US Engagement Policy toward China: Realism, Liberalism, and Pragmatism (2)

(continued from part 1)

Nixon set aside ideology and focused instead on the geopolitical conflict between the two Marxist states.

The rationale behind the decision to reach reconciliation with China, though, was not a simple one. As a matter of the fact, the administration was also seeking to ease tensions with the Soviet Union, [16] and its realism had a highly pragmatic quality. Nixon expected both China and the Soviet Union to play a cooperative role to end the quagmire in Vietnam—a war that had seriously exhausted the US economy and society.

With the 1972 visit to China, Nixon and Kissinger initiated a shift from an ideology-led containment policy paradigm to a pragmatism-led engagement policy paradigm. US policy toward China has since remained within the engagement paradigm, although there have been occasional subtle swings. Political interaction among the various interest groups has been one cause for these swings.

Another factor has been the existence of two schools within the US policymaking community, including government officials, namely, the “Kissinger school” and the “Marshall school.” Interaction between these two schools, with different approaches to China, has played a critical role in shaping US policy toward China. The two groups are named after legendary foreign and security policy “gurus,” the first being Henry Kissinger, national security advisor in the Nixon administration and secretary of the state in the Gerald Ford administration, who has continued to exert an influence on presidents and State Department foreign policy experts to this day. Although he has not held any official positions since the Ford administration, such protégés as Brent Scowcroft—national security advisor for George H.W. Bush—have played important roles in government and academia.

Andrew Marshall, meanwhile, has served as director of the Office of Net Assessment in the Department of the Defense since 1973. He has had considerable influence over secretaries of defense and Pentagon experts over the years, although he is not as well known to the public as Kissinger.

The two schools have different approaches to China, although they share a geopolitical realism and an engagement paradigm.

Comparing the two schools, Kissinger is closer to the “business promotion” orientation of group C, while Marshall is closer to the “containment / confrontation” policy of group A in the Figure 1. For example, the Kissinger school tends to focus on security reassurances and on keeping communication channels open. On the other hand, the Marshall school tends to focus on balancing and hedging in the security domain against China’s military expansion and potential confrontational posture.

Brent Scowcroft summed up the Kissinger school’s view of China as follows:

They [China] depend on our market, and we depend on them to buy bonds so that we can run these big deficits. So there is growing interdependence. . . . If we treat them like an enemy, they will [become an enemy]. We can’t make them a friend. But, I don’t see anything that would lead me to conclude that inevitable conflict/confrontation is out there. [17]

On the other hand, Andrew Marshall himself pointed out that there are two dimensions to Washington’s China policy, engagement and risk hedge:

The hope [of an engagement policy] is that this will lead, ultimately, to a more democratic and normal power. We don’t know that that’s the way it will actually end up, and so we have to hedge against [the possibility of this] not turning out quite so well. [18]

These two schools have shaped the policy directions of the US engagement policy paradigm. For example, in the 1970s the Ford administration gradually and quietly increased its military and intelligence cooperation with China against the Soviet Union. This can be interpreted as a result of interaction between the two schools. Kissinger subsequently tried to promote military and intelligence cooperation with China as a substitute for his unfinished promise, made on his 1972 visit, to normalize relations with China. [19] Normalization talks had stagnated due to domestic opposition among pro-Taiwan members of Congress and the politically weakened Republican administrations, set back by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon.

Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger in the Ford administration agreed with Kissinger’s idea of proceeding with military and intelligence cooperation with a different rationale; he adhered to the idea of using the “China card” against the Soviet Union. As a young researcher at RAND Corporation, Michael Pillsbury wrote a secret “China card” memo to the Pentagon noting that military cooperation with China would induce the Soviet Union to reduce its military forces on the European front in order to deal with Chinese forces along its southern border. [20] Secretary Schlesinger eagerly embraced the China card option, since confrontation with the Soviet Union in Europe was a critical issues for US security policy at the time. Pillsbury had worked under Andrew Marshall at the RAND Corporation before Marshall joined the Pentagon.

During the Cold War era, both schools favored strategic cooperation with China as a realistic hedge against the Soviet Union. After China emerged as a potential geopolitical rival to the United States, however, the two schools sometimes took different positions within the engagement paradigm.

Both schools were represented in the Georg W. Bush administration, as in earlier administrations. Kissinger himself regularly advised President Bush and Vice President Cheney. [21] Bush eventually took a cooperative stance toward China, regarding the country as a partner in the war on terror, despite initially labeling it a strategic competitor. Clearly, the priority for the Bush administration was the fight against terrorism following 9/11.

The Defense Department, though, has quietly started viewing China as a potential challenger to US regional and global hegemony. For example, the DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) 2006 described China, along with Russia, as a country at a strategic crossroads. The report states that “China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time off set traditional US military advantages absent US counter strategies.” [22] At that moment, though, it was not clear whether China had the capability and intention to emerge as a threat to the US hegemony. The report’s wording emphasized a cooperative, engagement rhetoric, noting, “The United States’ goal is for China to continue as an economic partner and emerge as a responsible stakeholder and force for good in the world.” [23] At the same time, there were clear elements of a hedge policy: “Shaping the choices of major and emerging powers requires a balanced approach, one that seeks cooperation but also creates prudent hedges against the possibility that cooperative approaches by themselves may fail to preclude future conflict.” Such ideas suggest Marshall’s influence.

