With President Obama’s departure today from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing, an examination of America’s current policy towards China is in order. Foreign policy is most often defined in terms of national interest, and in the case of China, America’s primary interest at the moment is perhaps our most fundamental — maintaining our place in the modern, post-WWII international system which we played a major part in constructing, a system which has allowed us to maintain a position as the world’s foremost political and economic power. In the context of a rising China, then, the question must be addressed: Does China pose a threat to America’s role at the top of this prevailing order, or to the predominance of the order itself? And if it doesn’t at the moment, will it do so in the future?
Few would go as far as to offer a wholehearted “yes” to either of these questions, besides those with a clear bias on the issue. However, language used by some American politicians and prominent thinkers certainly suggests a worrying conception of Chinese strategy, both on a regional and global level. John McCain suggested earlier this year that China poses a “rising threat or challenge to peace and security in Asia because of the profound belief in the Chinese leadership that China must, and will, regain the dominant role that they had for a couple of thousand years in Asia.” This idea relies on a conception of China pursuing power for its own sake, a premise that seems to be belied by both the scholarly understanding of China’s motives and its largely consistent and measured policy towards Taiwan — one that has seen a military build-up but little desire for actual conflict.
Two weeks ago, McCain’s statement was likely of little concern to many, seen as the words of a politician close to retirement and soon to fade away. With the victory of McCain’s party in both houses of Congress, however, it is certainly possible that McCain and other hawkish figures in the Republican party will come to play a greater role in determining U.S. policy towards China. Simultaneously, the Democrats’ midterm losses seem likely to play a role in changing the dynamic between President Obama and Xi Jinping from one of equals to one of a rising star and a falling lame duck, which may dampen any enthusiasm on the part of Beijing to pursue any real breakthroughs with the U.S. in this current round of talks.
On the American side of things, President Obama seemed to take a fairly moderate position at the summit, especially with regards to his position on China’s laundry list of human rights abuses. In his remarks on Monday during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, the president stated that America’s “primary message has been to make sure violence is avoided…We don’t expect China to follow the American model in every instance. But we’re going to continue to have concerns about human rights.” Although these comments will no doubt be seized upon by the right wing in the U.S. as yet another opportunity to paint the president as not acting firmly enough in the face of human rights violations committed by the Chinese, they are exactly the type of moderate words that are needed at the moment.
As much as we would like for it to be the case, the sad truth is that the U.S. does not have the moral capital at the moment to call out China with any serious force for its human-rights violations. After 10+ years of war, a largely unsuccessful attempt at state-building in Iraq, and an on-going war on terror marred by various allegations of abuses over the past decade and a half, it is clear that the U.S. has squandered much of the moral capital and worldwide sympathy that it gained in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Furthermore, given that the U.S. has continued to have normalized and even warm relations with countries and leaders who have been guilty of far worse abuses of human and civil rights, there is no need to unnecessarily antagonize the Chinese.
A far better strategy than hawkish statements and saber-rattling in the Pacific would be to act in ways that reinforce the notion of the U.S. as the world’s foremost humanitarian nation, and to minimize to the greatest extent possible specific incidents which might harm that reputation. This means fewer full-scale, drawn-out wars like the one we were supposed to have just finished in Iraq, and more Mount Sinjars. In the immediate wake of that spectacular mountaintop rescue, it seemed as if the Obama administration had adopted such a strategy. However, the pattern of increasing escalation of hostilities against ISIS in ways that go beyond just pure humanitarian objectives—emphasized by the president’s decision last week to send an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq—has shown that it is a bit premature to perceive a change in policy.
Make no mistake, China’s treatment of its minorities (specifically the Muslim Uighurs in the country’s far northwest), repression of free speech, and various other abuses are worthy of condemnation. Other nations, however, are in a better position from a humanitarian standpoint to pick bones with the Chinese over these issues at the moment.
Jacob Brunell is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in Government with minors in International Relations and Latin American Studies.