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US must outcompete China for a stable relationship: Daniel Russel

Beijing's aggression comes from perception that America is declining, former official says

Daniel Russel says Chinese behavior became much more troubling after leaders in Beijing begun to believe that the U.S. is getting weaker. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Institute of Peace)

WASHINGTON -- The secret visit of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Beijing on July 9-11, 1971, kicked off an American policy of engagement with China. Fifty years later, with China on track to overtake the U.S. economy as early as 2028, bilateral relations are at a crossroad.

In an interview with Nikkei, Daniel Russel, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration, said the nature of the relationship is changing, and it would be wrong to assume that Washington would return to the "good old days," supporting China's growth while making an effort to avoid friction and confrontation.

But Russel, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, also stressed that aiming for regime change in Beijing is unrealistic and unwise, and would be in line with the "catastrophic" failures of attempted regime changes in the Middle East.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow: 

Q: Since Kissinger began an engagement policy with China in the 1970s, the U.S.-China relationship has been relatively stable. The U.S. has invited China into the international system. Looking back, how do you evaluate the pros and cons of this policy?

A: If we took a step back and looked broadly at the historical record, we see that the United States deliberately chose a policy of engaging China and supporting its development, first back in 1972 under President Richard Nixon, where this was part of the strategy for containment of the Soviet Union, but then again in the '90s, when Bill Clinton was president, after the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a second policy of engaging China that led up to the entry of China into the WTO.

From the Clinton era on, America's policy toward China was based on the view that a stable China, a prospering China, would serve the best interests of the United States, in part because a weak China, or an insecure China, would likely pose a lot of risks to U.S. interests and to our allies.

I've never heard a persuasive argument that it would have been better to do something different than engagement, at those junctures. The United States made a common-sense decision, to try to engage China and to shape its behavior, to integrate China and to give it a stake in the international system, that the United States had largely designed.

And, while people hoped for political liberalization, I don't think that political liberalization was the reason that the U.S. government and other governments took this approach, because what was the alternative?

Who is going to argue that an effort to isolate China and to contain China, or to destabilize China would have been a better strategy? It would have been a recipe for disaster.

Today, there is a kind of new conventional wisdom that is based on the view that cooperation with China is impossible, that engagement with China is a failure.

If you look at the historical record, that's just not defensible, that's not true. 

But that doesn't mean that we can go back to the "good old days" where we tried to support China's growth, where we made an effort to avoid friction and confrontation.

There are two reasons for this.

In the past, as long as there was a large disparity, a gap, in military power and economic power between the two countries, the relationship was reasonably stable. But China has become much more economically successful and much more militarily and technologically capable. China is now close to being a peer power to the United States, which it never was.

Secondly, in the Xi Jinping era -- which now is about almost nine years -- China's leadership has become more assertive, more ideological, and more brazen, more overt, in challenging global norms and challenging U.S. leadership. We've seen bullying behavior intensify by China. 

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in September 2015.   © Reuters

Q: What were negotiations with China like in the years of President Barack Obama?

A: We had two very different experiences with the Chinese. On the South China Sea, Obama had very direct, very blunt, discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly, from 2013 and the Sunnylands meeting on, each time more forcefully warned Xi that China's island building, its reclamation, its activities, were creating risk, and that the United States had a responsibility to the defense of the Philippines and more broadly had a strong commitment to freedom of navigation, and could not accept efforts by China to claim the so-called nine-dashed line, or to develop outposts in international waters, and that this was damaging the U.S.-China relationship.

Finally, in the meeting in 2015, Xi made an assurance, and he made a public assurance as well, that China would not militarize the outposts that it built.

But, in that case, China did not ultimately honor that commitment, and the problematic behavior continued. And it had a very damaging effect on U.S. relations with China.

The issue of cyber theft, and particularly the Chinese government's sponsorship of cyber-enabled theft of American intellectual property from companies, that was a different experience, because for years Obama raised this issue with Xi and warned of consequences, and told Xi that, although China was denying it, the United States knew that China was conducting these attacks, and that they couldn't hide from us.

And finally, the Chinese saw evidence that the United States was preparing to take very severe action in retaliation for this, and the Chinese leadership recognized that they were reaching a dangerous, critical point, and so they sent to Washington the top security official in China, Meng Jianzhu, who came with instructions: don't come home without an agreement.

And he stayed in Washington for several days. He met with the U.S. government team. And you may remember that the U.S. and China issued a four-point agreement. In that agreement, China essentially acknowledged that this cyber theft had occurred, committed to end it, and made some public commitments that they did implement, they did honor.