In fact, the principle author of QDR 2006 was then Special Assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Jim Thomas. He later joined the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) as vice president and director of studies. CSBA Founder and President Andrew Krepinevich is regarded as one of the most prominent students of Andrew Marshal. [24] For Thomas, the challenge was how to sustain US military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific over the long term at a time of severe fiscal restraints on military spending. He expected Japan to share the burden of counterbalancing China’s naval strength in the air-sea battle scenario, cooperating within the framework of the Japan-US alliance. [25]

Since the 1970s, two streams within the realist school have influenced US policy toward China. The dynamic interplay between these two groups has been an important element in shaping US strategic thinking toward China.

2. From the G2 Euphoria to the Asia Pivot

There has been a perceptible change in the Obama administration’s policy during the first four years of the president’s tenure. Jeffrey Bader, who served senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, recalls in his memoirs that the Obama administration’s basic stance toward China has not changed, suggesting that the media has depicted the nuanced changes in the Obama administration’s position in an exaggerated manner. [26] Indeed, there has been no shift in the engagement policy paradigm, and in this sense, Bader’s claim is legitimate. But at the same time, there has been a clear change in nuance, from the early cooperative engagement posture built on “strategic reassurances” and expectations of a US-China G2 to the more recent hedging and balancing, marked by such rhetoric as “pivot to Asia” or “rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific” stressing a more fully engaged US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

This change was undoubtedly a reaction to a series of assertive actions and rhetoric of Chinese government officials, especially high ranking officers of the People’s Liberation Army. It is important to take note of how Chinese actions and US perceptions of them have influenced the standing of various China experts within the Obama administration.

Obama initially expected China to emerge as a potential partner in dealing with the many global issues in the international arena, reflecting foreign policy advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s G2 expectations. Brzezinski contributed an article on informal G2 cooperation between the United States and China for global governance to the Financial Times in January 2009. [27]

And in a speech in October 2009, Deputy Secretary of the State James Steinberg proposed a “strategic reassurance policy” toward China:

Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if tacit, bargain. Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China’s “arrival,” as you all have so nicely put it, as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others. Bolstering that bargain must be a priority in the US-China relationship. And strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military, or economic. [28]

Steinberg’s idea is based on expectations that China would take responsibility for solving global political and economic issues if the United States reassured China’s position as a global power. This was the foreign policy tone of the Obama administration in early 2009. The administration felt that the United States alone would be unable to deal with all global issues in the light of the Bush administration’s failed unilateral approach and the heavy burden of engagement in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such naïve expectations of China’s cooperation were, however, quickly betrayed by China’s assertive actions and the harsh rhetoric of PLA officials in 2010. Omens of a negative Chinese reaction toward G2 expectations were China’s uncooperative attitude at the COP15 climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009. The Obama administration expected China, as a potential US partner, to help shape the post–Kyoto Protocol framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Neither the United States nor China were signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, despite being the world’s two largest CO2 emitters. Since China had an influential position over developing countries, which were opposed to the position of the developed countries, US-China cooperation had the potential to produce a general agreement. President Obama believed that China should not be imposed the same level of emission reduction requirements as developed countries, while European countries believed China should. [29] The conference produced some results, thanks to President Obama’s efforts and his persuasive rhetoric. [30] But China’s uncooperative attitude at COP15 was a source of disappointment and worry for administration officials.

In January 2010, moreover, China reacted harshly to the administration’s decision to sell $6.4 billion in military equipment to Taiwan, and it unilaterally suspended all military exchange with the United States. The reaction was stronger than expected, despite the fact that the deal did not include such crucial offensive weapons as F-16 C/D jet fighters. President Obama was also puzzled by the unusually strong reaction to his meeting with the Dalai Lama, an exile from China-controlled Tibet, the following month.

In March, the South Korean Navy’s corvette, ROKS Cheonan, was sunk by a North Korean miniature submarine. To deter further North Korean military aggression, the US and South Korean Navies conducted joint exercises in the Yellow Sea. PLA leaders, including Deputy Chief of Staff General Mao Xiaotian expressed strong opposition to the exercises in the media. [31]

In addition, the PLA Navy’s East Sea Fleet conducted military exercises in the East China Sea, and its missile destroyer and frigate cruised along the high seas between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island near US military bases in July. Meanwhile, tensions rose owing to territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi on July 23 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “the United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” [32] This apparently offended China, which conducted large naval exercises in the South China Sea after the meeting.

