BUILDING STRATEGIC TRUST BETWEEN CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES
Do Chinese and US strategic concepts and interests provide sufficient common foundation to build long term strategic trust?
Address to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Tuesday, 2 April 2013
I thank the Carnegie Endowment for their kind invitation to address you today on the great and continuing global challenge of avoiding war and preserving the peace. The Endowment’s rich history over the last century has brought together political leaders, policy makers and public intellectuals from all countries to contribute to this great debate.
The Endowment also exhibits a rich future, as demonstrated in the great work being done by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing – where I am also a visiting scholar and where Professor Paul Haenle, as director, is doing great work in promoting these policy debates on the world’s new emerging great power – the People’s Republic of China.
My argument to you today is as follows:
One, that the “strategic trust deficit” that now exists between China and the United States is widening;
Two, that there is now a plethora of emerging security issues both across Asia and beyond that are increasingly capable of conflict escalation, and where the absence of basic levels of strategic trust between China and the US makes the task of issue management increasingly problematic;
Three, that President Obama’s second term and President Xi Jinping’s first provides a unique window of opportunity to construct a new framework to begin building strategic trust step by step, although this window will not remain open indefinitely;
Four, that the inertia of the Chinese bureaucratic system renders it institutionally incapable of generating such a framework, in which case the US will need to take the lead;
Five, that the US should propose to the Chinese a new Strategic Roadmap for US-China Relations containing a work program for step-by-step progress in discussing and resolving a range of manageable bilateral, regional and global security issues, thus also building strategic trust step by step;
Six, that such a Strategic Roadmap for US-China Relations should be presented as a constructive response to President Xi Jinping’s call for “a new type of great power relationship”;
Seven, that such a Roadmap of step by step strategic cooperation with China is entirely compatible with traditional US hedging strategy against a range of possible Chinese strategic futures;
And finally, that escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula may in fact require a new level of strategic discourse in the US-China relationship sooner rather than later if escalation is to be contained, particularly given the unpredictability and political inexperience of Kim Jong‑un, the domestic political pressure on newly elected President Park in South Korea to respond in kind to any fresh military provocation from the North, and the absence of a Chinese Plan B if hostilities were to erupt.
The political, security and strategic environment in the Asian hemisphere is now more fractious than at any time since the fall of Saigon.
We are all familiar with the list: The South China Sea (and the resulting stress fractures in ASEAN); The ancient and modern nationalisms now on display in the East China Sea; The emerging threat of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism on the Korean peninsula; The US rebalance to Asia and Chinese reactions to it; The rapidly compounding asymmetric threats concerning cyber attacks and cyber security; Not to mention the continuing political tensions generated by those hardy perennials – human rights, intellectual property rights and the Taiwan straits.
Of course, the historian’s discipline teaches us that every generation believes its security challenges are unique. Nonetheless, the same historians remind us that there are times in human history that the sheer density and complexity of political and security challenges on the agenda begins to reach a critical mass or a tipping point.The truth is, these things are usually identified with twenty-twenty hindsight, rather than with twenty-twenty foresight. Still, there are a number of factors characterising our current circumstances in Asia that should give us all genuine pause for strategic and political thought.
First, the rise of China itself, and the prospect that, within the next decade, China is likely to become the largest economy in the world, so that for the first time since George III, a non-democratic, non-Western, non-English speaking state will dominate the global economy.
Second, the international relations theorists warn us that in times of Great Power transition, particularly when a rising power begins rapidly closing on an established power, periods of acute strategic instability are likely to arise.
Third, at the same time, we also see the rise of a new range of almost 19th century nationalisms across Asia, giving expression to longstanding, deep-seated cultural and even racial animosities, as well as a range of post-colonial political reactions to what is often regarded as the decline of the collective West.
Fourth, a general consensus across much of Chinese elite opinion that the US and its allies are engaged in a collective policy of de facto containment of China, aimed at preventing or constraining China’s natural rise, and the resumption of China’s historical position of regional and global greatness.