For several years after that, the U.S. agencies that were monitoring cyberattacks formed a judgment that China had, in fact, scaled back significantly the attacks that at least the government, the state, was supporting.

Q: Based on those lessons, how should the U.S. approach China?

A: My judgment is that Chinese behavior has become much more troubling and dangerous as Chinese leaders have begun to believe that they are as strong as the United States, that they are getting stronger and the U.S. is getting weaker.

I don't think that it is wise or feasible to pursue a strategy of weakening China. Instead, it is necessary and wise to pursue a strategy of strengthening the United States and its allies because, as I pointed out before, when the power differential between the United States and China was wider, the relationship was very stable.

As long as the Chinese perception is that the United States is weak, is on the decline, is withdrawing from its traditional role in shaping and often leading international affairs, in rules-setting and so on, and has abandoned the sort of moral high ground that gave the United States so much soft power over the decades, China is incentivized to challenge more directly.

If and when the Chinese leaders see more evidence that the United States is demonstrating resilience, is renewing and reinventing itself, that the overall strength of the democratic communities is growing, not shrinking, the Chinese leaders will be much more open to compromise. They will be much more flexible, much more careful, in their behavior.

Chinese leaders are Leninists and Leninists respect strength and have contempt for weakness. 

If the United States, over the course of this year, shows, for example, extraordinary ability to stop the spread of COVID-19, an extraordinary ability to develop vaccines that have 96% to 97% effective rates, demonstrates the ability to manufacture billions of doses and make them available to countries around the world, whereas China, despite its very strict and draconian controls, now continues to battle emerging cases of the delta variant, and the Chinese vaccine, Sinovac, which they have distributed around the world, is now revealed to be far less effective in preventing COVID than advertised, that's a way in which the United States is already demonstrating its strength.

It is already outcompeting. We're not hurting China. We're not blocking China. But we are outperforming China.

Q: You talked about the leadership of Xi Jinping himself. How is he different from former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin before him?

A: Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were not democrats; they had no interest in sharing power. But they were also pragmatists, and they were continuing the tradition of Deng Xiaoping, the tradition of "hiding and biding," the tradition of opening and reform.

Xi Jinping represents a more nationalist and a more ideological strain of Leninism. In the Chinese communist system, he is clearly representing those who believe that more control is the right answer, and that political liberalization is a recipe for disaster that China cannot afford.

Q: China hawks in the U.S. have argued that the biggest problem is the Chinese Communist Party and thus the U.S. should seek regime change. 

A: Number one, the people who are advocating regime change are the very people that have experimented with regime change in Iraq, in Libya, and other parts of the world. And, in every case, it has been a catastrophic failure. It's not only that it didn't succeed; it's that it created immense problems in the country and immense problems in the United States.

The United States does not have the power to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, and we know from experience that, even if we were successful, the consequences are unpredictable and immensely dangerous.

We can certainly hope for a change and an improvement. There's much that we can do to bolster civil society within China, and much we can do to help strengthen institutions other than the Chinese Communist Party, in China.

There is a lot of pressure that can be applied externally on the Chinese leadership to limit their behavior. But the notion of the United States reaching in and changing the government in China is unrealistic and unwise.

Q: Is there a similarity between the current situation and the 1970s, in the sense that the Biden administration is now seeking a stable and predictable relationship with Russia so as to focus more on China and try to drive a wedge between China and Russia?

A: The big difference in the 1970s was that Moscow and Beijing were in an intense rivalry and were virtual enemies. Another difference was that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a very significant Cold War, in which we had very little economic or other mutual dependencies and were largely separated into independent blocs, and we were competing around the world for influence, in a very direct way.

Today, Russia is a relatively weak power that is largely focused on making problems, making mischief for the U.S. and for the West.

And the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is very cooperative, very collaborative. And unlike the Soviet Union, China is well integrated into the global system, the multilateral system, and the degree of economic and technological integration between China, the United States, and the rest of the West, is unimaginably large. 

So, I think, in those respects, we're in a very, very different world. And, while it is problematic for the United States when China and Russia cooperate in causing problems for us and our friends, and while there would be some virtue and value in trying to provide incentives for Moscow to moderate its behavior and to refrain from that kind of mischief-making, I don't think there is any prospect for a kind of fundamental alteration of the triangular relationship, the way that Kissinger and Nixon changed it in 1972.

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