US election candidates need to address China
The terrorist attacks in late 2015 in Paris and San Bernardino, California have catapulted national security to the forefront of the Democratic and Republican presidential primary campaigns in the U.S. Terrorism is a serious threat, but the rise of China -- another major challenge and perhaps one with greater long-term consequences for America and for the world -- has been all but ignored.
There has been ritualistic U.S. criticism of China, of course, but even this has been muted. Candidates have called out China for cyberattacks or aggressiveness in the South China Sea, but only to check the box before pivoting to Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the Islamic State group.
Perhaps Beijing is the beneficiary of a surplus of villains. Paradoxically, however, despite Washington's inattention to China so far, the next U.S. administration, whoever wins the election, will almost certainly have a tougher policy toward Beijing at the center of its approach to Asia.
This reflects a growing consensus among foreign policy experts and leaders on both sides of the aisle that experiments with more accommodating approaches have demonstrably failed.
Bark, not bite
Since normalization of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s, U.S. presidents on the campaign trail have usually promised a tougher line on China, only to revert to a more cooperative position during the course of their presidencies. Ronald Reagan reneged on his promise to re-establish official relations with Taiwan. Bill Clinton criticized President George H.W. Bush for engaging China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and ignoring human rights. As president, Clinton did not link trade and human rights, despite promising to do so. And he deepened diplomatic engagement with China.
As a candidate, George W. Bush criticized Clinton for treating China as a strategic partner instead of a strategic competitor. Yet when faced with the Hainan Island incident months after taking office, when a U.S. surveillance aircraft was downed in a collision with a Chinese fighter jet, he ignored hawkish voices and negotiated a compromise. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush largely abandoned efforts to pursue a more competitive approach toward Beijing.
Obama took the opposite course. He ran promising a period of cooperative engagement with Beijing, in which the two powers would work together to resolve global challenges such as climate change. In his first year in office, senior officials floated the concept of "strategic reassurance," which sought to de-emphasize competitive dynamics in the relationship and accentuate areas of shared interest where China and the U.S. could work together.
However, China saw the U.S. as weakened in the wake of the financial crisis and responded assertively. Obama was compelled to shift course in 2010, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton playing an important role in toughening the U.S. line, including by weighing in on the South China disputes and initiating the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. The advent of Xi Jinping as an increasingly forceful Chinese leader accentuated these trends in American policy.
So, what sort of China policy can we expect from the U.S. in 2016?
While the Republican primary campaign has been eventful and unpredictable, the outcome of the general election can be narrowed down to a handful of options. The next president is almost certain to be either Hillary Clinton or an establishment Republican, most probably Marco Rubio or possibly Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. The outsider Republican candidates -- Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson -- are unlikely to prevail in a general election because they are unable to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party.
Although there are significant differences among the candidates on individual issues, both Clinton on the one hand, and Rubio, Bush or any other mainstream Republican on the other, will maintain America's presence in Asia and emphasize the importance of alliances to U.S. strategy in the region. All are likely to see China primarily through the lens of a strategic competition with Beijing for the future of Asia-Pacific.
Clinton, the Democrats' all-but-assured nominee, has the best-known position vis-a-vis Beijing. As secretary of state, she elevated East Asia to a strategic priority and was responsible for pushing back against China in the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as on human rights, trade, cyberattacks and regional security architecture. Although as a candidate she has tactically expressed doubts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as president she would be expected to deepen U.S. engagement in East Asia, strengthen alliances and partnerships, bolster deterrence and expand America's economic ties in the region.
The mainstream Republican candidates likewise will want to increase the U.S. military presence in Asia, ratify the TPP, deepen alliances and strategic partnerships, and respond to China as a competitor. Rubio has introduced more of an ideological dimension, with an emphasis on human rights and democracy in China, but support for the spread of freedom and democracy is a long-standing theme in any U.S. grand strategy toward Asia.
But what if lightning struck and one of the outsiders became president?
Donald Trump has a long track record, dating back to the 1980s, of criticizing Japan, America's key Asian ally. In this campaign, he has pledged to renegotiate the 1960 U.S.-Japan alliance and has also been critical of the U.S. security guarantee to South Korea. This fits into a broader hypernationalist world-view that has little time for the U.S. alliances and harks back to a deep Jacksonian impulse reawakened by American travails in the Middle East. The realities of office might constrain him somewhat, but America's allies have reason to be alarmed about a Trump presidency.
Ted Cruz has said virtually nothing about China or Asia-Pacific more generally, except for opposing the TPP. His foreign policy speeches have focused almost entirely on the Middle East, especially the Islamic State group and Iran. In such remarks, he has spoken out against democracy-promotion and in favor of working with friendly dictatorships, a position that could have implications for his policy toward China and Russia. Again, allies eager for American leadership are unlikely to find much reason for encouragement.
Irrespective of the election outcome, however, the next dilemmas in Asia strategy for any U.S. president will be shaped more by three strategic dilemmas than by anything he or she says on the campaign trail.
The first is how to counter China's revisionist coercion strategy of gradually and incrementally changing the strategic balance in East Asia by creating "facts on the ground" without crossing the threshold of using outright force or aggression.
An international arbitration ruling that China's "nine-dash line" claim to much of the South China Sea is inconsistent with international law, which could come next year, miscalculation by any of the parties in the East or South China seas, or increased militarization of China's facilities in contested territory could trigger a crisis early in the life of a new administration.
The next president may have little choice other than to adopt a more assertive posture, but this will not be easy. America's allies will look for reassurance that this approach is sustainable, particularly in light of pressures on the U.S. defense budget, China's reactions and efforts to pick off regional countries and, above all, unpredictable demands elsewhere.
The second dilemma is, ironically, tied up more with Chinese weakness than Chinese strength: how to handle an increasingly brittle and insecure China.
China has been rising for so long that no recent U.S. president has had to think seriously about instability in the country, at least since 1989. As the work of scholar Minxin Pei has highlighted, however, China's economic downturn and increasing authoritarianism mean the U.S. may find itself dealing with a more unpredictable and volatile country.
The third dilemma is the extent to which the next administration is drawn into doing more in Syria. The harsh truth is that no-fly zones, safe zones and arming Sunni forces would demand significant U.S. military and diplomatic resources. Will the next president send U.S. ground forces? And if so, how will the president reassure East Asian allies that Syria will not consume the administration's first term and crowd out everything else?
Moreover, a major terrorist attack in the U.S. could throw the durability of the rebalance into real doubt.
All of this means the next administration will have to work hard to reassure U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific that it has a clear strategy for the region, backed up by the will and resources to sustain it. Implementing the military, diplomatic and economic elements of the "rebalance" will require toughness, consistency and frequent high-level engagement.
But America's friends and allies need to step up, too. Often they would prefer not to put themselves at the forefront in standing up to China and to avoid spending what they should on defense. Yet they also have a part to play in maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region, and in supporting the regional order that has underpinned more than half a century of peace and prosperity -- and can do so again if properly managed.
Andrew Shearer. a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was formerly Australian national security adviser; Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.