Energizing diplomacy with China

Getty Images

Both the American and Chinese governments strive for illusionary primacy in the Indo Pacific region. Washington had primacy for five decades and in its bureaucratic bones and muscle memory still wants it, whatever it says publicly. Beijing, mistakenly inspired by an alleged international decline of the United States, implements a grand strategy to acquire it. Washington should accept that under foreseeable circumstances, and given the many impressive dimensions of rising Chinese power, it no longer maintains the option of broadly based primacy across Asia. At the same time, the United States certainly has all the national and alliance resources, if adequately deployed, to also prevent Chinese primacy across the Indo Pacific region.

The key to Asian stability during the period ahead is for the United States, with its allies, partners, and friends, to balance Chinese power and at the same time to conduct artful diplomacy. But it is increasingly obvious that neither the United States nor China has developed concepts on how to act in regional and global systems in which no nation has primacy. If both foolishly continue to actively seek primacy in the Indo Pacific region, few consequential compromises will be advanced by Washington or Beijing. With little or no willingness shown by either side to take in account the vital national interests of the other, then the road will open to sustained confrontation and perhaps even, in extreme situations, military conflict.

But such a dangerous outcome is far from inevitable. It can be avoided if the political leaders in both countries display sustained caution within a framework with these objectives. They should reach an understanding over what constitutes their respective vital national interests. This is far more important than resolving bilateral disagreements on trade. They should construct off ramps through diplomacy to avert confrontations over mutually incompatible vital national interests. They should avoid making subsidiary issues tests of their national strength and prestige.

They should compromise on less important matters. They should muzzle inflamed public government rhetoric regarding the policies and actions of the other. They should search for areas to cooperate intensively on global governance, such as the economy, climate change, and nuclear weapons. They should accept that for the moment, the United States and China will have incompatible political systems and fundamentally opposed concepts about the sources of legitimacy and how best to organize societies. They should reject regime change as a policy objective in both word and deed.

As Washington implements policies to deal with the threatening aspects of rising Chinese power, it should also construct a credible path of classic diplomacy with Beijing that would pursue these objectives to ameliorate the growing tension between the two countries. A supreme effort by both sides is necessary to avoid a dire situation of permanent confrontation. Although such extended exchanges at high levels between Washington and Beijing will not end adversarial competition between the two, which will likely last for decades, they could help avoid worst case outcomes.

An energized discourse should be candid and high level. There should be no rows of officials trading sermons at the table in Washington or Beijing. Bureaucracies wish to say today what they said yesterday, and wish to say tomorrow what they said today. During any restricted private exchanges, American and Chinese leaders, not the career officials, should candidly address how the application of the perceived national interests of their countries could be circumscribed to avoid confrontation, in what ways the world order should be rebalanced, and what specific set of mutually accepted international rules and practices the two sides must abide by.

Statesmen have to make choices. They cannot do everything. Time is the most valuable resource of government leaders. It would require them to devote more energy to the undertaking between the United States and China, and less on other responsibilities, whether transatlantic relations or the latest problems in the Middle East. No international challenge is more important for government leaders in Washington and Beijing to address more urgently and intensively than this deteriorating relationship. For the two sides to conduct contentious business as usual with these corroding circumstances is myopic. It is also simply dangerous and morally wrong.

Robert Blackwill is the Henry Kissinger senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. This column is drawn from his newest special report.

Tags America China Diplomacy Economics Government International Security

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video