The perennial China-policy debate: conciliation vs. carrots and sticks

Ed Ross Contributor
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In his October 20th “Inside the Ring” column, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reports on the current China-policy debate within the Obama administration. He identifies two opposing groups — the “kowtow” group and the “sad-and-disappointed” group. Twenty-five years ago we called them the “convert-them-to-Christianity-and-democracy” group and the “let’s-just-outsmart-them” group. The U.S. players in the perennial China-policy debate change as administrations come and go, but the fundamental differences between the two classic approaches to China remain the same.

Gertz identifies the “kowtow group” as headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and National Security Council Asia Staff Director Jeff Bader. The kowtowers favor “conciliation and concession.” Like their convert-them-to-Christianity-and-democracy predecessors, named after Christian missionaries to China in the 1920s and 1930s, they believe that engagement, dialogue, and compromise are the keys to access and influence in China.

From the earliest days of United States-People’s Republic of China relations, there have been those, noted China scholars among them, who advocated a soft approach. They believed that the more China was exposed to the West and became involved in international organizations and institutions, the more it would evolve toward democracy, seek a constructive role in the international community, and align its foreign policy interests with the U.S. — and the less likely conflicts between China and its neighbors would become.

The key to this approach was to minimize the conflicts with China that caused it to limit engagement and, therefore, slow the pace of change. Its advocates tended to seek greater restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, for example, to minimize them as an irritant in the developing U.S.-China relationship.

Today, the so-called kowtowers believe that China has become so important and so indispensable to achieving U.S. foreign-policy objectives that we have to make concessions to China and find areas of compromise. Now, as before, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are a major irritant. Reducing or removing such irritants will encourage China to make compromises on issues important to the U.S. — Iran, North Korea, trade, etc.

Gertz lists the “sad-and-disappointed” group as headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Security Affairs Chip Gregson. I would include Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in this group. They are unhappy with the lack of progress on “security, diplomatic, political, economic and trade” issues and seek a more balanced, “centrist” approach.

In Ronald Reagan’s Defense Department, those of us who worked China policy under Assistant Secretary Richard Armitage referred to ourselves as the “let’s-just-outsmart-them” group. We sought to leverage a relationship with China in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We pursued frank and reciprocal high-level dialogue, balanced functional military exchanges, and limited military technology cooperation with China while maintaining robust U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and firm opposition to Beijing’s polices that were inimical to U.S. interests. And we achieved considerable success.

We believed that change in China happens at its own pace and is resistant to outside pressure that lacks undesirable consequences. China’s foreign and defense policies are largely manifestations of its domestic policy and the imperative of the Chinese Communist Party to maintain its power. The principal goal of the United States government should be to better understand China, the Chinese leadership, and the influential Chinese military establishment in order to provide effective incentives and disincentives (carrots and sticks) for it to behave in ways beneficial to U.S. national interests.

Today’s leaders of the sad-and-disappointed group, with the exception of Hillary Clinton, are very knowledgeable of the interagency struggles over U.S.-China relations that occurred in the 1980s.  Secretary Gates, who was deputy director of the CIA from 1986 to 1989, was an active participant. Campbell and Gregson, who were responsible for U.S.-China defense relations in the latter part of the Clinton administration, managed the rebuilding of the relationship following the hiatus that resulted from the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre. They studied the history of the relationship, consulted with Armitage and those of us who managed it previously, and built on what had gone before.

They understand that the U.S. no longer has the same leverage with China it had during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union loomed large. They know that conciliation and compromise with China are mostly one-way streets. They support U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. They seek, as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Richard Armitage sought, a balanced and reciprocal U.S.-China relationship. They know that China respects and responds to strength and exploits weakness.

A great deal has changed in the last 25 years. The Cold War is over. The Soviet Union is gone. Under China’s state-directed capitalism, its economy has flourished. Its foreign exchange reserves are in the trillions. Those who advocated the conciliation and engagement approach will argue that they were right. China has become a cooperative member of the international community and U.S.-China-Taiwan relations are as good as they have ever been.

But are they right? China has not renounced the use of force to recover Taiwan. Its military buildup along the Taiwan Strait continues unabated. It seeks military capabilities to attack U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region. It manipulates its currency, it won’t participate in effective sanctions on Iran, and it stands by the rogue regime of Kim Jung-Il. It is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan and attempts to restrict freedom-of-navigation in international waters. What has the soft approach gotten us?

Ultimately, President Obama will decide which approach to China the U.S. will take for the remainder of his time in office. If he decides to kowtow, China will continue to dominate the relationship and thwart U.S. interests. If he comes down on the side of the “sad-and-disappointed” and the “let’s-just-outsmart-them” advocates, the U.S. will adopt a more forceful stance toward China on a wide range of issues, forcing Beijing to reassess its approach to the United States and adopt a more conciliatory approach toward us.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.