Fifth, as China rises, combined with a powerful political and strategic cocktail of regional uncertainty, and in some cases instability, there is a continuing policy question mark over how a powerful or dominant China would in fact exercise its regional and global influence, and how it would in fact seek to change the current international rules-based order.
These are not just the ordinary questions confronting each generation of foreign policy theorists and practitioners. They are in fact suggestive of the early debates confronting a regional and global order beginning a long period of transition. And the open question in the back of the minds of all policy makers is whether the current, post-War rules-based order (based on liberal institutionalism underpinned by American power) will survive its centenary as we approach 2045 in its current form.
US Strategic Frameworks
Given these changing circumstances, here in Washington it is important to ask whether current US strategic frameworks for managing China’s emerging regional and global role are sufficient for the future task.
US strategic doctrine towards China has undergone many evolutions since 1949: from Cold War containment; through to Sino-US strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union; through a more nebulous concept of strategic engagement; through to calls for China to become a responsible global stakeholder (which on balance the Chinese concluded was conceptually accurate but nonetheless politically condescending); through to the current hedging strategy under which the US accepts the reality of strategic competition against the possibility that China becomes increasingly aggressive, while at the same time pursuing the second part of the strategic hedge (that is, strategic cooperation) in non-security spheres, in order to encourage China’s long term embrace of the current rules-based order as the best guarantor of China’s own long term interests.
China’s continued rise over the last 30 years has rendered redundant many, but not all, of these strategic concepts. The truth is, the United States and its allies have concluded that the strategic logic of a hedging policy remains the most apposite for dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of China’s emerging international reality. But the question arises as to whether the current, almost binary, nature of the hedge continues to be the most effective instrument in the foreign policy toolkit available to the United States: i.e. competition in security policy; cooperation in the non-security policy domains in the expectation that the latter ultimately ameliorates the former. Strategic competition will of course remain a foundational reality within the US-China relationship, where the US is likely to maintain military preponderance over China until at least mid-century.
Nonetheless, my argument is that the strategic cooperation part of the hedge is in need of some revision. It is no longer sufficient simply to say to the Chinese that the current rules-based order is good for you, therefore please support it and, given your emerging resources, please strengthen it.
From China’s perspective, this rules-based order is still seen as a political imposition from the collective West together as part of the post-War settlement (although it must be noted that while China maintains this critique, to date it has offered no alternative rules-based order). A more useful approach may be to cause our Chinese friends to conclude that broader strategic cooperation with the United States may be more immediately desirable from China’s own perspective in dealing with China’s current range of national security concerns, both regional and bilateral.
For example, can the US help China “manage down” the raft of security tensions which China now confronts in both the East and South China Seas. Furthermore, could the United States constructively work with China in managing down South Korean reactions to Kim Jong-un’s increasingly threatening political hyperbole and possible military action. Most importantly, could the United States constructively work with China in working up de-minima “rules of the road” in the two countries’ increasingly vexatious cyber security relationship. Finally, could these elements of strategic distrust ultimately be turned around, step by step, incrementally to overcome the yawning trust gap which currently divides Washington and Beijing.
Chinese Strategic Frameworks
Chinese strategic frameworks for conceptualising their future strategic relationship with the United States are equally important. Just as Chinese strategic concepts of their own future predispositions towards the global and regional rules-based orders.
Over the last 35 years, since Deng initiated the current period of economic reform and opening to the outside world, we have been treated to a cornucopia of foreign policy concepts that have invariably escaped precise definition. On China’s emerging international role, Deng Xiaoping preached what has been interpreted as a strategically ambiguous doctrine of “hide your strengths and bide your time, never take the lead, but do some things”. (韬光养晦，不当头，有所作为). We have also observed the debate about China’s peaceful rise and then China’s peaceful development (和平崛起，和平发展). We have also seen the literature on China’s Renaissance (中国复兴). More recently, we have discussed Hu Jintao’s dual concept of a harmonious society at home and a harmonious world abroad (和谐社会，和谐世界).
