One of the most enjoyable aspects of Dan Blumenthal and Phillip Swagel’s new book on U.S.-China relations, An Awkward Embrace, is its lack of nuance. The authors—both of whom have served in the U.S. government and now share an affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute—clearly define U.S. interests with regard to China and address directly the opportunities (great) and challenges (greater) that China presents to those interests. They are equally no-nonsense in their prescriptions for U.S. policy, which they see as necessarily proceeding on two separate economic and security tracks (given the relative greater opportunity for successful cooperation on the economic than on the security front). Most important, Blumenthal and Swagel accomplish what many analysts attempt and most fail—to provide a road-map for U.S. policymakers in managing the relationship with China.
Still, after finishing the book, I found myself with a number of additional questions for the authors. I reached out to Dan, and he graciously agreed to respond. What follows is our online exchange.
Liz: You argue that the United States has two key and enduring strategic objectives: preventing the “domination of Asia by a hostile power or coalition,” and “nurturing a prosperous, peaceful and free Asia.” What are the two or three most important steps the United States should take to achieve these goals?
Dan: First, the United States should do what it can to ensure the strength of its allies and the durability of its alliances. Second, the United States should continue to engage in intense diplomacy with China, particularly on clear mutual interests such as structural reform of both economies.
Liz: What does it mean for China to become a “responsible stakeholder?” How well is it doing? How, if at all, should we be accommodating Chinese interests in emerging international regimes, such as cybersecurity?
Dan: Then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick defined what it means to be a responsible stakeholder very well in 2005. He defined it, though, in very American-terms, by outlining what it means to be a 21st century great power in a liberal order created by the West. The tough challenge for China is that great powers in the 21st century have been less respectful of sovereignty, intervening in the affairs of others for humanitarian reasons, or because of state failure that can lead to terror havens or proliferation problems. China seems to be more of a late 19th century or Cold War power—sovereignty is sacrosanct to them. But China is still deciding what kind of power it wants to be. The established powers have been very accommodating of China, pushing for its inclusion in most international institutions. But the fact is that China will not be included in every institution because at times its interests and values diverge from ours.
Liz: Are there issue areas where the United States and other countries need to become responsible stakeholders as well? Can we learn from China?
Dan: In terms of the great powers, America has concerns with how responsible or irresponsible Russia is. In terms of the grand strategic questions—in particular, how to exercise power in the 21st century—the United States is not all that concerned with the behavior of other great powers aside from China. The authoritarian nature of China’s system is what concerns us, as it increases the likelihood that China will be less respectful of international rules than would democracies.
We can learn from the Chinese people. The Chinese people are very entrepreneurial and have pulled themselves out of poverty to accomplish great things. There is much to learn from how the Chinese people achieved that.
Liz: You highlight three domestic issues that drive China’s behavior in the Asia Pacific: nationalism, regime insecurity, and a zero-sum view of international politics. What factors—internal or external—might lead to an evolution in Chinese thinking and behavior?
Dan: The three drivers of China’s competitive behavior—the book points to cooperative behavior as well—are nationalism, regime insecurity and a view of international politics as highly competitive. These domestic drivers are linked to one another. The Party is scared of its own people. It makes sense, then, that it is also suspicious of great powers such as the United States. For example, many Chinese leaders believe, no matter what we say, that we are trying to contain China’s rise. Nationalism is a useful shield against insecurity. When it wants to, the Party can co-opt much of the public by propagandizing that they are still victims of a rapacious and aggressive West led by the United States. Nationalism of this kind can serve as a great distraction from the manifold problems that Party should be insecure about. Finally, CCP politics is a high stakes game, with the losers often humiliated, or destroyed in some way. This brand of politics is externalized, at times, in China’s dealings with the world. The source China’s current views are inherent in the nature of its domestic political system. If the regime was bolstered by a firmer form of legitimacy than one based on its performance or righting of past wrongs, its perceptions of the world would change.
Liz: Do you think conflict between the United States and China is inevitable or is there important common ground yet to be found and exploited?
Dan: Nothing in international relations is pre-ordained. An opportunity for common ground is keep a watchful eye on the battles inside China for its soul—whether it is between private entrepreneurs and the state, or between brave reformists and the security forces. The U.S. has little influence over how that battle unfolds. But it can both keep its powder dry and seek opportunities to work with China, particularly during those times when the liberals and reformers gain the upper hand. We need intense and multidimensional diplomatic engagement with China. All great powers have an interest in persuading China that the world order is flexible enough to accommodate it should it play by the rules. But all powers will also prepare for other outcomes.
Liz: Many Chinese analysts are expressing their concern that the U.S. pivot or rebalancing is emboldening actors in the region, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan, to take provocative actions in territorial disputes. Is there any cause for such concern? What role should the United States play as these conflicts continue to develop?
Dan: I would put Japan in its own category—it is a very strong country with a very strong armed forces. It will stand up for itself. The more dangerous scenarios is what might ensue if Japan loses its confidence in the U.S. alliance. That could be very destabilizing. Japan is in a separate category for another reason: Chinese have been fed a steady diet of anti-Japanese education for quite a long time. In that sense, the Party has boxed itself in; it cannot ever be seen as backing down from Japan. The U.S. should show no split at all between itself and Japan, and it should encourage the Chinese to change its anti-Japan propaganda. If Japan feels secure in the alliance, it will be more constructive when it comes to disputes with China.
Vietnam also has a history of standing up for itself when it comes to China (and the United States), and it will continue to do so. The question for Washington is whether or not we want to influence that process. I think the answer is yes. We have a better chance to avoid conflict if our friends old and new do not feel that they are standing up to China by themselves.
The Philippines, frankly, is too weak to do any harm to China. We have an interest in the Philippines prospering as a democratic ally. We also have an interest in it being able to defend its own territory in accordance with hundreds of years of maritime international law.
All of these countries have experienced the horrors of war and imperialism. They want, as we do, an Asia that can grow and prosper without coercion and intimidation. Our job for the foreseeable future is to provide Asia with the breathing space to continue in that endeavor.