Susan Rice is the latest national security adviser to inherit the framework of Sino-American relations that was created in 1972 by Henry Kissinger: The Chinese ever since have wanted to deal directly and discreetly with the White House as they pursue a relationship that’s somewhere between cooperation and confrontation.
Rice will be channeling Kissinger when she travels with President Obama this weekend for the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou. And as she makes her last major trip to China for this administration, there’s agreement among many senior former officials that she has brought some stability and continuity to what’s probably the United States’ most important bilateral relationship.
Rice has been nearly invisible as national security adviser, compared with some of her flamboyant predecessors. That’s partly a defensive reaction to her bruising months as a target of Benghazi criticism and partly an effort to avoid overlap with John F. Kerry, the peripatetic secretary of state. Colleagues say Rice can still be combative in interagency disputes. But there has been less open State Department-National Security Council friction in this administration than in any in the recent past.
The China relationship has been Rice’s most important personal project. She has made three solo trips there as national security adviser and has seen President Xi Jinping privately each time. She’s set up a series of Xi-Obama summits that have produced some significant agreements, such as in common efforts to combat climate change, confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of accidental military conflict and agreement to limit Chinese cyberattacks.
“The Chinese value being able to talk to the White House, especially about summits. I think that’s frankly been done very well by Susan,” said Tom Donilon, her predecessor as national security adviser and one of the architects of the 2011 “pivot” to Asia that Rice inherited.
The hard question for Rice is whether her stewardship of China policy — and her embrace of the Kissinger strategy of strategic partnership with Beijing where possible — has accompanied the rise of Chinese military power in Asia. That’s the critique made by some U.S. military officers and overseas allies, who fear that China over the past few years has effectively won its battle for greater military leverage in the South China Sea.
Rice’s colleagues counter that in her management of the relationship, she has walked the essential line between cooperation and challenge. When it’s useful to work with Beijing, such as in imposing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear program, Rice has been a solicitous partner. When China’s aggressive moves threaten U.S. interests and those of its regional allies, as in the South China Sea, the Obama administration has opposed China’s efforts — as in its provision of major military assistance to Asian nations such as Japan, Vietnam, India and the Philippines.
A senior administration official argues that Beijing, rather than “winning” in the South China Sea, suffered a sharp rebuff from an international arbitration panel in July and has “driven much of the region into our arms.”
“The U.S.-China relationship in a very difficult period has not gone off the rails, and she deserves credit for that,” said Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy for the State Department during Obama’s first term and helped shape the 2011 rebalancing strategy.
Rice’s focus on China dates to her time as U.N. ambassador, when she helped persuade China to support four U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea. Back then, she joked to China’s U.N. ambassador that she was spending more time with him than her husband who was living in Washington. Her focus on Sino-American containment of North Korea continued after she moved to the White House.
Rice is a feisty and occasionally contentious personality, but that may have helped her push China into what her colleagues cite as an achievement of the Obama years: a four-point agreement last year to curb what had been wildly aggressive Chinese cyberespionage.
Rice pushed the cyber issue hard in an August 2015 trip to China, warning that failure to make progress could disrupt Xi’s planned visit to Washington the next month. While she was in Beijing, news leaked that the United States was considering sanctions, which gave some added leverage. She negotiated the final details of the agreement with a top Chinese official at the White House, listing for him the steps that would be required, just before Xi’s arrival.
“The China account is so important that it requires a whole-of-government approach, which can only be coordinated by the White House,” said Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser for President George W. Bush.
The quiet, centralized, Kissingerian approach to Beijing may upset some China hawks, but it has probably helped avoid a dangerous rupture.