Memo to Obama: How to handle China
January 10th, 2013
03:52 PM ET

Memo to Obama: How to handle China

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.

More from CNN: China won't turn other cheek

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.

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Topics: Asia • China • Memo to the President

soundoff (153 Responses)
  1. Joe

    The President has to realize that he can not blame Congress for not raising the debt ceiling. we are a deadbeat nation if we rack up more bill than we can afford to pay. Just like anyother person who does the same thing.
    We must run the nation like every responsible citizen ...within our means!

    January 14, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  2. Nana Bowman

    Destroy Communists in China first.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  3. Gul

    American youth is really disappointing.

    January 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  4. Rafa Tong

    I am from China. I love my country but I hate the communist goverment. China will never become a great country if there's no democracy and freedom, which is also the most important we should learn from other countries.

    January 14, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • Java

      Does not matter black or white, as long as it catches mice. Does not matter American democracy or Chinese/Singaporean democracy, as long as majority of the people are happy.
      Notes: 1. China is no more a communist country. 2. More than 70% of Chinese citizens approve the present government, which is much higher in percentage than American approve Democrat party.

      January 14, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Reply
      • Java

        China is no more a communist country or a dictatorship.

        January 15, 2013 at 12:02 am |
  5. Gul

    America can not be defeated unless SOLD MUSLIMS stop giving cheap oil reserves instead of their poor peoples and RETARDED INDIA stops giving cheap labour force to US. Long Live USA

    January 14, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  6. sly

    Wow, we live in the most murderous country on earth, and we are the most aggressive nation on earth, and folks are criticizing China?

    Most bloggers here are not intelligent enough to know that China has spent the last 50,000 years taking care of their own business, and leaving other nations alone.

    Who the hell gives Americans the high road that 'democracy' is better than 'communism'? That's like a Red Sox fan telling the Yankee fans "Red Sox rule".

    And watching bloggers cry in their panties on here because we owe money to China? Uh ... gee ... wonder how that happened? Did the Chinese secretly invade us one night and infiltrate all our bank buildings and get on the computers and wire US money to CHinese accounts?

    January 14, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • Memo

      Dear Sly:

      The results of communism (and its consequent tyranny) have been far worse than the results of capitalism, which is always attended by democracy.

      January 14, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  7. Memo

    When I first saw the image to this article, I thought the speaker was the bottom of Obama's foot.

    January 14, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  8. ms1234

    Why did all these comments focus on religion when it wasn't in the article? This is a very good article, and I hope the President and his administration read it. Do they read opinions from other people I wonder, or do they think no one else in the world can think and speak and reason? I hope we do reach a status of mutual respect and some sort of common ground with trading and political ties. Thats the second time i've heard of China's worries of political encirclement. Are the bigwigs paying attention or going blindly sailing forward, la di dah. Perhaps the administration needs to go visit gramma for a few days.

    January 15, 2013 at 7:35 am | Reply
  9. Pierre le Chifre

    Empowering subjugated minorities in India by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial and technology aid to India with no return to show for the investment. We here in Haiti continue to monitor the political and cultural turmoil in India as a large percentage of our population are sugar cane slaves from India. As of now, we reiterate our view that Hindu State of India is in a precarious situation and that a geo-political implosion is imminent (if not already in process) and the need of the hour. As you will recall, India was initially broken into pieces by Arabs, Afghanis, Persians, Pakistanis, and lately by Chinese and so on. And rest assured that is not the end. India is mired in poverty and has a suppressive regime with respect to minorities. Substantial aid by the world over the years to India has failed to reverse the downward trends. We can now confirm that India has become unmanageable. If it is not imploded in a controlled manner we are afraid China will chew it up and spit it out.

    January 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
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