“Self-Fulfilling Policy”: Why Pick a Fight With China?

Boston University professor Walter Clemens put together a piece for The Diplomat on the increasingly tense relationship between the U.S. and China. Clemens Looks at major diplomatic issues between the two states (the Obama administration’s Asia Pacific priority, U.S. interest in the South China Sea dispute, China’s military modernization campaigns, the Taiwan question, disagreement over international human rights norms, the “space race 2.0“, and trade disputes between the two countries) to suggest that concentration on mutual interests could prevent the major conflict that foreign policies seem to be predicting:

Having achieved little and lost much in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House and Pentagon in 2012 are turning their focus to the Asia-Pacific region. Top U.S. leaders seem to believe that the world’s oldest major democracy must confront the world’s oldest civilization and most populous country. Washington orphans engagement and upgrades containment. A tough line toward China may buttress President Barack Obama’s prospects in this November elections, but could also jeopardize long-term U.S. and world security. Washington risks becoming trapped in a self-fulfilling policy. Expecting and preparing for a confrontation with China, U.S. policies may push China to the very behaviors Washington would like to prevent, and toward a collision that no sane person could welcome.

[…]The fact is that nothing on the table between Washington and Beijing is worth fighting for. Neither trade disputes nor intellectual property rights can be resolved by war. Americans may abhor China’s policies toward dissidents who challenge Communist rule and toward minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. But external pressures won’t alter those policies. Neither China’s posture toward Taiwan nor its treatment of human rights is likely to change because some U.S. Marines are ensconced in Australia. On the contrary, any signs that Washington wants to intimidate the Middle Kingdom will only sharpen nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. A relaxation of tensions with the U.S. would do more for freedom within China than confrontation.[…]

If American and Chinese leaders are smart, they will work to develop complementary interests. Both countries need clean energy, reliable food and water supplies, and better health care systems. Both need to reduce security threats from Northeast Asia (Korea) to South Asia (Pakistan). Neither Washington nor Beijing should act on the self-fulfilling expectation that conflict is inevitable. Each should do what it can to help all parties develop in harmony.

Click through to The Diplomat for Clemens’ full analysis. Also see prior CDT coverage of U.S-China relations.


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