Watch GPS special 'Memo to the President' on CNN this Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET
By Minxin Pei, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker '72 professor of government and director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. The views expressed are his own.
Your first administration got off to a shaky start on China, mainly because you assumed that by showing sufficient respect you could gain Beijing’s cooperation. But your overtures, shall we say, yielded disappointing results. The mid-stream adjustment of your China policy has been a great success, in no small part thanks to Beijing’s disastrous policy to assert its territorial claims in a way that alarmed and alienated its neighbors. You have put China decidedly on the defensive in strategic terms.
It may be tempting to press for more geopolitical advantage in your second term. But things are changing in East Asia, and your China policy, a critical anchor of your grand foreign policy strategy, must be fine-tuned as a result.
First, China’s new regime, headed by Xi Jinping, deserves the benefit of the doubt. His predecessor has failed to reciprocate your friendly gestures, but Mr. Xi, based on his more pro-reform rhetoric, appears to be a different leader. Reaching out to him at this point will not only earn some valuable goodwill, but can also temporarily put the brakes on the hidden downward spiral in U.S.-China relations caused by growing mutual suspicions. And your success in handling China since 2010 is not without cost. A wide range of elites in China – both in and outside the government, including liberal intellectuals – are now converging on a dangerous (albeit not wholly unfounded) consensus that American security policy has the intent of containing China. Changing this view is not easy, but avoiding a needless strategic conflict with China is in America’s interest. In the longer term, the United States will best advance its vital national interests by doing whatever it can to promote a democratic transition in China. So as long as Mr. Xi seems to be taking China in a more open direction, it does not hurt to relax the security pressure on China a bit.
This brings up the second point: what can be done to build on the success of your China policy in the last two years.
The most immediate task is to use American influence to defuse the brewing Sino-Japan crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Regardless of the culpability for this crisis, American interest lies in stability in the region. China has already sent a message to Washington urging its intervention. The U.S. can play a mediating role in calming the situation.
Another important task is to switch the focus on the South China Sea. While American policy has effectively isolated China, it is important to remember that the strategic objective is not to embarrass or humiliate China, but to help resolve a potentially dangerous maritime dispute. So the next step to take is to push for a diplomatic solution. Of course, China will have to make its own concessions first. An adjustment in policy here requires exploratory efforts to seek a way out for the claimants in the dispute that will at least avoid ugly escalations in the near term.
Finally, you need to couple your softening stance on the security front with a hardening of positions on human rights. The root cause of U.S.-China strategic competition is the persistence of one-party rule in China. Promoting democracy and human rights serves American long-term interests. The fact is that such a rebalancing of your policy will both defend American interests and advance its values.