Of course, given China’s rapid development over the last thirty years, we understand that the reconceptualisation of its international role remains a work in progress. As Professor Yan Xuetong from Tsinghua University said last year, “When the world asked China: what do you want to be? It doesn’t know, and that’s the problem.” Enter President Xi Jinping’s recent definitive embrace of the concept of “a new type of great power relations”. (新型大国关系)
Twelve months ago while visiting Washington, then Vice President Xi Jinping stated that there were four elements to a new type of great power relationship between China and the United States:
· Increasing mutual understanding and strategic trust;
· Respecting each side’s “core interests and major concerns”;
· Deepening mutually beneficial cooperation; and
· Enhancing cooperation and coordination in international affairs and on global issues.
China’s declaratory commitment to this new framework for its bilateral engagement with the United States was further underlined during last year’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, when Hu Jintao stated, “We should, through creative thinking and concrete steps, prove that the traditional belief that big powers are bound to enter into confrontation and conflicts is wrong and seek new ways of developing relations between major countries in the era of economic globalisation.”
Since Xi Jinping’s confirmation as General Secretary of the Party, Chairman of the Military Commission and now President of the country, the phrase “a new type of great power relationship” now litters the official promulgations of the Chinese foreign policy establishment. In fact, the concept has now been taken more broadly (at least in Xi Jinping’s most recent Moscow speech) to embrace not only “a new type of great power relationship” but also now “a new type of international relations system” (新型国际关系). However, if you ask both government officials and think tanks to provide a more precise rendition of what these new concepts actually mean in terms of Chinese foreign policy practice, then you are quickly told that this too is very much a work in progress. Or as one colleague observed to me over the last several days in Beijing: “The think thanks are now scrambling to put flesh on the bones of Xi Jinping’s new idea.” Nonetheless, I do not believe this is a problem for the US, the West and the rest.
I would argue it presents an opportunity for the US given that it now provides a new form of language to describe the China relationship in terms which are not confrontational, as well as providing an opportunity to flesh out with the Chinese what this new cooperative formulation might actually be made to mean in practice. My overall point is that working constructively within the conceptual and linguistic constructs of Chinese foreign policy formulations can be useful, given Chinese conclusions that the entire theory and vocabulary of current international relations is largely a Western invention.
The opportunity, therefore, arises for the US and others to interpolate their fundamental interests, values and conceptual frameworks wherever possible within the nomenclature put forward by the Chinese. This is a complex but nonetheless achievable objective. The alternative is often to see two sides talking past one another with much lost in mutual non-comprehension.
As a realist within the liberal internationalist tradition, I don’t have any utopian views of these possibilities. The reality is that core strategic concepts and interests between China and the United States remain. The creative challenge, however, is how to “manage down” these while “managing up” cooperation in other political and security domains.
That’s why I found it heartening to read in Chinese reports of President Obama’s congratulatory telephone call on Xi Jinping’s appointment as Chinese President on 16 March, the US President was quoted as saying that “the US hopes to work with China to… build a new type of relationship based on healthy competition”.
Five days earlier, President Obama’s National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, appeared to be even more supportive of Chinese conceptualisations of the future of the relationship – Donilon stated:
“I disagree with the premise put forward by some historians and theorists that a rising power and an established power are somehow destined for conflict. There is nothing preordained about such an outcome. It is not a law of physics, but a series of choices by leaders that lead to great power confrontation. Others have called for containment. We reject that, too. A better outcome is possible. But it falls to both sides – the United States and China – to build a new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one. Xi Jinping and President Obama have both endorsed this goal.”
Both the Obama and Donilon statements concerning a new type of relationship with China have been carefully noted by the analytical and policy communities in Beijing.
A New Strategic Roadmap for US-China Relations
The question arises, therefore, as to how to best integrate both Chinese and American conceptual frameworks for the future of their strategic relationship, while at the same time attending to the raft of emerging security policy challenges that currently confront that relationship. And in so doing, how to best bridge, step by step, the yawning trust deficit between the two countries that from time to time threatens to derail the relationship altogether.
I argue that the administration should take Xi Jinping and his new concept of “a new type of great power relationship” at face value and turn it into a work program for a series of regular summits between the two leaders.
