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The China syndrome: Delaying or averting the path to conflict

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In 1997, while I was a Navy captain serving as chief of the Asia-Pacific Division supporting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was a lead negotiator in concluding the first military-to-military agreement with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. This agreement — termed the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, or MMCA — while merely a framework for dialogue, had multidimensional significance: In addition to being the first of what was anticipated to be follow-on agreements, it was the principal “deliverable” of President Clinton’s summit in Washington with his Chinese counterpart, Xiang Zemin, in October 1997.  

Of greater significance, it gave us invaluable insight into the thinking, intentions and aspirations of China’s military, government and people. After numerous negotiating sessions in Beijing and Washington, we reached agreement — and I came away thinking that I much better understood China’s official mindset. I was both right and wrong.

I concluded that, while the Chinese had the long view of history, compared to the West, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) saw itself as, ultimately, the world’s dominant power, that status would not be achieved for many more years — perhaps, a hundred or more, but certainly far in excess of the 23 years since 1997.

I also deduced that China’s priorities were sovereignty, status, development of military power, and economic and social development. All these were apparently founded on a belief that the U.S. was a nation in decline — socially, economically, militarily and politically — while China was on the ascent. These beliefs still hold, but the timelines have greatly accelerated.

During the negotiations with the PRC, the Chinese made clear that they did not/do not view the U.S. as a legitimate Asia-Pacific power, but acknowledged that we are a nation with some legitimate interests in the Pacific.

In my optimism of the time, I believed the more economic, social and educational interaction between our two peoples, the less likelihood of conflict in the future. But China has used this interaction as a means of further building its strength through using our educational institutions to its advantage, and stealing our proprietary data and technology. Additionally, who can argue that we have not let the availability of cheap Chinese labor/manufacturing seduce us?

However, a series of events after the MMCA negotiations provided additional insights to help rebuild a working relationship with the PRC. The Four-Party Talks — with the U.S., China, South Korea and North Korea — were initiated as a means to build on the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea to “freeze” and eventually dismantle the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The Four-Party process had two principal objectives: replace the armistice of 1953 that ended Korean War combat with a peace treaty, and reduce tensions on and around the Korean Peninsula. With a lot of help, I led the U.S. delegation at the tension reduction meetings in Geneva. I found that, remarkably, my Chinese counterparts often sided with us in our efforts to get the North Koreans to agree to steps to reduce tensions. 

Both sets of negotiations showed the power of dialogue in creating inroads, no matter how tiny these openings may appear. While “the China problem” seems to present numerous, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, what better choice do we have than to work to find areas of mutual interest that can form the bases for constructive dialogue? 

Yet, our attempt at dialogue will be specious unless it is undergirded by credibility and bolstered by strong foundations across the full spectrum of capabilities and international engagement. Our military strength must provide unquestionable deterrence — which means it must be relevant, rather than exclusively about numbers of troops or planes or ships — and be able to stand up to scrutiny of analyses comparing our capabilities with those of China. Superior platforms and systems are important, but so are net-centric and fused data and the secure networks that enable their efficacy. 

As evidenced by China’s anti-satellite capability testing, GPS disruption capabilities and other investments in space, we must ensure our ability to operate and prevail in a space asset-denied environment. The U.S. network of partnerships and alliances, in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, must be restored and reinvigorated across the board. Partnerships must be mutually beneficial and appropriate for the geolocation, culture and historical perspective of our partners — in other words, there is no “one size fits all.” We, along with our partners and allies, must assert freedom of navigation for ships and aircraft of all nations.

Trade, tariffs and protection of proprietary information remain lightning rods in the U.S.-China relationship. Again, our first step must be to re-engage our partners and reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and become the collaborative leader of this arrangement.

Similarly, as the Biden administration has been doing, including reentering the Paris Climate Accord, we must continue to rejoin the international community, including by supporting United Nations agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). We cannot influence China, nor dampen its influence, until and unless we appropriately re-establish American participation and leadership in these venues of cooperative effort.

In the process of reengaging China, we must stand by our principles and commitments. Our principles include not backing away from human rights, including those of China’s Uyghurs, and continuing our efforts to ensure that all Americans are free of oppression at home.  

Having spent considerable time working with Taiwan to ensure its ability to defend itself, as defined by our Taiwan Relations Act, I know that we must not leave any doubt that we are committed to Taiwan’s free will in determining its future. China’s brutal repression of Hong Kong cannot be allowed to metastasize into a forceful takeover of Taiwan.

Many commentators predict eventual, inevitable war with China, but I believe we can subvert or divert this. There are many parallel paths that we must pursue. Reengaging in constructive dialogue is but one of these paths. Subjects such as peace, tension reduction and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as trade and protection of intellectual property, dealing with climate change and measures to avoid military confrontation, are among those that we also should pursue. For those who view dialogue as somehow demonstrating weakness, or an exercise in futility, I offer the advice often attributed to Winston Churchill, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Bruce S. Lemkin is a former deputy under secretary of the Air Force for international affairs. A retired U.S. Navy captain and former international negotiator, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow of the American College of National Security Leaders. The views expressed here are his alone.

Tags Biden foreign policy China aggression rising China US-China relations

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