It would be easy to think that U.S. policy toward China has gone off the rails. Washington is at odds with Beijing in the East and South China Seas; accusations of cyber espionage are flying across the Pacific; and Beijing is signing big oil and gas deals and talking about shared security concerns with Moscow, even as the United States is trying to coordinate sanctions against Russia for its crisis-inducing behavior in Ukraine.
A number of U.S.—and certainly most published Chinese—analysts place the blame for this deteriorating relationship at the foot of the Obama administration. They wonder why the United States had to levy public charges against specific Chinese individuals for cyber theft of intellectual property (IP). What could possibly be gained except a downward spiral in U.S.–China relations? Yet the question people should be asking is what better options exist for U.S. companies and the White House? The United States has attempted for decades to persuade China to improve its protection of multinationals’ intellectual property rights, and the advent of cyber espionage takes IP theft to a whole new level. If quiet diplomacy and relatively quiet intermittent pressure don’t work, what should be next? Moreover, China certainly has the right to pursue action against U.S. firms or individuals engaged in cyber theft. It has already launched a massive anti-corruption campaign against multinationals; it should appreciate the U.S. need to protect its economic interests as well. While the U.S. move may appear either bold or foolhardy depending on one’s perspective, it was not without reason.
White House critics also claim that the pivot has produced more problems in the Asia Pacific than it has solved. Indeed, the line out of Beijing is that the U.S. rebalance to Asia is responsible for all of the conflicts in the region. Yet the reality is that while U.S. policy has taken on a catchy new name in the pivot, it hasn’t really changed. It is Chinese behavior—and in some cases that of other countries in the region—that has caused new flashpoints to flare. Chinese rhetoric has become more bellicose and its maritime behavior more risky. In just the past few years, Beijing has established an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, redrawn its passport map to include disputed territories, declared new regulations on foreign fishing and survey vessels near Hainan Island, assumed effective control over Scarborough Shoal, and initiated oil exploration activities off the coast of Vietnam, even as it was ostensibly in the midst of discussions with Hanoi for joint development of resources. Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have each played their own role in exacerbating tensions at different points in time, but for those who believe the U.S. pivot was the starting point for the rising tensions, a simple look back at the timeline of events proves otherwise.
Finally, there is a nascent concern that hardball U.S. policies are responsible for the apparent blossoming of Sino-Russian ties: the signing of a massive oil and gas deal, ten years in the making, and discussions between Moscow and Beijing of enhanced security relations. Again, context is important: Russia and China have long partnered in the United Nations Security Council, often adopting policies counter to those advocated by the United States; they already share a common security platform through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and while tensions with the EU may have pushed Russia into a less than financially optimal gas pipeline deal with Beijing, the United States had no real influence on the deal. Moreover, any notion that China supports the U.S. position on Crimea should be put aside; it supports its own middle-of-the road position for its own reasons—it doesn’t like interventions into sovereign territory and has serious economic interests at stake in Ukraine. Thus far, it hasn’t changed its position—even with Russian president Putin’s recent visit—and if it does so, it won’t be as a result of U.S. policy.
To spend a day in Washington is to spend a day meeting with scores of people doing nothing but trying to think of ways to improve the U.S.-China relationship. It hasn’t been easy for the past thirty years, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any easier, despite the best efforts of our committed government servants and their counterparts in Beijing. Each country has its own interests and its own priorities, and for now they are not as aligned as anyone would like. At the very least, however, to find common ground necessitates that we understand the reality of the problems at hand.