America’s China Paradigm Is Back on Track

February 21, 2014

While I always learn something when I read the analysis of Gordon Chang, I believe this particular article in The National Interest mischaracterizes Secretary Kerry’s visit to Asia and fails, as Mao admonished, to distinguish between major and minor conflicts.

First, Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements in Beijing should be put into the context of a tougher declaratory policy that has emerged out of the administration since January.  National Security Council Senior Director Evan Medeiros was first out of the gate with an interview with Kyodo News in which he stressed a commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance in the face of China’s maritime pressure.  Then Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel testified before Congress on the illegality of China’s 9-dashed-line claim, and he underscored that the United States would counter bad behavior such as China’s pattern of maritime coercion.  Secretary Kerry laid down markers, first during his press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington and then in Seoul.  The Chinese got the message and have been wondering where this new “hard-line” policy came from, even though it represents, in my view, continuity with where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell left the Asia policy portfolio in 2012.  China ‘s Air Defense Identification Zone announcement in November may be partly responsible for catalyzing a firmer, less ambiguous U.S. posture.

Second, while China’s maritime coercion is fomenting competition and is provocative, it is also carefully calibrated or tailored, as I have argued, not to escalate.  I do not want to minimize the importance of China’s tailored coercion in maritime Asia.  Indeed, in a forthcoming CNAS report on this, my colleagues and I argue that China should not be so confident that it can control escalation. China would be better off if it worked to create serious risk-reduction mechanisms with its neighbors.  I am not very optimistic, however, that China will follow this course.  I am also worried about the long-term trajectory of bilateral relations and China’s deteriorating relations with Japan and others.  But having said that, I am far more concerned with the potential for escalation and miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula over the next five years.  I have authored a report on this “window of vulnerability,” which I will be launching in Seoul on March 28. North Korea has just gone through a bloody purge, has hurt ties with its one economic backer, China, and is on the cusp of deploying more nuclear weapons and missiles.  This is actually the dog near the sled – the major conflict we need to be worried about.  And this is why Secretary Kerry focused on North Korea so much during his visits to Seoul and Beijing.  A fourth nuclear test, missile launches and any resort to lethal force by North Korea may trigger responses unlike those in the past.

Third, when Secretary Kerry said the U.S.-China relationship has potential, he was speaking to multiple audiences.  One audience, as with his emphasis in Beijing on internet freedom, was internal to China.  Another vital audience was to the Asia-Pacific region and the larger international community, which wants to see that the United States is trying to establish a workable relationship with China despite competition and conflicts of interest. Yes, Asia also wants reassurance that the US will maintain a strong presence and posture in the region, and I believe the recent administration statements underscoring a long-term, bipartisan commitment offer the kind of assurances that are needed.  Engagement and a strong presence are both needed; we have to walk and chew gum at the same time.  I think the Obama second-term Asia team is finally getting its act together.

In short, for the near-to-mid term, the risk of conflict arising on the Korean Peninsula is far higher than the risk of simmering tensions in the East (and South) China Sea from spiraling out of control.  That is why North Korea is the major military conflict to be worried about and why tensions with China, while worrisome, can be managed within tighter boundaries, at least for the foreseeable future.  Both are important to U.S. and regional security, but I think the administration has its priorities right. Obama’s Asia team is balancing the need for diplomacy and economics to lead U.S. policy in concert as we rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, even while we must make certain we remain militarily strong, present and engaged.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.