In a Foreign Policy essay titled “America’s Pacific Century,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlines Washington’s goals in Asia and its approach to U.S.-China relations, including military transparency, economic reform and human rights:
Like so many other countries before it, China has prospered as part of the open and rules-based system that the United States helped to build and works to sustain. And today, China represents one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage. This calls for careful, steady, dynamic stewardship, an approach to China on our part that is grounded in reality, focused on results, and true to our principles and interests.
We all know that fears and misperceptions linger on both sides of the Pacific. Some in our country see China’s progress as a threat to the United States; some in China worry that America seeks to constrain China’s growth. We reject both those views. The fact is that a thriving America is good for China and a thriving China is good for America. We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict. But you cannot build a relationship on aspirations alone. It is up to both of us to more consistently translate positive words into effective cooperation — and, crucially, to meet our respective global responsibilities and obligations. These are the things that will determine whether our relationship delivers on its potential in the years to come. We also have to be honest about our differences. We will address them firmly and decisively as we pursue the urgent work we have to do together. And we have to avoid unrealistic expectations.
At the end of the day, there is no handbook for the evolving U.S.-China relationship. But the stakes are much too high for us to fail. As we proceed, we will continue to embed our relationship with China in a broader regional framework of security alliances, economic networks, and social connections.
In The Diplomat, Minxin Pei writes that while Beijing has many reasons to like the Clinton statement, including the constructive tone used to describe U.S.-China relations, other components of the United States’ Asia strategy may cause concern:
In particular, they will be unnerved by those policy actions – strengthening bilateral security alliances (identified as the most important component of US policy), forging a broad-based military presence (which essentially means further upgrading and expanding US military capabilities in the Western Pacific), and advancing democracy and human rights. In Beijing’s eyes, these measures are part of a subtle framework of strategic containment and can harm Chinese security interests and undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.
Taken together, at the strategic level, the Clinton statement will be seen in Beijing simply as another declaration that the United States is determined to remain as Asia-Pacific’s pre-eminent power. That is probably why the essay is titled ‘America’s Pacific Century.’ The strategic message to every country in the region, particularly China, is crystal clear: don’t count us out and don’t even think about pushing us out.
Seeing itself as the inevitable regional hegemon, and the United States a declining superpower, China can’t be pleased by this bold assertion of American resolve. But in reality, there’s little China can do, either today or in the foreseeable future, to change this strategic reality. The staying power of US pre-eminence in Asia doesn’t solely depend on Washington’s absolute or even relative capabilities (which are declining). It is derived from the United States’ unique role as Asia’s strategic balancer. Elsewhere in the world, the United States may be deeply resented for its power and imperial overreach. In Asia, the American presence is welcomed with open arms. The reason is simple: However unpleasant US hegemony may be, Asians would pick it over Chinese hegemony at any time.
Unless China can do something to transform this geopolitical reality in Asia, it will have no choice but to learn to co-exist and thrive under the shadow of enduring American pre-eminence.
See also CDT coverage of a September New York Times Op-Ed piece by Vice President Joe Biden and related commentary on the implications of China’s rise for the United States.