China and America: Will It be a Strategic Relationship?

An Awkward Embrace

Dragons and pandas are oft-used metaphors when the West, including the United States, discusses China and its implications on national and international politics. I have lamented about the overuse of dragons in reference to China in the past,[1] though I must admit: I sometimes succumb to the easy trap myself, particularly in the classroom. The use of dragon or panda as a metaphor for China is a simplistic means of conveying meaning toward the country: the former connotes a dangerous, potentially harmful China, perhaps to itself and nation-states around the world; the latter, a soft, cuddly China, otherwise friendly to its home region of Asia and elsewhere. There is nothing particularly wrong with such characterizations of China, other than the fact that they obscure a country and a people much more complex and multi-faceted than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, in their book, An Awkward Embrace, Mr. Dan Blumenthal and Dr. Phillip Swagel have fallen prey to the dragon-panda trap, though without use of either metaphor by name. The book itself is a slim volume, totaling 107 pages, endnotes inclusive. Though not explicitly stated, it appears geared toward U.S. policymakers. The publisher, American Enterprise Institute Press, is of course associated with the think tank of the same name in Washington, DC. So, perhaps, a direct reference to the target audience is not needed.

Where the authors are quite direct, however, is in setting up the framework of their book. They spell out two basic schools of thought in U.S. relations with China: the “Good China” and the “Bad China.” In other words, the schools view China as a panda or a dragon. The Good China, or panda school, focuses on the economic relationship between the United States and China. Specifically, the school views economic linkages as positive incentives which, in essence, will eventually socialize and liberalize China within the international system. China’s government, according to this school, acts to “maximize” its citizens’ welfare. And the United States benefits from a policy promoting trade relations, despite China’s political shortcomings at home. China is good for America!

In contrast, Bad China, or the dragon school, translates China’s tremendous economic growth into real political and military power, both of which could be used to right historical grievances and elevate China’s international position to its self-perceived traditional role as hegemon in Asia. This school, thus, tends to emphasis the security dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship, intimating that China acts as any realist nation would – to maximize its power and prestige in the world. China is a dangerous dragon, not a cute panda. Yet, as the authors emphasize, and correctly so, this panda-dragon is both a friend and a foe, making for difficult policy-making in Washington.

Indeed, both authors have firsthand experiences with the policy-making process in Washington. Blumenthal worked on China and related issues while serving in the Office of the Security of Defense; Swagel served in the Department of Treasury as assistant secretary, advising then-Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson on all aspects of economic policy. Both also have a myriad of other experiences inside the Beltway, from the White House to Congress. So it is with much disappointment that their book, An Awkward Embrace, is so awkwardly short of policy insight on U.S.-China relations.

The first two substantive chapters of the book, written by Blumenthal, focus on the dragon school of thought, chronicling China’s rise as a rival to the United States and assessing China from a security perspective. These two chapters are the most coherent and thoughtful chapters of the entire work. Both are well-sourced, with over sixty endnotes each, and highlight the major strategic challenges in the bilateral relationship. These challenges include the traditional contest between great powers, a competition over prestige, power, and military dominance. This is occurring today between the United States and China, according to Blumenthal.

In addition, Blumenthal touches on the crux of the challenge for U.S. policy, namely, how best to determine China’s strategic intentions. “It is unclear what the PRC intends to do with all of this military power,” he writes (6). But then Blumenthal jumps to the conclusion that the United States “must infer Chinese intentions from capabilities” (6). This is where Blumenthal errs. Strategic assessments should take into account, as fully and completely as possible, both capabilities and intentions. Blumenthal gets a little closer to the mark when he mentions a “key variable” in the bilateral relationship, “how politics within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) unfolds” (15). Though “elite Chinese politics” are still very much a “black box” (16), as Blumenthal rightfully points out, one can only determine China’s strategic intentions by delving into this very black box. Unfortunately, the book does not do so.

Today, we may ascertain more clearly China’s strategic intentions – the black box – by examining its current leader’s statements. Xi Jinping, before and after assuming the presidency of the People’s Republic this past March, made a series of speeches, the themes of which were a “China Dream.” “This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation. And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military,” Mr. Xi said in December 2012 on board a guided-missile destroyer. “To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military.”[2] This is certainly an affirmation of Blumenthal’s assessment in the book; but the book itself reveals very little in the way of China’s strategic intentions, despite evidence in open sources.

Compared with the remainder of the book, however, Blumenthal’s chapters on the security challenge of China to the United States are stellar. His co-author’s chapter assessing the U.S.-China relationship from an economic standpoint falls flat. Dry and poorly sourced, the chapter is written as though China’s economy is like that of any other Western-based economy. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when taking into account the history of the People’s Republic since 1949, not to mention the dynastic history of China which dates back thousands of years.[3] One can not necessarily fault the author, Swagel, who is an economist not a historian, and certainly not an expert on China. Swagel does get it right when he mentions the Faustian bargain the Communist Party has given itself: In order to maintain political legitimacy and power, it must continue growing China’s economy, creating jobs (61).

