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The EditorsJune 20, 2011

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.

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Cliff Kirchmer
11 years ago
In the article it is stated that "the Obama administration should not shy from condemning human rights abuses, even if it upsets the Chinese government."

This may be good advice, but we also need to address our own record of interrogation practices that included torture. There have been calls for a Commission of Inquiry to ascertain the extent to which our interrogation practices have constituted torture.  Some have also called for a Special Prosecutor investigate all violations of federal law related to torture. But the Obama Administration has not supported either of these initiatives.

We should investigate our own past human rights abuses, even if it upsets us.
William Atkinson
11 years ago
Its a long time ago, when Teilhard de Chardin  gave us a great vision of how Asians and in paticular China's peoples think and reason.  Our church and western governments have never been able to capitalize on eastern thought and philosophical processes, resulting in an never ending split in political, religious, and economical void and impass in bringing cultures together.   We love to visit and tour Asian countries, but have never understood their ways and methods.  With western cultures predominantly depending on war, might and power to achieve success in our endeavors; Asians look to time, mind over processes, and an inner focus to gain growth in their cultures and civilizations.  Chinas methods include a deep inner focus and collectivity supported by small communities that grow and develop into vast forces that westerners do not understand and in long run will cause misunderstandings and seperations resulting in our use of force, and power to gain and maintain a superiority and dominance in both political and economical (also religious) instead of merging and blending into a social structure that can grow and develop into the future.  Even above comments by editors show a conceptual attitude of indifference and shock at Asian and Chinas philosophical and cultural differences.  Loving your neighbor as you love yourselves can be very difficult when your neighbors way of life is so different causing you to change your meanings and ways of living inorder to love yourself differently before you attempt to love others.
Nicholas Clifford
11 years ago
A few years ago Susan Shirk published a splendid book called China: the Fragile Superpower. She said she got two reactions to hr title. From Americans came the question, "What do you mean, ‘fragile’?" and from Chinese came, "What do you mean, ‘Superpower’?" I think it’s important to realize that the Chinese leadership is running scared, and despite the government’s enormous wealth, they have good reason to run scared. One reason is the increasing fragility of China’s ecological situation and the ways in which nature has been plundered to serve the need for economic growth (a growth made necessary by job creation for a growing population, as well as a need to dominate much international trade). Another is the increasing prevalence of socio-economic discontent, evident in the growing number of local disturbances, among Chinese as well as "minority" groups like Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, and others. Many of these disturbances come because of the prevalence of corruption, largely among local officials, but with its tentacles reaching up to the national level. Another is the increasing race with other countries (the US included) for energy resources. And of course in 2012 China faces a succession as the present leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao gives way to a new team, probably to be headed by Xi Jinping, now a vice-president, and also recently made vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commssion. Xi, if he comes to power, will do so against some opposition, and without a powerful Party and bureacractic block backing him.

In the face of these and other problems (the Middle East uprisings, for example, which the Party fears might stimulate copycat events in China,) the government has reacted with a new level of repressiveness born out of fear.  Even more than it did a few years ago, it insists that unquestioning obedience to Party leadership is necessary for stability; it has clamped down on what it considers to be unorthodox thought and dangerous dissent (look at the arrests of Ai Weiwei and others); and indeed it has determined that there are certain topics that are so explosive that they may not even be raised, much less discussed.

Dealing with China, as the editorial says, is likely to be the major issue facing US foreign policy at least at present, and a realization of (and indeed perhaps sympathy for) these fears will be necessary if we are to keep relations smooth.  
Perhaps there are other institutions in our current world that are run by small groups of frightened men, claiming virtually absolute power, determined to keep the world at bay by seeking to exercise a centralized control, and preferring not to look at the erosion taking place.
I wouldn’t know, of course

Tom Maher
11 years ago
THe is right that the United States foreign policy toward China is very important and will likely remain so indefinetlely in the future.  What the foriegn policy relationship in the future will be like is very worthy of consideration.

Potentially China could turn into a powerful adversary the way Japan did in the twenty years before World War II almost a hundred years ago.  The United States isolationism of the 1930s and especailly the i1940 presidential election where both parties platform wanted the United States to remain nuertal while WW II rages out of control across the world created the tragic misimpression on the part of the Japanese that he United States was politically and culturally unresolute and unable to powerfully defend itself.  In a tragic but plausable miscalaulation Japan actually launch a major strategic suprise attack hoping to eliimate American air and naval forces in the Pacific  The hope was that surpise use of massive amounts of air craft from aircraft carriers just offshore would destroy American forces in a powerful surprse first strke that would compel the United States to sue for peace. 

This imiscalulation of the relative power and restraint of the United States and its insttuitons would be a tragic error for China for the United States to allow.  Japan's miscalulation must no tb eallowed to happen by China.  Yet this miscalualation was very plausable and a terrilb elong war did occure.  Nuclear weapons were used sixty-five years ago.  They can be used again with hypersonic missile delivery systems.  The reality is the war in the Pacific and Sounthern Asia was long and hard and must not be allowed to be repeated.  

Any miscalulation by China of the relative strength of the United States must be avoided by being militarily well prepared so as not to invite mistaken military calulations that can start another but even more horrible world war using more modern technology including nuclear weapons.

Limiting the Unitred States role in the Pacific is not a solution.  We have no where to hide and we can  not turn back  the clock on advances in military technology.  To appear weak or unresloute as so many nations did before World War II only encourageds agression and war.  The United States  must always remind China by being prepared and engaged  how tragically futile and self-destructive any hint of agression by China would be.  Pacifism, isolationism and appeasement only encourages aggression as World War II history shows.   
Craig McKee
11 years ago
CHINA is NO THREAT! The internal combustion of rampant governmental corruption at ALL levels due to new wealth will bring about what one economic expert (can't find the video clip, sorry) termed the first MIDDLE CLASS REVOLUTION, as the increasing number of consumers find themselves unable to afford global luxury goods and unwilling to purchase home-grown products MADE IN CHINA.
Prediction: Before it's all over, Beijing will come crawling to Rome seeking ways and means to promote "social harmony" in order to preserve the iron-fisted sovereignty of the PARTY.
And the dumb Romans will buy their dog and pony shows...organizing silly colloquia like last week's "STUDY OF LATIN in PEKING" conference at the Salesianum.
Matteo Ricci, S.J. must be chuckling on his cloud...in fluent MANDARIN, of course.
10 years 11 months ago
A well written article.  A good job canvassing the current situation in real time with a balance of logical thought!

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