I have argued for the last 12 months that Xi Jinping is a leader that the United States can do business with. I have also argued before that he is politically self-confident, given both his personal and family pedigrees, both on military and economic reform fronts. Unlike others, he has nothing to prove to either of these constituencies. He is confident of his background in both.
By predisposition he is unlikely to be bound by the absolute disciplines of collective leadership and will end up being more than a simple “primus inter pares”. Based on every discussion I have had in Beijing on the future direction of China’s relationship with the US, it will be determined by Xi Jinping himself. It is, of course, transparent from his public statements that Xi Jinping wants to build Chinese state power.
But it is equally clear, Xi Jinping believes that China needs another 30 years of strategic stability in order to realise its economic modernisation mission – or Xi Jinping’s “dream” for China, that by the Communist Party’s centenary in 2021, China will have become “a moderately prosperous society in all respects”; and that by the PRC’s centenary in 2049, that “the great renewal of the Chinese nation will inevitably be accomplished”.
For these various reasons, I have long argued that Xi Jinping is someone that President Obama can do business with. This does not mean that longstanding strategic disagreements can automatically be overcome.
What it does mean, however, is that in Xi Jinping there is sufficient personal political authority, sufficient open-mindedness, sufficient sense of a fresh start after what is seen domestically as 10 “wasted years” under his predecessor, and sufficient congruence between the US and China across a number of common national interests to begin the conscious process of building long-term strategic trust.
That is largely why I wrote an article for this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine entitled, “A New Strategic Roadmap for US-China Relations”. Many of the arguments contained in the article are built on those outlined in my addresses to both the National Defence University in Beijing and to Brookings here in Washington late last year.
Let me recap the core arguments that I had put forward:
First, the US and China need a program of regular summitry (two or three each year) with a mutually agreed work program on strategic trust building exercises for the future, rather than simply the political issue management of the day. Bilateral dialogues between officials are fine. But it’s heads of government who make things happen.
Second, each side needs a point-person on the bilateral relationship who can speak authoritatively for each administration; who can move the work program forward between summits, as well as handle day-to-day issue management as it arises.
Third, both the US and China need to identify at least one item within the current global rules-based order which is not working, and demonstrate together they can make it work. Previously I have cited examples of stalled WTO negotiations, climate change negotiations and the non-proliferation agenda (the latter being particularly important given both North Korea and Iran).
Fourth, both the US and China should work with the members of the East Asia Summit to build a comprehensive set of confidence and security-building measures for the Asian hemisphere with a view to building strategic trust step-by-step and reducing the risks of conflict escalation through miscalculation.
Fifth, US-China mil-mil dialogue needs to be taken to a new and sustained level at the level of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This enhanced military dialogue should also deal as a matter of urgency with the vexed question of cyber security which at present has the capacity to begin to tear the relationship apart unless some level of mutual trust can be established.
Sixth, China and the US should begin discussing China’s eventual accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to create a basis for new common prosperity through a free trade regime in Asia and the Pacific. This will boost economic growth and employment in all countries.
Seventh, the US and China should accelerate their global economic cooperation on global macroeconomic stability through the G20. This must focus on the identification of the next drivers of global economic growth consistent with the Pittsburgh Declaration of 2009 on Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth. Failure to produce a result on this continues to plague the prospects of global economic recovery.
Other irritants in the US-China relationship which are not of a strategic nature should be dealt with in other forums and not be allowed to affect, and therefore infect, the strategic role of the sort of summitry I have proposed.
Let us return for a moment to Xi Jinping’s framework twelve months ago. President Xi emphasised the importance of respecting each side’s “core interests and major concerns”. From time to time, China’s definition of its core interests has changed. It is of course ultimately a matter for the Chinese people what political system they choose for themselves.
The international community accepts China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, although different countries have different formulations in relation to Taiwan. Of course, the international community has a different view concerning China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas where a number of China’s neighbouring states dispute China’s claims, and where other countries around the world, by and large, maintain a neutral position, urging all parties to use peaceful, diplomatic and/or international legal institutions to resolve outstanding claims.