Overall, though, Swagel’s economic analysis lacks in depth and does not delve into the significant aspects of the relationship. For example, why not discuss who the economic “shot-callers” in China are and their interests and objectives? Unlike Western liberal democracies, there are a plethora of economic actors in China, from the Communist Party leadership to directors of state-owned enterprises to the People’s Liberation Army leadership. Furthermore, Swagel mentions in passing the role of cyberspace in the economic relationship; an entire book could be devoted to this difficult challenge for the United States, whether related to cyber-espionage and cyber-attacks or the use of Chinese cloud computing companies.[4] Similarly, Swagel notes China’s energy policy and investment around the world, including in places like Iran and Sudan, but leaves the reader hanging. What is the strategic significance of China in Africa, or China in Latin America?[5]

Moving beyond an attempted economic assessment of U.S.-China relations, the authors provide three potential scenarios for the bilateral relationship. I always tell my students, undergraduate and graduate, that I am not in the business of forecasting or making predictions. There is indeed something inherently dangerous (and foolish) with regard to making predictions in international politics. Two cases in point during the 1990s, the founder of Stratfor once co-wrote a book about the coming war with Japan; one may contrast that work with a book about the coming conflict with China.[6] Thus, it would be much more useful to ask Blumenthal and Swagel, why only three potential scenarios with regard to future relations between the United States and China? What were the key assumptions used in generating these scenarios, and why were they used?

The authors end their book with a typical set of policy recommendations for U.S. dealings with difficult international actors: carrots, sticks, and hedging. Nothing new, we just need to reward the panda for good behavior, punish the dragon for bad behavior, and support our close Asian allies. The only inference of something novel is in relation to what one could characterize as an East Asian collective defense organization, to “knit a tighter web of regional allies that may assist each other’s self-defense capabilities” (106). This sounds promising, but, sadly, the authors do not elaborate; they move on to the banal discussion of promoting civil society in China.

What matters most in the strategic relationship between the United States and China? A useful starting point is examining the historical relationship that begins well before President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which was referenced by Blumenthal. In fact, one should begin with America’s quasi-colonialism, when merchants, missionaries, and an assortment of other Americans sailed great distances to reach the Orient.[7] This historical legacy might inform the policymaker that the United States has had, since its first dealings with the Chinese, commercial and social interests and objectives in the Far East. To what extent are these still important for U.S. policy toward China in the twenty-first century? Answers to this and similar questions would be better starting points in the formulation of U.S. policy than those offered in An Awkward Embrace.

Strategically, the United States saw no interest in the Far East until acquisition of the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War (1898-1899). Only then did the United States learn the “Problem of Asia,” including the tyranny of distance across the Pacific.[8] The Philippine War, the Pacific Theater during the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all contribute to the strategic history of the United States in East Asia. And China played a role in all, save for the first. What does this mean for U.S. strategy in the Pacific, perhaps more cogently termed the Indo-Asia-Pacific, today?[9]

Prudent U.S. policy toward China in the twenty-first century takes into account the totality of U.S. experiences in East Asia, past and present. The exigencies of policymakers in Washington tend not to offer time to consider history, geography, and strategy. It is easy for Western liberal democracies to forget the past. But it is also dangerous.[10] A simple policy suggestion is to avoid the American proclivity to develop or rely on personal relationships with authoritarian leaders or leadership. This is as true today with respect to China as it was with the Soviet Union in the past.[11] It is the enduring aspects of strategic relationships that count, not the ephemeral.

In the twenty-first century, the United States must continually learn to distinguish fact from fiction in its relationships; both may be useful in the context of China and Asia, as a whole.[12] The international security environment may change, but, then again, it may continue to possess strategic features that were just as significant in the past as they are today.[13] Without question, U.S. policy will respond to China; but will it do so strategically?

China will be China. And China will be the strategic problem for the United States in the twenty-first century.


[1] See, for example, Donovan Chau, “Book Review: Maria Hsia Chang, Return of the Dragon: China’s Wounded Nationalism,” Comparative Strategy 21, no. 3 (2002): 239.

[2] Jeremy Page, “For Xi, a ‘China Dream’ of Military Power,” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2013, A1.

[3] For a quick look at Chinese dynastic history, see the classic John King Fairbank, China: A New History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992), chapters 2-7.

[4] For the Chinese cyber threat to the United States, see Northrup Grumman, “Occupying the Information High Ground: Chinese Capabilities for Computer Network Operations and Cyber Espionage,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Report, Washington, DC, March 7, 2012; and Mandiant, “APT1: Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units,” Report by Mandiant Intelligence Center, Alexandria, VA, February 18, 2013.

[5] For a book about the former topic, see Donovan C. Chau, Meddling Dragon: A History of China in Africa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, forthcoming).

[6] I am referring to George Friedman and Meredith LeBard, The Coming War with Japan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); and Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict with China (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1997).

[7] For a recent popular account, see Eric Jay Dolin, When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail (New York: Liveright, 2012).

[8] For some insightful reading, still relevant today, see Alfred T. Mahan’s three part series: “The Problem of Asia,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine C, no. DXCVIII (March 1900): 536-547; “The Problem of Asia, II,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine C, no. DXCIX (April 1900): 747-759; and “The Problem of Asia, III,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine C, no. DC (May 1900): 929-941.

[9] For a strategic description of the Indo-Asia-Pacific see Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, “Resilience and the Asia-Pacific Rebalance,” Speech before the U.S. Indonesia Society, February 8, 2013, (accessed April 8, 2013).

[10] For the danger, see Harold W. Rood, Kingdoms of the Blind: How the Great Democracies Have Resumed the Follies that So Nearly Cost Them Their Life (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1980).

[11] My late mentor, Dr. William R. Van Cleave, was disgusted when former President George W. Bush said he looked into President Vladimir Putin’s eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” Caroline Wyatt, “Bush and Putin: Best of Friends,” BBC News, June 16, 2001, (accessed April 8, 2013).

[12] Distinguishing myth from reality is a paraphrase of the epigraph in Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[13] For a holistic look, see Donovan C. Chau and Thomas M. Kane, eds., China and International Security: History, Strategy, and 21st Century Policy, 3 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, forthcoming).

Donovan C. Chau is an associate professor of political science, California State University, San Bernardino, USA.

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