighs the value of pursuing a bilateral climate deal with China, Beijing's ability to enforce regulations will be called into question.”  And Nina Hachigian adds that, “Though it is highly active domestically, China is not a driving force behind a global deal that will address climate change. The Chinese have so far stopped short of turning their domestic plans and achievements into firm international obligations. Indeed, Beijing so far seems to want to see an agreement reached during the Copenhagen negotiations—but without having to commit China or other developing nations to measurable, reportable and verifiable emissions targets and at a politically untenable cost to developed nations.”

For eight years this important and complex relationship and its implications for the world were put on the backburner.  The CNAS report explains, saying “For years, the Bush State Department, through its preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan and its concomitant failure to delegate some of the secretary of state’s responsibilities to special envoys, missed vital regional meetings and other opportunities for representation. As a consequence, the Chinese made significant diplomatic inroads into countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia.”  The report goes on to say that,  “The United States, meanwhile, remains strategi¬cally preoccupied in the Middle East (albeit to a lesser extent than the Bush administration) as it attempts to prevent the unraveling of the secu¬rity situation in Iraq and to ramp up military operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.” Meanwhile it is also facing an, “emerging prolif¬eration crisis ... instability in Mexico... [and a] domestic economic recession that continues to dominate the agenda.” These individual challenges represent a broader issue of U.S. role in the world and China’s strategic positioning. The overstretch of the Bush administration left an opening for the China.  The Obama administration is now making inroads to correct this mistake both bilaterally with China and in terms of its general global strategy.  [Center for American Progress, 11/09. Center for New American Security, 9/09. James Steinberg, 9/24/09. Liz Economy and Adam Segal, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2009]

What We’re Reading

The Obama administration is now focusing on exit strategies for Afghanistan as part of their formulation of a comprehensive plan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been sworn in for his second term, and used his Inaugural Address to describe his plans to root out corruption. His speech followed a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where she presented a set of metrics to ensure Afghan accountability.

Peshawar has been bombed again by Pakistani militants, this time targeting a courthouse.

In South Korea, President Obama gave a stern warning to North Korea and Iran to comply with the demands of the international community or risk additional sanctions.  Iran’s foreign minister announced that Iran wouldn't send any of its uranium out of the country, as envisioned in a deal discussed in early October.

President Obama announced that his Special Envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, will be meeting with North Korean officials December 8th.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder defended Administration’s plans to use civilian courts to prosecute Guantanamo detainees in civilian trials.

Terrorism investigations in the United States have found a number of links between terrorists and an American-born Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Lithuania’s parliament is investigating a possible CIA “black site” established in 2004.

Activists on both sides of the Cuba issue are heading to Capitol Hill as Members of Congress continue to push for a lifting of the travel ban.

The European Union is still deliberating on naming a new President and Foreign Minister.

Israel’s security establishment is urging political leaders to reach out to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before he follows through on any promises to resign and not run for reelection.

Commentary of the Day

While Pashtoon Atif believes that regular Afghans want President Obama to lean on Karzai to implement his anti-corruption initiative, Gerard Russell believes that the best way to spur Afghan sovereignty and initiative on the governance issue is to accelerate a handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government.  At the same time, The New York Times is waiting for President Obama to clearly articulate his strategy for Afghanistan.

David Ignatius looks at Ramallah as a model for Palestinian development, both economic and political.

Margaret Carlson notes that it is fitting that those involved in the 9/11 plot will be tried in civilian courts in New York City.