US Engagement Policy toward China: Realism, Liberalism, and Pragmatism (3)

(continued from part 2)

3. Obama’s Policy Shift and Future Directions

There are three main elements in Washington’s engagement policy paradigm toward China. The first is “cooperative engagement,” which means building and maintaining economic and diplomatic ties with China. The second is “balancing,” which means creating a favorable balance of power surrounding China to affect its behavior. The third is “hedging,” which means maintaining a regional military presence and closer alliance management in case China emerges as a challenger to US hegemony.

Looking at the transformation of the Obama administration’s China policy from its early optimism to cautious engagement, one can say that there has been a shift away from cooperative engagement and toward balancing and hedging. Balancing is found in the pivot/rebalancing, which is an attempt to reassure China’s neighbors that the US military presence will continue. It also tries to shape China’s choices toward benign and cooperative options. A hedging element, meanwhile, is found in Obama’s November 2011 announcement of the deployment of Marine Corps personnel to Darwin, Australia, which is closer to the South China Sea, as well as a series of statements aimed at maintaining closer ties with such regional allies as Japan and South Korea.

A series of assertive Chinese moves apparently stimulated the ”early warning sensors” of US policy planners, who believe in the importance of balancing and hedging against China’s military expansion.

Jeff Bader, who actually conducted the White House’s China policy as a senior director for Asian affairs of the National Security Council, points out that “China’s incautious and gratuitously assertive diplomacy and action had alienated most of its neighbors, notably Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.” Since one element of Obama’s Asia strategy was to ensure that China’s rise contributed to regional stability rather than instability, Obama’s national security team felt that China’s neighbors would welcome a US presence and forward deployment. [37] This description is the rationale behind the US pivot/rebalancing policy of 2010–11.

Aaron Friedberg, who advocates a more hawkish engagement than Bader, made a similar but blunt observation on Obama’s policy change. Friedberg shared Bader’s view that Chinese assertions have caused a great deal of anxiety among Japan, South Korea, the smaller countries of Southeast Asia, and India. “The Obama administration, starting in 2010, really began to change direction. They didn’t abandon engagement, but placed a lot more emphasis on the balancing part of the long-standing US strategy.” [38]

Interestingly, within the Obama administration, such a policy shift was conducted smoothly without any apparent policy conflict or personnel changes. That is characteristics of the engagement policy paradigm. Even among the two different realist factions in the administrations, the three elements of the engagement policy were embedded in their policy calculation.

Initially, the Kissinger school’s traditional stance with a more cooperative, engagement-oriented “security reassurance” policy was spearheaded by Deputy Secretary of the State James Steinberg and the National Security Council’s Senior Director of East Asian Affairs Jeffry Bader. Zbigniew Brzezinski had a strong influence in shaping the ideas held by senior administration officials and President Obama.

After seeing China’s assertive behavior, though, a more cautious engagement policy advocated by the Department of Defense, Secretary of State Clinton, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has come to the fore. Their approach is more within the Marshall school tradition. Again, such a policy change was made smoothly without apparent conflict in the administration. All actors in the Obama administration seemed to understand that shifting emphasis on different elements within the paradigm was necessary and effective in positively shaping China’s choices.

Obama’s policy change has not been as dynamic as in past administrations, which saw open conflict among the main actors—both inside and outside the administration—associated with four separate groups, as outlined in the Figure 1. Obama’s policy shift has simply been a nuanced change within group B.

This suggests that US policy toward China will stay within the engagement policy paradigm despite the turmoil in bilateral relations in 2010. In 2011, military exchange had resumed, and channels of communication remained open. In fact, military exchange between the United States and China have continued even in the face of deteriorating ties with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea in 2011 and 2012.

In May 2012, Beijing hosted the second US-China Strategic Security Dialogue, jointly chaired by US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Zhijun and attended by Acting Under-Secretary of Defense James Miller, Commander-in-Chief Samuel J. Locklear of the US Pacific Command, and Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the PLA. During the same month, Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie visited the United States and met with a number of top US defense officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. Accompanied by personnel from the Chinese Army, Navy, and Air Force, Liang toured military installations nationwide. PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Cai Yingting also visited the United States in late August, even as tensions ran high in the South China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands.

This is proof that Obama’s policy shift does not indicate a reversal from engagement to hostile containment, as contended by some Chinese officials, who criticize America’s Cold War thinking. If any administration truly tried to move toward a containment paradigm, there would be an enormous, negative impact on US businesses and the economy, as well as strong political backlash from Congress and industry.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republican challenger Mitt Romney made no reference to a shift toward a hostility or containment paradigm, although he criticized China as a currency manipulator. This implies that even conservatives do not seek to contain China and rather see China as an economic partner into the foreseeable future.

The future trajectory of US policy toward China’s rise beyond the Obama administration is very difficult to predict. China’s international behavior is an important element that will shape this policy. At the same time, we need to keep an eye on the interaction among not only policy subgroups within US administrations but also domestic political groups. As long as China’s assertiveness and show of strength are well balanced with US economic interests, US policy is likely to stay within the engagement paradigm for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it would be very difficult for China to pursue a modest foreign policy because the new political leadership in China needs to address growing domestic contradictions and frustrations in a rapid growing society. As the result, US policy toward China will no doubt continue to occasionally stress the hedging and hawkish elements within the engagement paradigm. Although US policy toward China appears to swing, the range of policy options are limited. A more drastic paradigm shift in US policy would result only in the light of more dynamic changes in the balance of power between China, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies, on the other.

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Reprinted with permission from The Journal of Contemporary China Studies , Vol. 2, No. 2, published by the Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, Organization for Asian Studies, Waseda University.



[37] Jeff Bader, Obama and China’s Rise , 109.

[38] Yoichi Kato, “Aaron Friedberg Interview.”

Tsuneo Watanabe

  • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation

    Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation