Should the U.S. Make China Uncomfortable?

At Foreign Policy, Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security argue that softness from Washington over China’s actions in the East and South China Seas risks emboldening Beijing. The United States, they suggest, “needs to stop playing peacemaker and start making China feel uncomfortable.”

U.S. officials have been careful to avoid provoking a China that appears increasingly willing to flex its newfound military muscle. Perhaps that’s why Biden invoked his father’s advice in warning on the eve of his Beijing visit that “the only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended.” But an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous. While preventing inadvertent war in Asia is obviously a worthy goal, it is just as important to discourage China from believing that it can employ economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to settle international disagreements without triggering a serious response. Making the risk of escalation too low will at some point start running counter to U.S. interests.

Why? Because China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it. Beijing’s playbook of tailored coercion relies in part on China’s confidence that it can weather ephemeral international outrage while Washington takes responsibility for ensuring the situation doesn’t get out of control. This means that reducing the likelihood of escalation through high-level strategic dialogues and military-to-military hotlines, however important, is in and of itself insufficient to curb Chinese assertiveness. [Source]

ChinaFile gathered responses from the University of Wisconsin’s Edward Friedman, The Financial Times’ Geoff Dyer, Yonsei University’s John Delury, and Duke University’s Taisu Zhang. Delury and Zhang suggested that Colby and Ratner’s proposal is out of step with views in China and at least one of its neighbors:

Colby and Ratner highlight Vice President Biden’s December visit to Northeast Asia as a case study in the failure of Obama’s strategy of playing “regional peacemaker.” […] But, again, looking through a South Korean prism, their argument does not just fall flat, it trips itself up, failing to realize the complexity of how Asian governments and publics look upon China’s rise and America’s response—as pointed about by Ed and Geoff in their posts.

If Koreans were disappointed about anything in Biden’s visit, it was whether he was tough enough with Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo on Seoul’s anxieties over Japanese, “revisionism” (both historical and constitutional)—not how tough he was with Xi in Beijing. Tellingly, the Biden comment that elicited the biggest reaction on his visit here was when he remarked to the South Korean president to “never bet against America.” Regardless of the Vice President’s intent, many Koreans interpreted this as a veiled threat not to bet on China against the United States—precisely the kind of zero-sum logic that no one here wants to get into. [Source]

The conversation started by Colby and Ratner is timely, important, and complex, but it has thus far seemed to overlook how the entire East China Sea situation is actually viewed in China. There is, in fact, some indication that the ADIZ incident was not viewed as a “success” or “victory” by much of the Chinese political elite, and certainly not by the general online population. […]

More importantly, in virtually no commentary that I have come across has the U.S. response been interpreted as “playing peacemaker.” A much more common interpretation was that the U.S. response was both hostile and forceful—and that there really was nothing that China could do about it. [Source]

More hawkish U.S. policy may emerge following congressional elections this year, however. The Dui Hua Foundation warned last week that “the implications for US-China relations could be serious”:

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats. Assuming Republicans hold onto the House of Representatives, big changes would come to Washington if both chambers were controlled by Republicans. Policy initiatives as they affect US-China relations would be in the crosshairs. Hearings would be held, resolutions put forward.

[…] The two most important committees in the Senate that deal with China are the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. If the current minority leaders of the committees become chairmen, the Armed Services Committee would be chaired by Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be chaired by Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee). Corker is seen as a moderate on China (he opposed imposing sanctions over Beijing’s alleged currency manipulation), but Inhofe is a hawk, most recently introducing a resolution attacking China over its aggressive moves in the South China Sea, sure to be an issue during the coming term. [Source]

Also last week, though, The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Gregory Kulacki argued that Congressional attitudes toward China are not an essentially partisan issue:

The real divide on China in the U.S. Congress is not between left and right or Republican and Democrat, but between those who view the Chinese government as evil and those who maintain some skepticism about that claim. Few in Congress view China as a friend to the United States or an upstanding member of the international community. But those who side with Congressman Wolf see a despotic regime, hated by its own people, that is an inherent threat to peace and prosperity. Those with doubts about that claim see China’s domestic politics as beyond U.S. reach, while the nature of its international behavior allows for mutually beneficial outcomes given the right set of policies, arrived at through routine engagement, negotiation and cooperation. [Source]