A series of events caused a further deterioration in US-China relations. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s scheduled visit to the United States in September was postponed to January 2011. In its annual report to Congress, submitted on August 16 2010, the US Department of Defense noted that the PLA Navy was seeking to enhance its strength in order to gain an upper hand in disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, that China may start work on building its own aircraft carrier within the year, and that despite improving relations with Taiwan, it had not reduced the size of the military force poised against it. In response, on August 18, the Chinese Ministry of Defense criticized the report, saying that it “has no basis in objective fact” and would be “an obstacle to the improvement and development of military relations between the US and China.” [33]

Earlier, the Department of Defense clearly indicated it was advancing a hedging policy against potential Chinese assertions in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, released in February 2010.

The report stated that the two biggest security challenges in East Asia are dealing with North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons development program and addressing the rise of China and its growing global influence. It confirmed its engagement stance by stating that rather than treating China as an enemy requiring “containment,” the “United States welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater global role.”

However, it simultaneously illustrated US intentions to hedge against Chinese military expansion, stating, “Lack of transparency and the nature of China’s military development and decision-making processes raise legitimate questions about its future conduct and intentions within Asia and beyond.” [34]

QDR 2010 specifically warns of the denial of US and allied military access by Chinese forces—as the result of continued modernization—to areas of potential conflict, such as the seas around Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. The report refers to this kind of capability as anti-access/area-denial (A2/ AD): “Anti-access strategies seek to deny outside countries the ability to project power into a region, thereby allowing aggression or other destabilizing actions to be conducted by the anti-access power.” The fear is that “Without dominant U.S. capabilities to project power, the integrity of U.S. alliances and security partnerships could be called into question, reducing U.S. security and influence and increasing the possibility of conflict.” [35]

China’s assertive posture in regional security and stability eventually convinced the Department of Defense, along with many in the State Department, that more hedging is necessary to shape China’s course along a peaceful trajectory. Among the major shapers of this policy course were Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of the State for Asia-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.

In fact, Kurt Campbell was deputy assistant secretary for Asia-Pacific affairs in the Department of Defense in the Bill Clinton administration. The hedging- oriented QDR 2010 was supervised by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who co-founded the think tank, Center for a New American Security (CNAS), with Campbell.

Despite of nuanced differences in wording, both Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have released policy papers and made speeches to the effect that Washington will refocus its security, foreign, and economic policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. The policy shift has been called a “pivot to Asia” or a “rebalancing toward the Asia–Pacific.” The policy direction was reaffirmed with President Obama’s remarks at the Pentagon and the release of new strategic guidelines for US defense policy, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” in January 2012. The report clearly confirmed the priority being given to the US military presence in the Asia- Pacific region despite limited defense resources. [36]

(continued in part 3)


[16] Michael Schaller, “Drinking Your Mao Tai and Having Your Vodka, Too,” in Robert S. Ross and Jian Changbin, eds., Re-examin in g the Cold War: U.S.-China Diplomacy, 1954–197 3 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), Chapter 12, 362–63.

[17] Hiroyuki Akita, “U.S.-China Relations and Management of the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” USJP Occasional Paper 07-01, Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, Harvard University, 2007, 15.

[18] Ibid., 10.

[19] James Mann, About Face , 53–77.

[20] Michael Pillsbury, “US-China Military Ties?” Foreign Policy , Autumn 1975.

[21] Bob Woodward, “State of Denial,” Washington Post , October 1, 2006.

[22] US Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report , February 6, 2006, 29, at http://www.defense.gov/qdr/report/report20060203.pdf (accessed March 24, 2013)

[23] Ibid.

[24] Hiroyuki Akita, Anryu (Silent Stream), (Tokyo: Nikkei Publishing, 2008): 41–42.

[25] Jan Van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, Air Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept , Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010.

[26] Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama and China’s Rise (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 80–82.

[27] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Group of Two that Could Change the World,” Financial Times , January 13, 2009.

[28] James Steinberg, keynote address on “China’s Arrival: The Long March to Global Power” at the Center for a New American Security, September 24, 2009.

[29] Jeffrey Bader, Obama and China’s Rise , p. 62.

[30] Ibid., p. 68.

[31] Elizabeth Bumiller and Edward Wong, “China Warily Eyes U.S.-Korea Drills,” New York Times , July 20, 2010.

[32] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks to the ASEAN Regional Forum,” July 12, 2010, at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/07/194987.htm ( accessed May 26, 2013)

[33] “Chugoku Bei gunjihokoku ni hanpatsu: Kankei hatten no samatage, koryu saikai muzukashiku” (China Criticizes US Military Report as Impediment to Closer Relations: Resumption of Exchange Now Difficult), Nikkei website, August 18, 2010, at http://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXNASGM18038_Y0A810C1FF1000/ (accessed April 1, 2013).

[34] US Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report , February 2010, p. 60, at http://www.defense.gov/qdr/images/QDR_as_of_12Feb10_1000.pdf .

[35] Ibid., p 31.

[36] Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense , January 2012. at http://www.defense.gov/news/defense_strategic_guidance.pdf (accessed May 26, 2013).

Tsuneo Watanabe

  • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation

    Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation