Michèle Flournoy, the chief executive and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. Ely Ratner is a senior fellow at CNAS.
This month, China will participate for the first time in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific naval exercise, better known as RIMPAC. Four Chinese navy ships, including a destroyer, are sailing to Hawaii to join 25,000 sailors, 200 aircraft and nearly 50 ships from more than 20 countries.
The Obama administration’s decision to include China in the world’s largest naval exercise is only the latest U.S. move designed to encourage Beijing to play a more productive role in the world. Such efforts have been a signature feature of Washington’s China policy since the normalization of relations in 1979.
The problem, however, is that, after 35 years of such engagement , China is now calling into question its commitment to preserving the very system that facilitated its rise. This argues for a careful reassessment of the overall U.S. approach to China.
The current approach has been premised on the idea that China’s integration into the prevailing economic and security order not only is in China’s interest but also benefits the United States and the whole world. Washington has supported China’s accession to leading multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, and steadily enhanced bilateral relations with Beijing through a panoply of diplomatic engagements, including the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue that will convene in Beijing in July.
As a result of this embrace, the theory goes, China’s stake in the international system would increase over time. By virtue of self-interest, it would come to see the benefits of contributing to stability and upholding existing rules and norms, such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, even as it became more capable of violating them. This would eventually lead China to emerge as, to use former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s indelible phrase, a “responsible stakeholder.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening. Following decades of double-digit economic growth, China’s behavior took a notable turn in the wake of the global financial crisis. Many in Beijing anticipated a rapid U.S. decline, and this triumphalism fused with growing nationalism and wealth to generate a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.
Particularly since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, China has begun to advance its territorial claims more actively in the East and South China seas, contravening former premier Deng Xiaoping’s long-held dictum of “shelving disputes.”
Yet China’s leaders are well aware that continued economic growth, the principal source of the Communist Party’s legitimacy, depends on a stable regional environment. As a result, China appears to be taking carefully calibrated steps — such as seizing small islands with coast guard vessels, unilaterally asserting greater administrative rights over contested territories, building small outcrops into military installations and drilling for oil in disputed waters — designed to change the territorial status quo in Asia without provoking a serious response from its neighbors or the United States.
The danger is that incremental Chinese revisionism, if left unchecked, will fundamentally alter the international order in Asia over time in ways antithetical to stability and the vital interests of the United States and its allies and partners. The apt metaphor here is the frog in a pot of water that doesn’t realize the temperature is gradually rising until it’s too late to jump out.
China’s more assertive actions also increase the risk of a tactical miscalculation that could escalate into a crisis or even conflict.
How should the United States respond? Washington should remain committed to building a durable partnership with Beijing. Abandoning efforts to engage with China would likely accelerate Beijing’s assertiveness and run counter to a wide range of U.S. economic and security interests.
Nevertheless, it is imperative that China’s destabilizing actions stop. This will require the United States to take steps that more regularly and visibly enforce the rules-based international order in Asia.
The United States can start by supporting the construction of a regional architecture for maritime domain awareness to deter adventurous behavior and allow governments to better police their shores. While bolstering its alliances and partnerships, the United States should also help countries develop the defensive capacity to stand their ground in the face of China’s rapidly emerging force-projection capabilities.
These military measures should be complemented by diplomatic efforts to build rules of the road for managing maritime disputes. In particular, the United States will have to pursue alternative crisis management mechanisms if Beijing continues to drag its feet on concluding a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Washington will have to think creatively about how to improve the efficacy of international arbitration, which the Philippines is employing to contest China’s expansive claims. Although such bodies lack enforcement mechanisms, the United States and its partners can still affect China’s calculus by sticking together and making adherence to their rulings a prerequisite for participation in military exercises such as RIMPAC or in multilateral organizations such as the Arctic Council.
The United States should also explore means for exerting economic pressure on Chinese state-owned enterprises, such as the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, that are complicit in Chinese revisionism.
It would be better if none of this were necessary. But the temperature in Asia is rising, and the United States and the international community must take steps to safeguard peace and stability in this critical region.