Respond to the China Challenge by Cooperating through Strength


Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final installment in Patrick Cronin’s series on China’s strategy for dominance in the Asia-Pacific. Check out the first four here, here, here, and here.

An urgent challenge for U.S. policymakers is to find effective ways to respond when China throws its weight around without regard to norms or neighbors. What is particularly needed is a clear-eyed assessment of what would constitute unacceptable behavior and the development of a flexible set of policy options for imposing costs on coercive and destabilizing actions.

While we need a capable forward military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, China’s gray-zone challenges will require more than the tools available to the Department of Defense. Indeed, an interagency governmental policy review should begin with agreement on America’s desired strategic outcome: preserving and adapting an inclusive, rules-based system in the Indo-Asia Pacific.

Our aim should be not to over-militarize the problem but to seek to win the peace through a concerted, long-term strategy of cost-imposition, capacity building, and engagement. Partly this means resisting our national proclivity for rushing to resolution and instead seeking to manage disputes through a careful policy that balances ends and means, not just for the United States but also within the context of Southeast Asia.

Living with some level of tension, and even some contradiction between our vision and today’s reality, is for the foreseeable future the best we can do. We can neither afford to discard nor to go beyond a strategy in which engagement and hedging are the yin and yang of our regional strategy. But we can improve upon the dimensions of this dialectical approach, beginning by doubling down on a policy of comprehensive rebalance to Asia. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter appears to be dead serious about this goal, and he is supported by some outstanding professionals such as the newly installed U.S. Pacific Command Commander, Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. The White House, State Department, and other governmental departments need to be equally committed. Stovepipes of excellence will not cut it when the challenge is how to deal with a comprehensive strategy for gaining greater regional control through all available means. At least when it comes to the policy of rebalancing to Asia, the administration knows there are some strong champions on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Some contend that imposing costs on bad behavior risks conflict or at least plays into the Chinese myth that America is out to contain it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Countering bad behavior is not the same thing as containment. Neither is using a mixture of hard and soft power instruments to counter reckless activity such as China’s island-building binge akin to letting tensions in the South China Sea hijack U.S.-China relations.

Only China can contain China and only China can derail U.S.-China relations by underestimating our resolve to ensure that stability and prosperity are not undermined by unilateral changes to the status quo through coercion or force. Some highly respected colleagues have called to halt activities that perpetuate the continued emergence of China. I would modify that call to more narrowly circumscribe what is within our power: namely, to preserve our interests by seeking cooperation through strength, putting forth a positive vision that continues to appeal to and mobilize most of the region, and yet, in seeming contradiction, being willing to impose costs on behavior that falls outside of agreed-upon rules, regional norms, and international standards.

Living with contradiction requires a constant recalibration to retain the proper balance depending on the circumstances. It means continuing to seek to advance positive engagement with China even when this seems unlikely to make a major difference. In the first place, engagement may achieve practical ways to avoid unintended consequences, such as escalation. Second, engagement sends the right message to the rest of the region about our forward-looking, problem-solving, and rules-based vision for the region.

Some will be uncomfortable with that, but I would suggest that the alternatives on offer are either too bellicose or too accommodating. The dynamic tension between engagement and hedging will not always yield the least confrontational way to pursue our goals. However, it remains the most realistic means of protecting regional order and our interests, and it is far preferable to tilting so far toward one-sided compromise that the order we are purported to be upholding is hollowed out from the inside.

But cost-imposition and bigger muscle moves must be emplaced within a larger diplomatic framework of comprehensive policy in which each move is designed to support a larger political objective. That objective relates to America’s long-term interest in being integrated into the most dynamic region in the world. The Indo-Asia-Pacific region will become the world’s locus of economic and military power in this century. We can ride with this trend or put our heads in the sand. We can build on our historic post-World War II role in erecting a system by which most, including China, have thrived or we can accept the gradual diminution of our considerable influence and position and adjust ourselves to a reduced role and stature in the world, ceding at the same time our ability to respond to external events.

The main reason we can cooperate through strength is because the pursuit of an open, rules-based system does not genuinely threaten China. On the contrary, cooperation through strength remains one of the best promises for China’s continued reemergence. The United States and China, like other countries, have both convergent and divergent interests. We should never stop trying to maximize our convergent interests. But when we have divergent interests, we should not pretend that they do not exist.   China will not stop pressing for a regional order favorable and even deferential to Beijing; in so doing, China will not shy away from occasional half-truths, spurious claims, and selective sophistry. Similarly, the United States should not relent with respect to its interests and values, bearing in mind that the luxury of preserving both requires investing in the means to back them up. Once again, the overriding objective is to “win the peace,” not catalyze a war. But preserving prosperity and stability does not mean always averting confrontation.

It is not thinkable to contain China. To pretend that we can only erodes our regional position. Conversely, fearing the need to confront bad behavior for fear of upsetting our vital relations with China fails to grasp the larger stakes at play over the future regional order. It also succumbs to a curious belief that China will reward weakness. Where is the evidence for that?

The reason I believe a strategy of cooperation through strength, including cost-imposition measures, will work is because it is — or at least it can be if embedded in a larger foreign policy framework — predicated on powerful common interests. Chinese propaganda and distrust notwithstanding, America truly does seek an inclusive system in which rules are equitably worked out among all. Rules such as those calling for settling disputes peacefully and not using force or coercion to alter the status quo ultimately benefit all, including China. They are rules we can all live by.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former Director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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