Let's Be Frank

by Robert Sutter
September 18, 2015

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2015 visit to the United States creates a natural opportunity to collect and share the thoughts of some leading Americans on these issues. We launch this “Americans Speak” feature with a frank assessment of relations by Robert Sutter of George Washington University and a longtime contributor to NBR publications and projects.

As an American concerned with longstanding U.S. interests in Asia, I have low expectations that after the fanfare of the summit much will actually change for the better in U.S.-Chinese relations.

There are several sets of increasingly important issues on the U.S. side. A first is China’s military assertiveness, including how the United States can get China to stop taking offensive actions in the East and South China Seas. A second concerns economic policies, including cyber economic espionage, intervention in currency and the Chinese domestic market that disadvantage U.S. companies, and using China’s large foreign exchange reserves and other means to support self-serving Chinese-backed development institutions at odds with those supported by the United States. A third is the repression of Chinese peoples’ political freedom and related human rights.

Xi Jinping’s China sees advantage in undermining U.S. interests with often bold actions in the above areas. This plays well with domestic audiences in China. Usually measured and reticent, Barack Obama has recently complained repeatedly about Chinese actions. As a general practice, President Xi has publicly ignored the complaints, leaving it to underlings to rebuke the U.S. president.

President Obama seems weak, too preoccupied with other issues to take more resolute actions against China’s bold initiatives, which are so often detrimental to U.S. interests. Perhaps the U.S. government’s extraordinary, publicly displayed diplomatic efforts to pressure China on cybersecurity will result in meaningful changes from Xi’s government. But perhaps they won’t if the Chinese judge that the United States still remains reluctant to employ power against China on these and other sensitive matters.

In China, Asia, and elsewhere (including among loyal Democrats like me), the common perception of the United States under President Obama is one of weakness and reluctance to use political, economic, and security power to protect and advance national interests. On the one hand, this reluctance is understandable given the trauma the United States has experienced because of massive unsuccessful assertions of military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet U.S. reluctance won’t change soon, and Xi and his government presumably calculate their actions accordingly as they work incrementally and steadily against U.S. interests in a wide range of areas where China differs strongly from the United States.

Looking out, many American leaders and specialists inside and outside government have put forward proposals for action. Depending who wins the 2016 election, some of them will be adopted. The amount of U.S. attention devoted to China will depend heavily on the extent to which China continues its offensive actions. The bottom line is that few Americans will believe anymore President Xi’s pledges for a “new relationship” with the United States. Those rhetorical calls ring hollow in the face of China’s actions against important U.S. interests for over two years. A growing number of U.S. critics now see President Xi as duplicitous, playing a double game of promising good relations while moving full speed ahead with policies that undermine the United States.