Lurking under this discussion is the question of whether “strategic reassurance” dovetails with or challenges China’s own policy priorities. The Obama administration urgently needs to clarify this. The Chinese have lately been calling on international partners and interlocutors to undertake relations based on respect for China’s “core interests.” Beijing identifies these as being, in order of priority: the stability and preservation of the current authoritarian regime; respect for the territorial integrity of China; and the preservation of a positive environment for China’s continued economic and political rise.
If Washington’s “strategic reassurance” means reassuring China that the U.S. will not challenge these priorities, it would mark a major change in U.S. policy, particularly with respect to Beijing’s top priority of preserving the current regime. China scholar Aaron Friedberg has noted that political liberalization has long been an important underlying policy objective of U.S. dealings with China. This is as it should be, given that many of the fundamental tensions in the U.S.-China relationship arise from or are amplified by the differences in the two countries’ domestic political systems. Abandonment of this policy objective would be a serious strategic error.
If “strategic reassurance” was developed primarily with China’s third priority of a positive environment for its continued rise in mind it would still be a mistake. U.S. policy makers have frequently misidentified China’s real priorities and, as a result, developed mismatched policy responses that failed to take full advantage of leverage that could be used to advance U.S. interests. The six-party talks on North Korea are a good example: The U.S. side has operated under a misguided belief that the Chinese cared more about helping achieve American goals than they do, and even worked to allay China’s concerns about the North Korean regime’s stability instead of using these to push China to act more forcefully.