Ten years ago the focus of American foreign policy rested on Asia, though not on Pakistan or Afghanistan. China was on the rise, its juggernaut economy and ruthlessly efficient one-party system posing the first great diplomatic challenge of the 21st century. Two wars and trillions of dollars later, the United States has been depleted by the “war on terror.” Meanwhile, even in difficult economic times, China’s financial strength and political sway continue to grow.
With the death of Osama bin Laden and the possibility of an early drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, some Americans may wish to turn their gaze away from the East, at least for a short time. Yet that is a luxury the nation cannot afford. The emergence of China may be the single most difficult foreign policy predicament the United States has encountered. Addressing that challenge will require sustained attention and a rethinking of the reach of American power.
History has left the United States ill-prepared to deal with modern China. During the cold war, the line dividing Washington from its rival was bright and clear. The Soviet Union was an obvious enemy and was treated as such. In contrast, China today is a unique player on the world stage, both a friend and a rival. From an economic perspective, the United States and China are deeply entwined. Yet their styles of government could not be more different. From its one-party leadership to its one-child policy to its treatment of religious and political dissidents, China’s method of government is at direct odds with the ideals of a free and democratic society.
Yet China is not Egypt, where a stagnant economy and lack of jobs helped bring about the demise of the Mubarak regime. The ascendance of the middle class in China makes it less likely that they will agitate for political change. Meanwhile, Beijing’s internal critics are weak and lack sufficient international support. The time may come when the United States can engage with a democratically elected leader in China, but that day is a long time off—and not inevitable.
In the meantime, there is no guarantee that the United States will continue to hold its position of pre-eminent influence. China already owns over $1 trillion in U.S. debt, and within the next 10 years it is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. Meanwhile, the United States faces historic deficits and will likely have to reduce the size of its military presence in East Asia to rein in costs. The twin engines of U.S. power—trade and military might—may slowly be losing steam.
The U.S. government should continue its current policy of “congagement”—a blend of containment and engagement—by working with China when possible while at the same time seeking to limit its adverse influence. That approach may seem at odds with itself, but at least it avoids conflict. It also seeks to advance the cause of reform, if only by small increments. The key is in choosing the correct moment to challenge China’s policies. Here the Obama administration should not shy from condemning human rights abuses, even if it upsets the Chinese government. At the same time, it should not adopt the alarmist tone of hawks who see confrontation with Beijing as inevitable. The United States may have to accept a smaller role in the Pacific theater in the coming decades. Steering this course will test the art of diplomacy and will ultimately succeed only if the White House receives support from China’s trading partners on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.
China’s rise will also require the U.S. government to reconsider its role in the international community. For some, now is the time for Washington to reassert its old status as Number One. Yet the United States should not, for example, increase its military presence in the Pacific at a time when defense spending is already too high. Nor should it entertain illusions about its staying power on the world stage. The United States may be a superpower for a long time to come, but it is unlikely to be the only one. In addition to China, India and Brazil are gaining economic power and military strength. In the parlance of diplomats, we are moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world.
In the jubilant days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it looked as if the democratic ideals of the West had won the day. Today’s world presents a more complex reality. Even in Cairo and Tunisia, where peaceful protest brought much-needed change, the road to liberty promises to be long. In this environment the United States’ relationship with China serves as an important model for its dealings with the rest of the world. Striking a balance between confrontation and engagement, persuasion and reprimand, at a time when America’s traditional sources of strength are gradually weakening—this is the principal challenge of the still new century.