Washington Seeks Policy Coherence on China
By: Jacob Berah
If policies are solutions to problems, it’s hard to articulate good policy when you’re unsure whether there is a problem or what the nature of that problem is. Arguably, the United States has only relatively recently accepted that China may pose a serious problem for its continued preeminence and stewardship of the liberal order in Asia. Save for a few, many have long held that China’s economic and military ascendency could be managed to avoid a strategic competition with the United States.
China’s military growth, alleged cyber attacks, and recent assertive behavior and island building in the South China Sea have pushed many in Washington to now accept that there is a China problem. But few agree on the nature of that problem, let alone the right course ahead. In contrast to the clear tensions in the relationship are recent successes of cooperation, including on the Iran deal and climate change, as well as China’s economic importance to the United States and the globe. The Beltway is struggling to come to terms with an increasingly complex and at times contradictory relationship with Beijing.
Washington’s understanding of the U.S. relationship with China is undergoing a period of transition, and the outcome remains to be determined. Driving this transition is the digestion by policymakers and analysts of the shifting relative power balance in Asia and the fact that the primary beneficiary of the changing power balance probably does not share the United States’ vision for the region’s future. Most characterize the relationship with China as “complex,” but this is where the consensus ends. Few are willing to concede a new reality of strategic competition, but most acknowledge significant challenges ahead. This reflects the uncertainty in Washington about what China’s rise means for U.S. leadership in Asia and the difficulty of accepting a near-peer competitor after more than half a century of U.S. preeminence.
Washington doesn’t need a slogan or a bumper sticker going forward, but it will need some sort of conceptual basis through which to comprehend the complex and interconnected economic, security, and ideological interests that will characterize the most consequential relationship for Asian regional, and possibly global, security. The conversation to define that conceptual basis is happening now, and it will require sober analysis, some difficult decisions, and an acceptance that Asia’s future will, in some important ways, look different from its past and present.
* This article is part of a report on contemporary thinking among Washington policymakers on the U.S. relationship with China and the future of U.S. leadership in Asia.