For all the pomp and state-dinner circumstance, Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington generated little actual news. The Chinese “paramount leader” agreed to buy a few airplanes, agreed to talk a bit about human rights (with Chinese characteristics), and got some good press back home. All that our China hands could say was that the trip was a welcome punctuation to the declining relations of the past year.
That the visit was a nonevent is just as well, for the United States could use a little quiet time to rethink its basic approach to China’s rise. The post-Cold War policy of “engagement” has run out of steam. China’s mercantilist trade and financial practices prevent even economic engagement from fulfilling its open-markets promise. Nor has engagement made for a more open Chinese politics. Beijing remains repressive. China’s expanding middle class is more often aggressively nationalistic than globally cosmopolitan.
What really constrains the prospects for engagement is that China’s new wealth is fueling old geopolitical ambitions and new forms of military power. It has long been the assumption of American engagers that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing eventually would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the American-led international system that had secured China’s rapid economic development. Some even went so far as to argue that the Chinese would be fools to spurn the gift of free security, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military.
These predictions have been belied by Chinese behavior over the past 15 years. During that time, Beijing’s foreign policy has been to raise the costs of sustaining the American-led global order, while making common cause with a who’s who of international outcasts from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Robert Mugabe to Hugo Chávez.
More revealing still is the pattern of China’s military modernization. Diplomacy may be transactional, but force planning—the product of long-term commitments and resource allocation decisions—is the heart of strategy. And for the better part of two decades, the People’s Liberation Army has shifted its focus from repelling a Soviet invasion and controlling domestic unrest to the sole problem of defeating U.S. forces in East Asia. This has been a strategic surprise to which no American administration has appropriately responded.
The policy of “engagement” is to blame for this failure. Even to mark the milestones of China’s military progress is regarded by Beijing and its apologists as a threat to “the relationship” and an effort to “contain” China. Following tradition, President Obama repeatedly emphasized at his joint news conference with Hu that the United States has no desire to “contain China’s rise.”
Indeed, the “engagement versus containment” framework imprisons American policy in a false dichotomy. For the fact is that a security strategy based upon military deterrence—i.e., an improved U.S. military posture, revitalized alliances, and strategic partnerships—would not detract from diplomacy, trade, or other forms of exchange with China.
Last week’s summit was Hu Jintao’s swan song. There will be a new paramount leader in less than two years, when Hu is expected to be supplanted by Xi Jinping. When that happens, there should be an American administration ready to articulate a China policy that goes beyond “engagement.”