SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 70 of 82 « Previous | Next »

U.S.-China Relations and America’s Alliances in Asia

On June 7-8, President Barack Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in southern California. Their “official working visit” followed a year of political transition in both countries, including President Obama’s re-election and Xi Jinping’s ascension to the head of China’s party-state, as well as changes in leadership around the Asia-Pacific region. In advance of the summit, observers looked to the meeting as a less formal interaction in which the two leaders could exchange views, develop a personal rapport, and begin to manage the mix of competition and cooperation that have characterized the U.S.-China relationship. Discussions surrounding the summit reflected larger conversations within the policy community in Washington about the importance of a cooperative and stable U.S.-China relationship for regional and global peace and stability.

In discussing this relationship, American public intellectuals have become fond of referencing Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta to issue warnings about the risk of conflict, and to offer advice on how one can best manage the geopolitical tensions that have historically attended the rise of a new great power.[1] Leaders on both sides, the argument goes, must be acutely aware of the dilemma they face if they are to avoid it.  Reflecting this discourse, as well as their own research into the rise of previous great powers, Chinese scholars and officials have consistently called for a “New Type of Great Power Relationship” (新型大国关系, xinxing daguo guanxi) between Washington and Beijing that avoids the tensions that surrounded past rising powers.[2]

Many of the prescriptions for avoiding conflict call for the two leaders to spend time, energy, and discussion focused on creating “strategic trust” (战略信任, zhanlue xinren) in the bilateral relationship.[3] In his February 2012 address in Washington, President Xi Jinping called for the enhancement of mutual trust as the first of four major principles upon which American and Chinese leaders should base their relationship.[4] In a 2012 Brookings Institution report, Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi argue that “strategic distrust” is rooted in the narrowing gap in power between the U.S. and China; differences in political traditions and values; and insufficient understanding of each other’s policymaking structures and processes.[5] In an effort to build strategic trust, forums for discussion and the enhancement of mutual understanding have multiplied; over sixty formal dialogues between the United States and the People’s Republic of China now occur each year.[6]

Historical analogies are useful; they help leaders define the stakes of an issue, generate policy options for responding, and assess the consequences of those options.[7] But they require careful interpretation. In this case, Washington and Beijing have focused on one aspect of the Thucydides analogy – the “fear” that he identified as the underlying cause of conflict – and have formulated their policy prescriptions with the goal of ameliorating that fear and distrust. In doing so, they have overlooked an equally important lesson: the importance of alliance management.

Thucydides’ own history demonstrates that the proximate cause of the Peloponnesian War lay in the alliance structure and alliance management processes of the Greek city-states. It was, after all, not a direct conflict of interest between Athens and Sparta that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, but a conflict between two of their allies, Corcyra and Corinth. In Sparta’s discussions over the declaration of war against Athens, fear of Athenian power was acknowledged as a reason for caution, not for war. And dialogue between the two sides was hardly absent; the Athenians were present at the Spartan deliberations, and spoke on their own behalf. Despite that, the Spartans eventually voted for war -- because honor required that they not disregard wrongs done to their allies. In the words of Sthenelaidus, Sparta could not “betray her allies to ruin.”[8]

As the United States considers the U.S.-China relationship in the context of its overall foreign policy in Asia, that is a lesson policymakers on both sides would do well to remember. Alliance management in the region is likely to be one of the most significant challenges to the United States’ efforts to maintain stability in Asia. Although bilateral issues such as China’s currency, foreign investment, cybersecurity, and others are non-trivial irritants in the relationship, they have not been the sole drivers of concern about China’s intentions, nor have they been the major causes of regional tension. For the same reason, bilateral dialogue to foster trust will not by itself eliminate the risk of conflict. Alliances play a critical role in fostering either conflict or cooperation.

Increased concern over China’s assertiveness since 2008 or so has been driven – and since 2010, sustained – by China’s behavior toward American allies in the region, particularly in the area of maritime disputes. Incidents that have drawn media attention and generated policy discussion in the United States include China’s behavior in the South China Sea – especially the April 2012 standoff with the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal – and China’s dispute with Japan in the Senkaku/Diaoyu island area. While Alastair Iain Johnston rightly points out that many of the claims about China’s “new assertiveness” are based on selective analysis that overlooks examples of Chinese cooperation, he does characterize Chinese behavior in maritime disputes as more assertive.[9] Even if China’s overall pattern of behavior is not newly assertive, that distinction is not likely to matter much if the assertiveness that does exist is concentrated in behavior that directly and negatively impact the security of American treaty allies and democratic partners.

China’s policy community itself has fostered the perception that China is seeking to change the status quo in the region at the expense of American allies. In the aftermath of the incident at Scarborough Shoal, and during the Senkaku/Diaoyu tensions, for example, Chinese voices argued that the Philippines and Japan had made a mistake in provoking China, and now needed to pay for it by accepting a “new status quo” in the disputed areas – one less favorable to them and more favorable to Chinese interests.[10] Chinese voices also cite America’s alliance behavior and efforts to strengthen its alliances and security partnerships in Asia – including not only arms sales to Taiwan (a perennial target of Chinese criticism), but American affirmation of its treaty obligations to Japan as tensions rose in the Senkaku/Diaoyu area, participation in military exercises with the Philippines, and changes to the U.S. force posture in Asia such as the deployment of Marines to Australia and the stationing of Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore – as detrimental to stability and threatening to China’s security.[11] China’s statements about and behavior toward American allies in the region have done much to convince observers of China’s “new assertiveness,” and to drive the responses of America and its allies.

In a question-and-answer session after the conclusion of the Obama-Xi summit, on Saturday evening, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon framed the Obama-Xi meeting and administration efforts to achieve a constructive relationship with China as key components of the American “rebalancing” effort in Asia.[12] The rebalancing policy, first announced as a “pivot to Asia” in autumn 2011, seeks to redistribute American focus back toward the Asia-Pacific in a way that is commensurate with Asia’s economic and strategic importance to the United States.

Linking the U.S.-China relationship to rebalancing, however, further highlights the dilemma that the United States faces when it comes to alliance management in the context of increased focus on the Asia-Pacific and increased fiscal constraints at home. Despite a web of deepening intra-regional security arrangements,[13] America’s allies and partners in Asia also have significant historical and territorial disputes remaining between them. Since 1945, therefore, the United States’ role in Asia has been not only to dampen security dilemmas between its alliance partners and external powers, but between the various alliance partners themselves.[14]

As part of the rebalancing, the United States is debating how burden-sharing within its various partnerships might be adjusted, and whether some of the alliances might be able to take on increased responsibility for regional and global security. Encouraging activism, however, may come with a cost, engendering conflict among American allies themselves and weakening American extended deterrence. It simply may not be tenable for the United States to encourage its allies to take more responsibility for and a more active role in their own security in some areas, but ask them to abide by a status quo that they perceive to be unfavorable in others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the past few months have seen an increase in cooperation among U.S. allies, but also significant levels of friction in the region: tension between South Korea and Japan that led to the cancellation of high-level meetings and the scuppering of an intelligence-sharing agreement; a shooting incident between Taiwan and the Philippines; and a standoff between Japan and China in the waters disputed by the two sides. Conflicts among U.S. allies weaken extended deterrence, hamper the creation of coordinated and de-escalatory responses to regional crises, and inhibit the ability to conduct effective coercive diplomacy where necessary.[15]

To offset this risk, the United States should coordinate closely with each of its allies to anticipate possible developments and ensure that the alliance responds with measures that appropriately balance reassurance and restraint. (Here, the firm but non-escalatory response of the United States and the Republic of Korea to North Korea’s recent belligerent rhetoric provides a positive example.) It should also stress that disputes among American allies must not be allowed to derail cooperation on shared interests, and should support mechanisms that facilitate intra-allied cooperation. Conversely, Chinese leaders should understand that bilateral efforts to build strategic trust with China are a complement to America’s regional alliance commitments, and not a substitute for them.

Less fear and more trust are indeed likely to contribute to a constructive U.S.-China relationship. But the principal foreign policy challenge facing the United States in Asia today is not the creation of strategic trust between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, or between the United States and China. It is the challenge of alliance management: to reassure America’s allies without emboldening them toward unnecessary adventurism, and to use those alliances to deter potential adversaries without provoking them into spirals of conflict. Wise and steady management of U.S. alliances in Asia will make America’s interests and commitments clear, and help shape the level of conflict or cooperation in the U.S.-China relationship for years to come.


[1] For example, see Graham Allison, “Avoiding Thucydides’ Trap,” Financial Times, 22 August 2012; Graham T. Allison, “Obama and Xi Must Think Broadly to Avoid a Common Trap,” New York Times, 6 June 2013.  For one of the few pieces that takes a dim view of this analogy, see Daniel Drezner, “The limits of Thucydides in the 21st Century,” Foreign Policy, 29 May 2013, http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/05/29/the_limits_of_thucydides_in_the_21st_century

[2] Jane Perlez, “Chinese President to Seek New Relationship with U.S. in Talks,” New York Times, 28 May 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/29/world/asia/china-to-seek-more-equal-footing-with-us-in-talks.html; Zhang Tuosheng, “Developing a New Type of Major Power Relationship Between China and the U.S.,” China Focus, 4 January 2013, http://www.chinausfocus.com/print./?id=22800

[3] Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust, Brookings Institution John L. Thornton China Center Monograph No. 4 (March 2012), http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/03/30-us-china-lieberthal

[4] Xi Jinping, “China-U.S. Partnership Creating a Better Tomorrow,” Speech at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and U.S. China Business Council Luncheon, 15 February 2012, for transcript see [习近平, “共创中美合作伙伴关系的美好明天,” Renmin Wang, 16 February 2012, http://politics.people.com.cn/GB/1024/17132096.html.

[5] Lieberthal and Wang, pp. x-xi; on the contribution that different political values and systems make to distrust, see Aaron Friedberg, Contest for Supremacy: China, the America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: Norton, 2012).

[6] Lieberthal and Wang, p. 1.

[7] Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

[8] See Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book I, pp. 35-38.  On the role of alliances in international conflict, see Thomas Christensen and Jack Snyder, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity,” International Organization, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Spring 1990), pp. 137-68.

[9] Alastair Iain Johnston, “How New and Assertive is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security, Vol. 37, No. 4 (2013), pp. 7-48. 

[10] M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Island Strategy: Redefine the Status Quo,” The Diplomat, 1 November 2012, http://thediplomat.com/china-power/chinas-island-strategy-redefine-the-status-quo/

[11] He Yafei, “The Trust Deficit,” Foreign Policy, 13 May 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/13/how_china_sees_the_us_pivot_to_asia;

[12] The White House, “Press Briefing by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon,” 8 June 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/08/press-briefing-national-security-advisor-tom-donilon

[13] Center for a New American Security, The Emerging Asia Power Web: The Rise of Bilateral Intra-Asian Security Ties, June 2013. 

[14] Victor D. Cha, “Powerplay: Origins of the U.S. Alliance System in Asia,” International Security, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009-10), pp. 158-196.

[15] Thomas J. Christensen, Worse Than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and the Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 70