As John Kerry takes the reins as secretary of state, no international problem will test his considerable diplomatic skills more than our difficult, complex, and unpredictable relationship with the other global superpower — China.
Just how difficult was made abundantly clear on a recent trip to Beijing for a Harvard-Peking University conference on the future of US-China relations. Many of the Chinese government, academic, and business leaders I met maintain that Beijing desires a better relationship with the United States. They recognize the importance of our symbiotic trade and investment ties and respect our power. But they communicated another unmistakable message — China is intent on building its own power in every dimension — from its still-expanding economy to a new blue-water navy and state-of-the-art ballistic missile force. All this rests on a much more assertive foreign policy backed by nationalist bloggers and a population that believes China’s future as Asia’s strongest power cannot be denied.
How should President Obama and Kerry respond? In his first term, Obama’s most important strategic move on the global chessboard was his so-called “pivot” to Asia — the reassertion of US power in that vital region. As a result, the United States is strengthening its treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia; building up Anderson Air Force base in Guam; and reinforcing defense cooperation with India, Vietnam, and Singapore. Washington has also rightly moved to protect the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, and others from Chinese muscle-flexing in the South China and East China seas.
The strengthening of US alliances in Asia is sensible but amounts to only half a policy. In the second term, Obama and Kerry need to match this resurgence of American military power with an equally ambitious diplomatic strategy to try to engage China more effectively, especially its new leader, Xi Jinping. A policy that rests on the American military alone cannot by itself deliver the continuation of American primacy in Asia. We need to turn to diplomacy to convince an often difficult Chinese government to join in keeping the region prosperous and stable and to avoid the military clash neither of us can afford.
My Harvard colleague, Joseph Nye, suggested wisely in a recent New York Times op-ed that we not seek to contain China but continue the more nuanced Clinton-Bush policy of “integrate but hedge” instead. The hedge is clear — Obama’s smart and welcome drive to reinforce our alliances with the democratic countries of Asia. But he and Kerry now need to try to “integrate” China more deeply into the global trade and commercial system and find a way to make it a more reliable partner on critical issues such as climate change and North Korea.
How might the United States better engage China in 2013? First, Obama and Kerry should commit to more frequent meetings with the new Chinese leadership. American leaders still spend far more time with their European and Middle Eastern counterparts than they do with Chinese leaders. Engaging China is not a panacea but is the only way to begin building greater confidence and trust. Personal ties often matter in international politics. Thus, early meetings with Xi Jinping are imperative.
Second, the United States can look for progress where our interests are congruent with China’s — from ensuring stability in Afghanistan after the drawdown of NATO forces to combating piracy in the Horn of Africa to rebuilding the global economy.
Third, China has resisted working closely with the United States on Iran. Obama and Kerry can’t hope for dramatic progress overnight, but they can signal that greater Chinese cooperation to convince Iran to negotiate seriously on its nuclear program will be an early test of US willingness to help China on issues vital to its own security.
The biographer John Lewis Gaddis described the 20th-century American diplomat George Kennan’s firm belief “that the national security of the United States was inseparable from the balance of power in Europe.” Future biographers of John Kerry might well judge that American security in the 21st century is inseparable from the balance of power in Asia. We will continue to disagree with Chinese leaders on important issues — human rights, intellectual property, cyber threats, and democracy. But, there is no debate that, for the Obama-Kerry team, China must be the great priority for the four years ahead.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.