Center for American Progress

Sen. Kerry’s Approach to China as Secretary of State

Sen. Kerry’s Approach to China as Secretary of State

As secretary of state, John Kerry should continue the Obama administration’s clear-eyed, nuanced, and effective approach to relations with China.

President Barack Obama looks to Vice President Joe Biden, left, as he announces his nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), right, as next secretary of state in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, December 21, 2012, in Washington. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama looks to Vice President Joe Biden, left, as he announces his nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), right, as next secretary of state in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, December 21, 2012, in Washington. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Confirmation hearings began today for President Barack Obama’s choice for America’s next secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). While the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations should ask Sen. Kerry about China, he is sure to continue the broad contours of the Obama administration’s clear-eyed, nuanced, and effective approach to the relationship.

While working to expand areas of cooperation with Beijing, the administration has invested in America’s ability to compete and has not hesitated to push back when Chinese conduct harms the interests of the United States or its allies. The Obama administration has walked a careful line between welcoming a prosperous China that adheres to international norms and standing firm when China’s actions do not contribute to peace and stability. In the president’s first term, the United States deepened alliances in Asia and broadened U.S. economic and political engagement in the region, while also communicating with China—both formally and informally—to an unprecedented degree. This is a “cooperate and compete” strategy and follows a risk-management approach.

Some issues in the U.S.-China relationship need immediate attention. Foremost among them is the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which is becoming increasingly tense and dangerous. Sen. Kerry and his team would be wise to devote considerable energy to determining how the United States can help diffuse the situation.

Beyond the immediate issues, a broader aspect of U.S. policy toward China needs attention: The United States and China have no shared vision for what their future bilateral relationship could or should look like. They have not articulated a clear understanding of how they could continue to co-exist in peace a decade or two down the road, and they need to develop a shared, tangible idea for the future of the relationship.

Without a credible alternative, the default prediction for the interaction between a rising power such as China and an established power such as the United States is based on what has come before: inevitable violent conflict. As China grows, the uncertainty about what will come next in the relationship will only increase. With no positive vision, some Americans will picture a much stronger, more aggressive China that the United States will need to confront, and many Chinese will imagine that America will inevitably seek to preserve what they see as its waning hegemony by lashing out even more than it already does. These dark visions could become self-fulfilling prophecies. Because the United States and China do not know where they are headed, they cannot know what policy steps to take now.

Agreeing upon a plausible vision of a positive future today could assist the United States and China in getting beyond their self-fulfilling cycle of distrust. It could empower those in both China and the United States who want to continue a mature working relationship.

Fortunately, both governments recognize the need to better define where the relationship is going. Xi Jinping, the newly anointed head of the Chinese Communist Party and soon-to-be president of China, called for a “new type of great power relationship” when he visited Washington, D.C., this past spring. Soon-to-be departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that “Together the United States and China are trying to do something that is historically unprecedented, to write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”

Many analysts in China are working to give content to Xi’s call for a new type of great-power relationship. Some preliminary ideas center on calling on the United States to halt actions—such as selling arms to Taiwan—that infringe on China’s “core” national security interests. While visions based on dramatic changes to longstanding U.S. policy are not likely to fly in Washington, the Obama administration would do well to offer its own ideas of what could work as a future vision of U.S.-China relations.

The Obama administration’s suggestion could begin with this: A peaceful future is one in which the United States and China, along with the other major powers, are embedded in a web of laws, norms, and institutions. Such an international architecture can draw boundaries around the two nations’ natural rivalry. When each side is sure that the rules are fair and followed, competition need not be hostile. Forums for dispute resolution—such as the one in the World Trade Organization—can channel frictions. And collaboration will be easier when both countries know that they are shouldering a fair share of the burden along with other nations.

The basis for this future vision lies very clearly in the ground that the Obama administration has already laid. Secretary Clinton has articulated many times the importance of a rules-based system and how important China’s support for it is. In her Forrestal lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, she said:

Our aim is to build mature and effective institutions that can mobilize common action and settle disputes peacefully, to work toward rules and norms that help manage relations between peoples, markets, and nations, and establish security arrangements that provide stability and build trust.

She also explained that the international order does not create itself and warned of the dangers of major powers acting as “selective stakeholders,” who pick and choose which rules to follow. She has been clear that a successful China is good for the United States—and vice versa—and that we need a different kind of relationship than established and rising powers have had in the past.

The important additional step that Sen. Kerry could take is to draw more closely the connections between the international system of rules, China’s attitude toward it, and the future of the U.S.-China relationship. He needs to make clear that the bilateral relationship depends on China’s willingness to live by international rules.

Of course, foreign policy realists will not concede that rules and norms could ever shape China’s behavior, but the record—and China’s current internal debate—suggest otherwise. As Sen. Kerry said in a speech at the Center of American Progress in 2010:

Over the last 20 years, China has integrated itself—however imperfectly, it has integrated itself into the international rules and institutions that govern key issues like trade and nonproliferation. But progress, stated frankly, has not been as comprehensive as some people predicted.

