Managing Strategic Competition with China

By Saunders, Phillip C. | Strategic Forum, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Managing Strategic Competition with China


Saunders, Phillip C., Strategic Forum


Key Points

Officials in the Obama administration have highlighted the need for a "positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship" with China that can help the United States address an array of global challenges. Administration officials have not adopted the "responsible stakeholder" language that characterized recent U.S. China policy, but their overall approach appears compatible with that concept. Initial policy statements have focused on expanding U.S.-China cooperation, with particular emphasis on addressing the global economic crisis and climate change.

This paper focuses on an important but neglected topic: how to address the challenges posed by China's development of advanced strategic and military capabilities that might threaten U.S. interests within the context of a broader policy emphasizing engagement and cooperation with China. Relations in four strategic areas--nuclear modernization, space and counterspace, cyber warfare, and conventional force modernization--are analyzed, and the potential for competitive dynamics in these areas to affect the stability of the broader U.S.-China bilateral relationship is explored. The paper suggests that China's approach to nuclear modernization, which has sought to maintain a credible second-strike capability that would induce U.S. restraint while minimizing economic and political costs, may be a model for its future behavior in other areas. However, specific characteristics of these areas--including the expected costs of competitive behavior and the extent to which deterrence functions effectively--may also influence competitive dynamics.

The prospect of continued U.S.-China strategic competition suggests that nuclear, missile defense, space, and cyber issues will be irritants (and potentially destabilizing factors) in bilateral relations. Perceptions about the likelihood of conflict over Taiwan are likely to intensify or ease competitive dynamics, but competition already goes beyond Taiwan scenarios.

The ultimate impact will depend on whether competition over strategic issues comes to dominate the relationship. The paper suggests four potential means of limiting the impact of competitive dynamics: placing limits on competition that might make both sides worse off; keeping competitive dimensions of relations within the context of a broader, generally cooperative relationship of huge importance to both sides; providing a path for China to pursue its legitimate interests while taking on more responsibility for maintenance of the international system; and actively seeking to expand security cooperation, including bilateral and multilateral cooperation, between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.

In the Obama administration's first major speech on Asia policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted the need for a "positive, cooperative relationship" with the People's Republic of China (PRC) that could help the United States address an array of global challenges. Dismissing the view that a rising China must be an adversary, she argued that "the United States and China can benefit from and contribute to each other's successes" and stressed the importance of working "to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities." (1) Her subsequent remarks in Beijing highlighted the importance of U.S.China cooperation in addressing the global economic crisis, building a partnership on clean energy and climate change, and working together on a range of shared international security challenges. (2) Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg later called for building a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship for the 21st century." (3)

These remarks acknowledge the reality that cooperation with China is essential to a range of important U.S. interests and Obama administration policy priorities. They also appear to reflect a determination to avoid the pattern evident in previous U.S. administrations of adopting a hardline approach toward China during the campaign and early days in office before recognizing the need to build good working relations with Beijing. …

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