In this context, US failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has not assisted US diplomacy in urging all parties to these disputes to resort to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. If the US accepted the UNCLOS jurisdiction, it would make it more difficult for China to decline to accept the Tribunal’s jurisdiction as well. We should all remember the Tribunal exists for a purpose: for the international community to peacefully resolve maritime territorial disputes and therefore avoid a repeat of the armed conflicts we have seen in the past.
Within the broad framework of “core interests and major concerns”, our Chinese friends would also appreciate that other countries of the region have profound concerns about both the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program of North Korea and its inflammatory declaratory language concerning its preparedness unilaterally to use armed force against the south and other “unnamed aggressors” in Asia.
I discussed China’s policy towards North Korea at length in my address to China’s National Defence University last Thursday. I have also discussed this matter extensively with Chinese officials and earlier last week with President Park in Seoul.
My overall point, however, remains: on the broad question of core interests and major concerns, there is likely to be both agreement and disagreement about where the parameters might lie but there is plainly much scope for a strategic level discussion between the principals.
As for the other elements of Xi Jinping’s broad definition of “a new type of great power relationship” with the United States, these can be broadly accommodated within the framework of the type of new Strategic Roadmap that I’m recommending for the future of this important relationship. Remember these deal with “deepening mutually beneficial cooperation”, “enhancing cooperation and coordination in international affairs and on global issues” and “deepening strategic trust”. There is much to work with here.
And when push comes to shove, I doubt that the Chinese would allow the possibility of a new period of strategic cooperation between China and the United States to flounder on the question of whether Chinese core interests included or excluded the South China Sea.
Realists in Beijing would not expect the United States de facto to accept the Chinese position on either the East or South China Seas. Rather, realists would instead argue that China is much more interested in the operational characteristics of the US stated position of neutrality on these conflicting territorial claims.
There is one major challenge which of itself is capable of derailing the prospects for new strategic cooperation between China and the United States (and here I draw extensively and directly on the remarks I made last week in Beijing).
North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test into the mid-Pacific last December is unacceptable to the international community. Its third underground nuclear test in February this year is also unacceptable to the international community. North Korea’s response to the UN Security Council Resolution 2094 imposing new sanctions is equally unacceptable.
Let us remember the precise content of the DPRK response to the United Nations Security Council:
First, North Korea unilaterally tore up the 1953 armistice agreement with the south, an agreement which brought to a conclusion hostilities involving many states, including China, the United States and Australia sixty years ago; Second, North Korea threatened pre-emptive strikes against United States, its allies and other “aggressors” in the region; and Third, North Korea threatened to reduce Seoul to a smouldering ruin.
This is the most aggressive language used by any nation state in the world today about its neighbours. It is the language of the 1930s. It is not the language of the international community of the early 21st century.
When we add to that the fact that North Korea now possesses sufficient nuclear material to construct a nuclear weapon and is now testing delivery systems capable of targeting other states, the international community no longer regards North Korea as simply a theoretical threat.
For a number of countries, it is emerging as an existential threat. Strategic policy is based on two elements: military capabilities and political intentions. In North Korea, we begin to see the convergence of both. I understand fully that North Korea is not a client state of China. But I also understand that everyone else’s diplomacies toward North Korea have been unsuccessful: with South Korea, with the US, with the Six Party Talks, and with the United Nations.
I am fully aware that China has exercised considerable efforts to try and restrain North Korean behaviour. I also note that North Korea rewarded China’s efforts by launching its third underground test during the Spring Festival holiday and then declared its renunciation of the 1953 armistice and other measures in the middle of China’s National People’s Congress, when China was announcing its new leadership to the world.
I have also been following international reports of China’s growing domestic debate of its future policy on North Korea. As Zhu Feng, a North Korea expert at Peking University, stated recently, “The North Korean nuclear test this time will push China to a rethink.” China’s hardline newspaper The Global Times has warned in an editorial that the DPRK would “pay a heavy price” for its actions. Furthermore, Jin Canrong of Renmin University has warned that North Korea’s “recent misbehaviour” has strengthened the voices of those in China wanting the government to take a tougher line against its unruly nuclear-armed ally.
