Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Hearing on US-China Relations
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 419
Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

The Future of US-China Relations
Statement by J. Stapleton Roy
Distinguished Scholar, Wilson Center

You can watch the hearing here.

The United States, in my judgment, has a sensible and constructive policy framework for dealing with a rising China. Successful implementation of this policy will require patience and perseverance.

East Asian countries worry about US staying power in the region. It is undeniable that if US financial difficulties were to force the United States to reduce its regional military presence in East Asia as part of a global cutback, while China continues to rise, regional concern about the destabilizing implications of China's growing wealth and power will increase, perhaps to an alarming degree.

The US rebalancing strategy is, in essence, an effort to demonstrate to our friends and allies in East Asia, and to China, that the United States has both the will and the resources to remain actively engaged in East Asia politically, economically, and militarily as we regain our economic health. This policy makes sense. As a country, the United States has both the resources and the national interests to justify and support the retention of a strong and fully engaged US posture in this vitally important region of the world.

Fortunately, top leaders in both China and the United States have concluded that unchecked strategic rivalry between the two countries is not in the interest of either. They have set the strategic goal of striking a stable and sustainable balance between competition and cooperation in the US-China relationship.

Accomplishing this will not be easy. The still unanswered question is whether it is possible to establish a stable, conventional military balance throughout the western Pacific region that meets the fundamental security interests of both China and the United States. A major driver of the growing strategic mistrust between China and the United States is the understandable desire of each side to have a military balance that favors its own interests.

This is a natural preference, but it will not contribute to containing strategic rivalry between China and the United States. This is the heart of the strategic problem between the United States and China. We do not know whether a solution can be found, but finding a solution is worth the effort.

In pursuing this goal, however, both China and the United States are confronted with serious contradictions in our positions in the Western Pacific. If we do not manage these contradictions properly, the strategic goal of constraining our strategic rivalry will turn into a vain hope.

In China's case, it must deal with the fundamental contradiction between its commitment to peaceful development and its equally strong commitment to defending China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. If China strays from the path of peaceful development, there will be no hope of achieving the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Adhering to the path of peaceful development is easier said than done, especially since China is embroiled in territorial disputes with six of its neighbors.  As China continues to accumulate wealth and power, Chinese nationalism is pushing the country toward a more assertive posture in handling these territorial disputes, with negative consequences for China’s relations with its neighbors. This is particularly worrisome in the case of Sino-Japanese relations.

An additional aspect of this issue is that domestic influences on China’s foreign policy are becoming stronger, limiting China’s diplomatic flexibility. This has long been a problem in handling China’s relations with Japan, in large measure because domestic attitudes in China towards Japan and historical memories are so strong that Chinese leaders must take care not to let the spearhead of nationalism turn against themselves. Historical revisionism in Japan is also a major contributing factor to the current tensions affecting Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

In the case of the South China Sea, domestic influences on China’s handling of the issue have also become more intense over the last decade. China’s skillful diplomacy in Southeast Asia of a dozen years ago has been undone by China’s more assertive approach to territorial issues in the South China Sea over the last five years.

China’s leaders recognize the problem. They are giving high-level attention to strengthening China’s diplomacy with its neighbors. President Xi Jinping chaired a special conference last October to discuss China’s diplomacy around its periphery. Xi gave the keynote speech at the conference, which was attended by all seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.  Nevertheless, China has still not found a satisfactory way of managing this contradiction. This is contributing to the rise in regional tensions.

In the case of the United States, the current strained relations between the two US allies in Northeast Asia, Japan and the Republic of Korea, represent an important contradiction in the US regional defense posture. It gives rise, for example, to reservations in South Korea about the US desire to have Japan assume greater defense responsibilities in the region.

A second contradiction for the United States is that two US allies, Japan and the Philippines, are locked in territorial disputes with China over uninhabited islands that are of no intrinsic importance to the United States. There is no question in my mind that the United States will stand by our allies if they are subject to aggression, but we do not wish to be dragged into an avoidable  conflict with China. These considerations complicate the US posture in the region and increase the importance of skillful diplomacy to deter provocative actions by any of the parties to the disputes.

For all these reasons, we cannot be complacent in looking to the future. There are troublesome negative aspects in our bilateral relations with China that if not handled correctly could increase regional tensions and damage the interests of both countries. We have not yet been able to stabilize the balance between cooperation and competition in the relationship. Polls suggest that an overwhelming number of Chinese believe, falsely in my view, that US policy is to contain and encircle China in an effort to prevent China’s rise as a great power. There has been a steep rise over the last three years in the number of Chinese who view the United States as an enemy.

In the United States, the sharp increases in China's defense spending beginning in the mid-1990s are feeding concerns that China poses a potential threat to the US position in the Asia Pacific. Until recently, contacts between the two military establishments did not keep pace with other areas of enhanced dialogue, contributing to an unhealthy level of strategic mistrust between the two countries. The current high levels of military-to-military interactions between China and the United States will over time be a useful corrective in this area.

Nevertheless, in my view, conventional diplomacy will not be sufficient to limit and hopefully reverse our strategic rivalry with China and to avoid the historical pattern of confrontation between rising powers and established ones. After all, it is the normal responses of human nature that have led to confrontations throughout history, and we can see the same pattern unfolding in the crisis in Europe over Ukraine and in the rising tensions between China and Japan.

It was unconventional behavior on the part of China and the United States 42 years ago that achieved the breakthrough in Sino-US relations that led to the establishment of US-PRC diplomatic relations. Similarly, it took a leader of Deng Xiaoping's courage and foresight to state 35 years ago that territorial problems between China and Japan too complicated for the current generation to handle should be left for future generations to resolve. By taking that unconventional position, Deng greatly facilitated the positive development of Sino-Japanese relations over the next quarter century. We need to be equally daring in our approach to stabilizing our relations with China.

In conclusion, let me stress that China's economic rise has benefited China's neighbors and the region as a whole. All of China's neighbors have an interest in continuing economic cooperation with it and do not support a containment strategy that would divide the region. Their interest is in responsible Chinese behavior as a major emerging power, not in constraining China's growth. When China, in their eyes, behaves irresponsibly or seems ready to act coercively, they want the assurance provided by the reliable presence of a militarily strong country such as the United States that can offset Chinese growing power.

At the same time, no regional country wants to be forced to choose between China and the United States. If the United States, in regional eyes, seems to be mishandling its relations with China in ways that make China a more nationalistic or dangerous neighbor, confidence in the US regional role decreases. In short, our skill in dealing with China is directly linked to how successful we will be in retaining the confidence of our friends and allies in East Asia.

This is a healthy dynamic. It rewards responsible behavior on the part of both China and the United States. And it creates disincentives for irresponsible behavior. This is important because a central purpose of US policy in East Asia is to have a positive and constructive relationship with China.