Some of the most contentious issues in the current bilateral relationship are those that lack common rules and institutions. In maritime conduct and the areas of cyber espionage and outer space, a single incident has the potential to set off a spiral of confrontation. There are no established procedures and no independent bodies to manage such disputes. There is no shared and broad understanding of what conduct is permissible and what conduct is not. That these areas involve the U.S. and Chinese militaries—where suspicion runs the deepest—makes them especially challenging to navigate. By contrast, while intellectual-property protection and trade restrictions are perennially neuralgic bilateral issues, the World Trade Organization process and international intellectual-property rules at least help to establish the parameters of disagreement.

Chinese leaders should welcome a future where the United States is bound by rules and the international community has a role in keeping both big powers honest. On the other hand, it’s a commonly held view in China that the West uses international rules to keep China from being successful. For this reason, China needs to have a seat at the table when the international community negotiates these rules. This inclusion need not come at the expense of an effective regime. U.S. officials have suggested, for example, that because China was a charter member of the new Financial Stability Board, China refrained from making its usual argument about needing, as a developing country, a separate set of rules under the board’s effort to tighten and harmonize financial regulations. And for all the difficulty of climate negotiations, China has taken a number of positive steps.

When they meet with their Chinese interlocutors, Sen. Kerry and his team should present this concept to China. Whether China eventually accepts it, however, there are some specific steps Sen. Kerry and his team should take to move toward a more rules-based future. These steps include:

  • Making a no-holds-barred campaign for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea to increase U.S. leverage and credibility as a champion of rules
  • Continuing the push for international rules that govern the global commons by engaging China, while at the same time seeking to achieve the most effective, fairest, and most transparent framework possible, which should include:
    • Continuing to advocate for countries involved in disputes in the South China Sea to adopt a Code of Conduct
    • Pushing for international norms and rules of acceptable behavior in cyberspace and greater agreement on the applicability of the laws of armed conflict in cyberspace
    • Continuing to support the negotiation and adoption of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities
    • Working with friends and allies to continue encouraging China to adhere to existing rules

Finally, Sen. Kerry and his team should make the rhetorical case for a positive future vision of the bilateral relationship based on rules. On his first trip to China, therefore, as part of a larger speech that would also include more specific points, Secretary Kerry could make the case along these lines:

Many American leaders, including my able predecessor Hillary Clinton, have described why it is important for China to play by the rules, contribute to peace and stability, and accept the responsibilities that go along with becoming a major power in the modern age. The international system cannot sustain itself. Nations need to make the investments of time, ideas, and funds to help solve global problems.

Some in China are frustrated that the world looks to it for such significant contributions. After all, rising powers of the past didn’t have to concern themselves with climate change, economic crises, or illegal nuclear weapons programs. But our era is different. Global problems demand that we work together on global solutions.

Today I want to talk about another reason why China’s quality of engagement with the international system is so important. It’s not just about being a responsible world citizen that contributes to the collective goods we all share. China’s relationship to the international system will also affect the U.S.-China relationship. When China is a dedicated steward of the international system, the future of the U.S.-China relationship is clear and bright. I can imagine a future, one in which China, as well as the United States, is even stronger and more prosperous than it is today. In this future, the United States and China co-exist in peace because both of us, as well as other major powers, are deeply dedicated to strengthening and abiding by the international architecture of rules, norms, and institutions that help solve global problems.

This architecture draws boundaries around our natural rivalry. It helps us manage areas of competition because we will know that we are playing by the same rules. It eases frictions by providing forums for dispute resolution in areas such as trade and maritime conduct. It helps us collaborate because we will know that we are both shouldering a fair share of the burden with other nations. In short, it will help us to avoid the past fate of rising and established powers—an endeavor we both share.

There are reasons to be optimistic that we can reach this future. The long arc of China’s engagement with the international system is very positive. And while the United States does not claim to have a perfect record in upholding international obligations, it has done more than any nation to construct the current system that today benefits all.

But we have a great deal of work to do to reach this optimistic future. Today China picks and chooses which rules it will follow and which it will not. It contributes very constructively in some areas, but it shirks international standards in others. Sometimes it is willing to join the international community to condemn a country that is flagrantly violating its international obligations. Other times, it is not. It has not always welcomed new sets of rules to help resolve conflicts peacefully. Today China has only one foot on the path toward the future I describe.

Of course, this future that I imagine won’t be free of conflict. We will surely disagree on what some of the rules ought to be and on who broke them at a given time. But these disagreements are par for the course in a relationship between two big, complex powers, and we can handle them.

We do not know what the future will bring. But with hard work, respect for each other, and dedication to common obligations, we can live together in peace for decades to come. As I said when I was a senator: “The story of U.S.-China relations can be the story of defining the 21st century. It can be a story of genuine cooperation, a fierce competition and of spectacular, ground-breaking human accomplishment. We’re going to disagree sometimes, perhaps even strongly. But I am convinced that we can work together, that we shouldn’t simply manage this relationship over the short term, but we should cultivate it and nurture it and believe in it. We have to resist the temptations of those in China and the United States—both places—who seem to relish a relationship that is defined in terms of conflict rather than cooperation. Despite our differences, the two most powerful nations on Earth have to find a common ground. And in the doing so, we can write the history of centuries to come. Thank you.”

This kind of speech will set the right tone for the relationship at the beginning of President Obama’s second term. It will focus both the United States and China on the future, where they need to concentrate. Getting the future vision right could make the challenges of the present easier.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is editing a book on U.S.-China relations.

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow