Early Prospects of the Obama Administration’s Strategic Agenda with China

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

April 21, 2009

The Obama administration has the good fortune to inherit a generally sound Sino-American relationship—and it has moved quickly to reach out to Beijing and push the relationship forward. Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao had their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in London last week, Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton has visited Beijing while her counterpart Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has been to Washington, military-to-military exchanges have been put back on track, President Obama has accepted an invitation to pay an official visit to China in the second half of the year, and both sides are signaling their newfound “cooperative and comprehensive partnership.”

The Inheritance

The Sino-American relationship appears to be the best it has been in the twenty years since the traumatizing Tiananmen events of 1989. Those events shattered not only the bilateral relationship and the cooperation that had been built up in previous years, but also the bipartisan consensus that had been forged in the American body politic. While memories of 1989 still linger in American thinking about China, over the past decade a new, but unspoken, bipartisan consensus in favor of engagement has emerged in Congress and the policy community—while at a bilateral level, substantial cooperation has been achieved across a range of issues. The prior administration demonstrated sustained commitment to the relationship and worked hard to engage the Chinese over an array of bilateral, regional, and global issues.

Robert Zoellick’s concept of China becoming a “responsible international stakeholder” provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Bush engagement policy. Zoellick’s concept was important for three reasons. First, it called on China to assume a greater global role and responsibility for addressing a broad array of global governance issues. Second, it therefore implicitly recognized China as a global actor (if not power) and thus redefined the Sino-American relationship as a global one—not merely as a bilateral or regional Asian relationship. Third, by calling on China to be a global partner of the U.S., it implicitly rejected the view among the hawks in the administration that China needed to be “contained.” The responsible international stakeholder concept gave rise to a deeper institutionalization of U.S.-China relations, as it stimulated the “Senior Dialogue” between Zoellick (later Deputy Secretary Negroponte) and Executive Vice Foreign Minister (now State Councilor) Dai Bingguo. The Senior Dialogue, in turn, spawned a series of regional and functional dialogues on different parts of the world and pressing functional issues.

Despite the intellectual importance and practical policy implications of Zoellick’s formulation, there nonetheless remained a strong contingent (mainly in the Pentagon) who argued that China needed to be “hedged” against, given its military modernization program and uncertainty about its strategic intentions (and lack of transparency of both). The latter manifested itself in strengthening of alliances in Asia, establishing non-allied military partnerships with nations all around China, and unilaterally building up U.S. forces in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and west coast of the continental U.S. Thus, despite the “engagement” element of Zoellick’s vision, there remained an element of strategic hedging in Bush’s China policy.

This is the dualistic policy that the Obama administration inherits. Thus far, the administration has emphasized the first dimension diplomatically (without using the Zoellick terminology), while maintaining the second dimension militarily. Even if the administration wished to reduce the element of strategic hedging, given the size and complexity of the associated budgets, programs, bureaucracies and relationships, it would take several years to substantially alter this component.

Broadening of the Strategic Agenda

Since coming to office, the Obama administration has signaled two priorities with respect to China policy.

First, it has signaled essential continuity with the previous administration, particularly the Zoellick emphasis on global cooperation. As Secretary Clinton put it upon arriving in Beijing on February 22: “The global community is counting on China and the U.S. to collaborate, to pursue security, peace and prosperity for all.” This was also made clear in her speech to the Asia Society on February 13, 2009: “You know very well how important China is and how essential it is that we have a positive, cooperative relationship. It is vital to peace and prosperity, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but worldwide.” Clinton then went on to implicitly undercut the arguments of the “strategic hedgers”: “Now, some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary. To the contrary, we believe that the U.S. and China can benefit from and contribute to each other’s successes. It is in our interest to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities.”

In these key sentences, Secretary Clinton signaled both strong continuity with the Bush emphasis on Sino-American global cooperation as well as possibly deemphasizing the element of strategic hedging. While she did not use the term “responsible international stakeholder” on her visit to Beijing, Clinton did call for a “positive and cooperative relationship” with China, while en route to Beijing she called for a “comprehensive partnership.” During her confirmation hearings she also twice used the formulation “positive and cooperative relationship.” Both sides now characterize the relationship as a “cooperative and comprehensive partnership.” While the terminology is slightly different from the Bush administration, the substance of the policy remains the same: engage China comprehensively and globally.

Second, in Beijing Secretary Clinton unveiled a second priority of the new Obama administration: a broadening of the strategic agenda with China. During her Asia visit, she reiterated several of the longstanding areas of U.S.-China security cooperation—notably North Korea, Iran, counterterrorism, and military-to-military exchanges. But she went further by placing four new issues on the bilateral agenda and identifying them all as strategic issues: climate change, energy security, arms control, and global financial stability.

It is unclear what exactly Clinton and the administration have in mind concerning initiating arms control talks with China, such as those being initiated with Russia. Presumably it means that they are interested in negotiating some kind of strategic arms ceilings with China. If so, the Obama administration is likely to run up against the longstanding Chinese position that the U.S. and Russia must first radically reduce the tens of thousands of warheads in their arsenals below 1000 on each side before China (which has 400+ nuclear warheads in its arsenal, but only several dozen deployed on its 30+ ICBMs) will even consider joining into such negotiations. The U.S. and China did initiate a dialogue on nuclear strategy in April 2008, between the two defense ministries but involving the U.S. Strategic Command and the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Command. This is a dialogue the U.S. has sought for many years. After one meeting it was suspended as part of the broader Chinese suspension of military-to-military exchanges in retaliation for the outgoing Bush administration’s decision to sell $6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in October 2008.

Resuming military-to-military exchanges is a high priority for the Obama administration, and recent bilateral discussions suggest they are slowly resuming. The Obama administration has not yet indicated whether it intends to go through with sending notification to Congress of the Bush administration’s announcement of a $6 billion arms package to Taiwan. For its part, China is hoping that the sale will not go through. More broadly, the modernization of China’s military is another issue on the bilateral strategic agenda The Pentagon’s annual assessment of China’s military power was recently released, and continued to appropriately express concerns about the purposes and trajectories of PLA modernization.

One somewhat new issue that surfaced during Secretary Clinton’s Asia tour was the possibility of closer trilateral U.S.-China-Japan cooperation. While Clinton was in Tokyo, former U.S. official Morton Abramowitz published a prominent article in the Asahi Shimbun.1 Abramowitz has long been a proponent of this idea, but there are a number of others in the U.S. (including Kurt Campbell, Ezra Vogel, Mike Mochizuki, and this author) who believe that the time is ripe for exploring such high-level and working-level trilateral cooperation. This would not have been possible as long as Sino-Japanese relations were troubled, as they were during the Koizumi period. But since the steady improvement of bilateral ties beginning in 2007, and particularly following the successful state visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and signing of the joint communiqué between the two governments in April 2008, the Sino-Japanese leg of the triangle has stabilized considerably.

Thus, the time is ripe for commencing both high-level meetings between the three heads of state both as standalone meetings every 18 months or so, as well as meeting together on the sidelines of regional and international meetings) and the formation of lower-level intergovernmental working groups to tackle issues of common concern. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments have indicated their willingness to commence such a trilateral dialogue—now it is time for the United States to support the initiative.

There is a lengthy potential agenda for such possible collaboration, which might begin with: (1) global financial stabilization (these are, after all, the world’s three largest economies); (2) air pollution and climate change; (3) joint regional maritime security in East Asia; and (4) joint search and rescue exercises. These are important issues that represent opportunities to forge trilateral cooperation. After beginning trilateral cooperation on issues such as these, the collaborative agenda can be broadened to other areas. One potential obstacle to such trilateral cooperation will be South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Australia. These governments will feel excluded, and thus ways must be found to include them in certain ways.

Despite the broadening of the strategic agenda, the Obama administration will continue to work with Beijing on three important “holdover” issues from the Bush administration: Taiwan, North Korea, and Iran.

Concerning Taiwan, Washington is pleased with the trajectory of the issue since Ma Ying-cheou’s election as president in May 2008. Cross-strait relations have substantially stabilized in all spheres. Washington is encouraged by these trends and takes heart from the Bush administration’s successful navigation and management of the dangerous Chen Shui-bian period. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s important speech on New Year’s Eve (December 31, 2008) held open the possibility of adding military confidence and security building measures to the other ongoing areas of exchange. This is to be welcomed.

Of course, the real issue for the U.S. in this area is the continuing buildup of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan (now 1000+), the large conventional force deployments in this theater, and the continuing PLA exercises that simulate attack scenarios against the island. It would be politically astute for Beijing to unilaterally freeze all three as a goodwill gesture to enhance confidence on Taiwan and advance the process of cross-strait rapprochement.2 Doing so would put pressure on Washington to reconsider the rationale for a new arms package for Taipei. The administration will have to make a decision soon concerning this arms package, i.e. whether it sends official notification to Congress of its intent to carry through on the Bush administration’s October 2008 declaration of intent to sell. More broadly, there is growing discussion in Washington of the need to undertake a thorough Taiwan Policy Review given the dramatic and positive changes in cross-strait relations.

Concerning North Korea, the Obama administration has signaled its intent to remain actively engaged in the Six-Party Talks and to pursue the “complete and verifiable” denuclearization of North Korea. If Pyongyang were to do so, Secretary Clinton stated in unambiguous terms in her Asia Society speech, for the first time, that the U.S. would be prepared to “normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula’s longstanding armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meting the energy and other economic needs of the Korean people.” The recent launch of the North Korean long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile was opposed by both Beijing and Washington, but the two governments (and Moscow) are not in agreement concerning possible penalties to apply to Pyongyang.

Finally, with respect to Iran’s nascent nuclear program, the Obama administration has signaled a dual policy. The first track is to continue the UN Security Council Permanent 5+1 (Germany) “sextet” to try and negotiate with Tehran to abandon its secret program and come under the IAEA regime. This track will continue to involve China. The second track is to possibly initiate direct contacts with the government in Tehran to begin the long process of normalization of relations. Obama indicated during the presidential election campaign that his administration would pursue such direct contacts, and he has reiterated this since coming to office. The appointment of seasoned Middle East troubleshooter Dennis Ross as Special Envoy with responsibility of Israel and Palestine, the Persian Gulf, and “Southwest Asia” (codeword for Iran) is a step in this direction. While Tehran has not yet signaled a positive willingness to hold such formal direct contacts with Washington, interestingly Iranian diplomats abroad have been privately contacting their Chinese counterparts to ask how China “prepared” for the rapprochement with the United States in the early 1970s.


Before and during her visit to China, Clinton also signaled an alteration in the modalities of strategic dialogue. Clinton had been somewhat critical of the Strategic Economic Dialogue launched by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson during the Bush administration. Clinton’s position seemed to have more to do with her desire to elevate the State Department’s role in these dialogues. As a result, it was announced at the Obama-Hu meeting in London that a bilateral “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” would be commenced, with the first round scheduled to take place in Washington sometime this summer. On the U.S. side, the new dialogue mechanism will be jointly headed by Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

In pursuing this broader strategic agenda with China, Clinton roiled the human rights community by claiming that human rights concerns “cannot interfere” with the broader strategic agenda. Clinton said in Beijing: “We have to continue to press them but our pressing on these issues (Taiwan, Tibet, human rights) can’t interfere with the global financial crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises—we have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of these.”3 She later backpedaled somewhat to indicate that human rights remained on the agenda and an important issue in the relationship.

In order to push forward the military-military exchange relationship, the Obama administration should seriously consider asking Congress to repeal a number of the more restrictive aspects of the 1994 Defense Authorization Act—which prohibits a wide range of contacts between the U.S. military and People’s Liberation Army. These provisions may have made sense at that time, but they no longer do, and they are an impediment to building communication, trust and confidence between the two military establishments.

Prospects and Outlook

This seems to be the broad outlines of the Obama administration’s strategic and security agenda with China. To be sure, there are many more issues on the U.S. agenda (China has its own agenda)—including the valuation of China’s currency, the trade deficit, nonproliferation, intellectual property rights, human rights, Tibet, Darfur, Myanmar, etc.4 It is a crowded agenda. One challenge for the new administration will be to prioritize the issues on the agenda, although they must all be pursued simultaneously.

In addition to the question of prioritization, there is also the issue of institutionalization. That is, these multiple issues on the bilateral agenda might be better pursued through a combination of (1) establishing institutionalized working groups that communicate regularly and meet periodically, and (2) high-level meetings at the ministerial, vice-presidential and presidential levels. The latter will energize the former. Too often in the past, the two sides have had the latter without the former. Both sides like to claim that there are now more than 60 bilateral dialogue mechanisms in existence, but these are episodic and not regular. The relationship needs, I believe, a deeper degree of institutionalization—through the establishment of bilateral ministerial working groups. On some issues, when warranted, such working groups can involve other nations (e.g., Japan, Russia, or the EU), but the core would be Sino-American. This will perhaps give the appearance of a “G-2,” but in reality China already has such working group mechanisms with the EU and other countries. The virtue of this approach is that it would institutionalize cooperation and would infuse both bureaucracies with positive missions.

The Sino-American relationship enjoys a great opportunity at present. Not only does the Obama administration inherit from the Bush administration a basically well-functioning, positive, and cooperative relationship, but it also inherits a considerable bipartisan consensus in Congress and the public. Moreover, the chronic problem of the Taiwan issue is at low ebb and East Asia is at peace (notwithstanding the North Korean nuclear problem)—thus clearing the path for both sides to focus regional and global cooperation. To be sure, the Taiwan issue remains potent and as long as the arms sales issue hangs over the relationship (thus suspending military exchanges) bilateral relations are not fully normalized. Japan also harbors concerns (that will have to be assuaged) about the emerging Sino-American global partnership, of which it is not a part.

There also remains a good deal of residual strategic suspicion in the U.S. and China’s militaries and national security establishments, including the intelligence and counterintelligence communities. But this strategic suspicion can be ameliorated through resuming military exchanges and forging cooperation in other realms. Cooperation can be contagious. Cooperation forged in the diplomatic and economic realms can positively “spill over” into the national security domain. By signaling to Beijing that the U.S. seeks just such a global, cooperative, and comprehensive partnership, Secretary Clinton has started off in the right way and has set an appropriate tone for the relationship. Her broadening of the strategic agenda is also appropriate, although the Chinese side will be pressed to formulate detailed policy positions in these new areas.

In sum, there is perhaps no more important relationship for the Obama administration to manage, simply because China is now a global actor in so many areas and as such Washington’s and Beijing’s interests and equities coincide. The task at hand will be to cooperate to a maximum extent, minimize competition, and avoid conflict.