At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.
One might expect, based on their impeccable Establishment credentials, that they would be in favor of the post-1970s consensus in Washington regarding China: namely, that a stronger China is in America’s interest. But that is not what Blackwill and Tellis argue. Rather, they describe China as the “most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come,” a competitor that must be contained rather than turbo-charged. “Because the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia—and could result in a consequential challenge to American power globally—Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.”
What would this strategy consist of? Among other steps, they argue “Congress should remove sequestration caps and substantially increase the U.S. defense budget… Washington should intensify a consistent U.S. naval and air presence in the South and East China Seas,” and “accelerate the U.S. ballistic-missile defense posture” in the Pacific; the United States should encourage its allies “to develop a coordinated approach to constrict China’s access to all technologies, including dual use”; Washington should “impose costs on China that are in excess of the benefits it receives from its violations in cyberspace … increase U.S. offensive cyber capabilities … continue improving U.S. cyber defenses,” and “pass relevant legislation in Congress, such as the Cyber Information Security Protection Act.”
To be sure, they couple these tough calls for containment policies with a desire for enhanced “U.S.-China discourse,” which “should be more candid, high-level, and private than is current practice.” There is no one who will object to talking to Beijing. But Blackwill and Tellis’s call for actively containing Chinese power—including by an increase in U.S. military spending—is sure to be controversial. There remain many “panda-huggers” in Washington who remain convinced, notwithstanding China’s crude power-flexing in the South China Sea and East China Sea, that it will be content with a “peaceful rise” within an American-dominated geopolitical system. The evidence suggests otherwise, and Blackwill and Tellis have done the valuable service of issuing recommendations that are more in line with how China is actually behaving than how we would like it to behave.