Kenneth Lieberthal is director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. J. Stapleton Roy is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit this week is an opportunity for the man who is likely to lead China from late 2012 to late 2022 to begin to develop the agenda for that decade with a president who may well serve until January 2017.
Yet this visit comes at a time of growing strategic distrust between China and the United States.
China, despite some problems, remains on a roll. Its economy has rapidly expanded to second-largest in the world, with gross domestic product continuing to advance annually in the high single digits. Its military budget has grown 10-plus percent a year for more than a decade, growth that is likely to continue for years.
Meanwhile, U.S. economic confidence and outcomes remain afflicted by the 2008-09 financial crisis, and our military is wrestling with budget cuts as we address our fiscal deficit.
The United States is far stronger and wealthier than China and will remain so for years. But the balance of resources and capabilities is shifting. Nowhere is that felt more acutely than in Asia, where visions of the future cast a long shadow over current perceptions around the region. As President Obama has stressed, Asia is the most vital region for sustained U.S. prosperity.
Beijing sees itself again becoming the central player in Asia and strong enough to expect that Washington will no longer treat its core concerns with what it views as a bullying, dismissive attitude. China increasingly wants to control military activities in the waters off its coast. Dependent on imports for vital energy resources, China is pressing its territorial claims in potentially energy-rich maritime areas in the East and South China Seas. China, arguably the world’s second most powerful country, is rankled by U.S. diplomacy that it sees as emboldening people in Taiwan, Tibet and the huge, northwestern region of Xinjiang to defy Beijing.
The United States has long been a Pacific power with formal alliances and strategic ties throughout the region. Tradition and vital interests come together in America’s determination to protect its leadership role in Asia, backed up by extensive economic ties and a military that can operate freely in international waters there. Obama vowed during a trip to Asia in November to maintain America’s leadership role and to protect defense capabilities there from budgetary pressures on overall military expenditures.
While both Washington and Beijing consider good bilateral relations vital, their growing strategic rivalry could evolve into mutual antagonism. With a U.S. presidential election and a major leadership succession in China happening in 2012, both sides are looking primarily to prevent a souring in relations this year. That is understandable but insufficient.
Neither country will be able to lessen strategic mistrust unless it addresses a central question: What array of military deployments and normal operations would permit China to defend its core security interests while allowing America to continue to fully meet its obligations to allies in the region? The answer will not be comfortable for either side: China’s military is developing capabilities to force changes in U.S. platforms and plans, and Beijing cannot realistically hope to achieve the capacity to dominate the surrounding seas out to the outer limits of the East China Sea against determined U.S. efforts to prevent that domination.
So far, each side is developing doctrines that are little understood by the other: China has adopted a strategy of being able to defend its interests in “nearby seas,” while the Pentagon has articulated a goal of maintaining the capability to overcome any “anti-access/area denial.” Threat perceptions on both sides are assuming a life of their own. The specifics and operational assumptions behind each doctrine are opaque, but each is increasingly couched in terms that can justify escalating military expenditures as both militaries attempt to achieve levels of certainty that are, so far, unattainable.
This trend cries out for top political leaders to step in and, along with their militaries, discuss principles and accommodations that give each side reasonable certainty about its core security interests. They should try to reach a set of understandings that include steps embodying mutual restraint on development and deployments of particularly destabilizing weapons systems. To improve trust, such discussions need to probe each side’s goals and expectations on such sensitive issues as the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan.
Xi Jinping’s visit will not immediately produce major steps toward such mutual understanding. But it is not too early to begin addressing the core issue of mutually agreed overall security postures in Asia. The forces driving the escalation of tensions and costs, with the likely result of diminished security for all, are in play. The topic will take years to work out. Efforts to bring this under greater control by the leadership in both nations should begin this week.
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