More significantly, Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of Study Times, journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party, wrote that China should simply “give up” on North Korea. Most significantly of all, recent reports of a briefing by Qiu Yuanping of the Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Office to the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference in a public session open to the media talked about whether to “keep or dump” North Korea.
It is of course a matter for China to determine what its future policy will be. But, as a friend of China, let me make just three observations:
First, North Korea’s nuclear posture is of itself causing the United States and its allies in the region to enhance their cooperation on ballistic missile defence in order to counter the North Korean threat. Of itself it is a reflection of profound strategic mistrust towards North Korea. For many it also represents an entirely rational response to a real and growing threat. Such ballistic missile defence cooperation also of course has wider implications for China’s national and security interests beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Second, China’s own global foreign policy standing is suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of North Korean adventurism. This is unfortunate because China in so many global domains is playing an increasingly active and positive role. But North Korea today has become not just a global pariah state but a dangerous one for so many of China’s friends and neighbours – not least South Korea.
Third, there is a limit to the level of self-restraint that South Korea can itself demonstrate given the enormous political pressures within South Korea’s democracy to respond robustly to any future North Korean provocation.
None of us should forget that US nuclear forces were removed from the Korean Peninsula in 1992. It is a sad fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program began after that date.
There is also an emerging debate within both Korea and Japan about their own future nuclear postures given North Korea’s emerging capabilities and aggressive public language towards both.
For these reasons the international community will be looking more and more to Beijing, in view of its significance as a major supplier of food and energy to the Korean people, for a new diplomacy towards Pyongyang, given that all other diplomacies from other countries have so far demonstrably failed.
The truth is that if a new Strategic Roadmap for China-US relations is to be developed, the initiative is going to have to come from the Obama administration itself.
The Chinese bureaucracy is characterised by policy inertia. There are no rewards in the Chinese system for sticking your neck out by advancing a bold new strategic direction for the Chinese leadership on something as sensitive as the US relationship – and the impact of that relationship on China’s interests in Korea, in the East China Sea with Japan and in the South China Sea with ASEAN.
Of course, if the Obama administration does take the initiative in seeking to frame a new type of relationship with the Chinese, it is not guaranteed of success.
But the alternative is to allow strategic drift to set in – where drift sees strategic competition ultimately trending towards conflict or even war.
I have often said there is nothing determinist about international relations. In international politics, like domestic politics, we get to choose our futures – the destination points we seek and what policy actions must be taken in order to get there.
In the case of China, this involves the re-engineering of our strategic mindsets. At present, the default setting within those mindsets is of a decisively negative nature.
What is recommended here is not some high-minded exercise in foreign policy idealism. Rather it is grounded in strategic realism. It accepts that as part of a properly conceived and implemented hedging strategy, strategic competition continues.
But it is equally realist about the need, step by step, to build strategic trust, thereby creating strategic ballast in the relationship, for those times when that ballast will need to be drawn upon to deal with the strategic tensions of the day.
The truth is, we still do not know what China’s long term intentions are for its future regional and global role. Within China, that too is still very much a work a progress.
But if through a new Strategic Roadmap for China-US Relations we can also cause the Chinese to conclude that it is in their own best interests to continue to support, sustain and strengthen the current global rules-based order, then we are also helping to shape China’s own long term domestic discourse on what role it wishes to play in the world in future – if indeed during the 21st century it does in fact become the world’s next superpower.
Time is short. The window of political opportunity may be limited. And the security issues at stake are increasingly important and (in the case of the Korean peninsula) urgent.
Perhaps President Obama could set the ball rolling by inviting President Xi Jinping to a working weekend visit to Camp David (it would be the first for a Chinese leader) so that they could get to know each other well, work out whether they believe they can work with each other on a forward leaning agenda and what in broad outline that agenda might be, well prior to their first formal engagement at St Petersburg in September.