What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

APRIL 29, 2023, 6:00 AM Foregn Policy

By Michael J. Green, the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Paul Haenle, the director of Carnegie China.

As U.S.-China relations transition from an era of engagement to one of strategic competition, some in the Biden and former Trump administrations have claimed to be abandoning four decades of naive American assumptions about Beijing. Past U.S. policy, they say, was based on a futile view that engagement would lead to a democratic and cooperative China. This, however, is not only a misreading of past U.S. policies but also dangerous analytical ground upon which to build a new national security strategy.

The fact is that no administration since that of Richard Nixon has made U.S. security dependent on Chinese democratization. Every administration has combined engagement with strategies to counterbalance China through alliances, trade agreements, and U.S. military power. Throwing out all previous U.S. approaches to China would mean throwing out some of the most important tools the current administration relies on to compete with China. And the Biden administration will not get its China strategy right until it is clear about what has worked in the past.

Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama; Stephen J. Hadley, Peter D. Feaver, William C. Inboden, and Meghan L. O’Sullivan (eds.); Brookings Institution Press, 774 pp., $39, February 2023

Perhaps the most valuable peek inside what previous U.S. administrations really thought is the newly declassified set of transition memoranda prepared by the outgoing George W. Bush administration for the incoming Obama administration in late 2008 and early 2009. Recently declassified by former President Bush and edited by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, the collected analysis of the world as seen by the Bush National Security Council is available to the public from the Brookings Institution Press in Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama. (Note: We both served in the National Security Council during the Bush administration and co-wrote one of the chapters in the book.)

The transition memoranda on China and Asia knock down the assertion that Bush had a naive set of assumptions about China. Even at a time when China was materially weaker than the United States or even Japan, the White House was actively preparing the toolkit that might be needed should China turn in a more aggressive direction. The administration had already seen this possibility with the crisis caused by a Chinese Air Force collision with an EP-3 U.S. surveillance aircraft within the first months of the new Bush team’s arrival. To be sure, there was less urgency to the China challenge than today. In the early 2000s, China still had a smaller economy and navy than Japan, whereas today, the Chinese economy and military power have eclipsed those of Japan and are challenging the United States. Nor were Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao anywhere near as aggressive as current leader Xi Jinping.

But the question of how China would use its growing power was still open to shaping, and not just because China had less material power at the time. Chinese leaders Jiang and Hu did not rebuff Bush’s entreaties on human rights, religious freedom, or trade the way Xi and his officials do today. When Washington urged the release of political dissidents at summits in the early 2000s, Beijing often complied. When Bush spoke to Jiang or Hu about religious freedom, they listened and engaged, even if they did not agree. When the United States called for improvements in enforcing intellectual property rights or transparency about the SARS epidemic, there were small but positive changes. And Bush pulled no punches: He told Jiang and Hu that the United States would pursue a comprehensive, constructive, and candid dialogue, accompanied by regular meetings with the Dalai Lama, engagement with Chinese political dissidents, and frequent public references to the priority the United States gave to its democratic allies and its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act. Chinese leaders would have preferred the more accommodating “strategic partnership” they had pursued with the Clinton administration, but that was no longer on offer.

Bush walks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the G-8 summit in Évian-les-Bains, France, on June 1, 2003.BROOKS KRAFT LLC/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

Instead, the strategic partnerships that mattered to Bush administration were the same ones that form the basis of the Biden administration’s approach to China today. Bush elevated Japan’s standing in U.S. diplomacy to a level it had not enjoyed since the Reagan presidency, with Bush counting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi among his closest international confidants and friends. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, joining Australia, India, Japan, and the United States was launched in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. And the Bush administration went through the painstaking bureaucratic work of clearing obstacles—mainly having to do with nuclear nonproliferation—to a new strategic partnership with India. All of these were part of what Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called “a balance of power that favors freedom.” While the engagement side of U.S. policy is in disrepute today, Bush-era investments in alliances and new strategic partnerships like India have paid off for the Biden administration as it faces a more menacing China.

Economic statecraft backed the geopolitics. Progress with Beijing on China’s predatory trade practices was modest, and the Bush administration and its allies knew that real progress would require the full leverage of the most powerful economies in the world. It was against this backdrop that the administration negotiated bilateral trade agreements with Australia, Singapore, and South Korea and began negotiations on what became the Trans-Pacific Partnership and discussions on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These agreements combined would have brought the weight of almost two-thirds of the world economy to the table in demanding reciprocal agreements from China. Significant actors within the Chinese economy were ready to use that pressure to move away from an economic model dominated by state-owned enterprise to create dynamism that would benefit Chinese consumers and the private sector at home and abroad based on rules shaped by the United States and its major allies.

That obviously did not happen. One reason was the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, which Beijing wrongly interpreted as proof that the West was declining and the East is rising, as China’s propagandists now put it. Perhaps more significant was the emergence of Xi, whose own penchant for autocratic rule, ideological struggle, and Chinese coercive dominance of the region signaled a shift that was not predicted even by China’s own leading experts, many of whom are now living in fear of his rule. The global financial crisis also broke the political formula in Washington that had allowed successful trade agreements to underpin U.S. grand strategy. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the TPP in 2017, and his successor, President Joe Biden, has made it clear he will never return.

The transition memos in Hand-Off did not predict any of these developments within China—nobody did—but the memos did lay out a strategic framework for minimizing risk and maximizing the opportunities for peace and stability in what we now call the Indo-Pacific. To say this was naive would be to argue for a strategy of strangling China at a time in its development when engagement still had some traction and when, more importantly, U.S. allies and the American public, both of whom mainly saw China as a partner, would not have supported containment and decoupling.

U.S. President Barack Obama, trailed by Vice President Joe Biden, says farewell to Bush at the Capitol after Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009.CHARLES OMMANNEY/GETTY IMAGES

What are the lessons from Hand-Off going forward?

The most important lesson is one the Biden administration already has right: Invest in allies and partners to maintain that “balance of power that favors freedom.” Biden has elevated the Quad meetings to a regular summit, and he graciously credited Bush for starting the Quad when the leaders first assembled in 2022. The Biden administration has also launched one of the most ambitious security partnerships of the past few decades with the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement (AUKUS) to help Australia deploy and build nuclear-powered submarines. The pact also aims to develop advanced technological capabilities by pooling resources and integrating supply chains for defense-related science, industry, and supply chains.

Second, the administration needs to reconstruct some form of the economic statecraft that underpinned U.S. strategies toward China in the past. Far from helping China compete, agreements like TPP were designed to force Beijing to play by the rules or lose hundreds of billions of dollars in trade as tariffs and market barriers among the rule-abiding economies went down. Now, sadly, it is the United States that is outside the TPP and suffering from lost access, while Beijing aggressively lobbies the signatories to let the Chinese economy into the agreement. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is something of a placeholder to show Washington cares, but it lacks market access or binding rules that would influence business behavior and get Beijing’s attention. Multilateral organizations like the World Trade Organization also matter in this context. The Bush administration probably could have done more within the WTO to address China’s cheating on its commitments, but the Trump and Biden administrations have gone too far in allowing the dispute resolution mechanism of the WTO to wither at a time when U.S. allies still see it as an important tool to hold China to account.

Third, the Biden administration has left the world wondering how this all ends with China. French President Emmanuel Macron’s craven comments on Taiwan after his visit to Beijing were short-sighted and very damaging to regional security. More responsible U.S. allies like Japan and Australia are signing on to deeper military and intelligence cooperation with the United States. But none of them have any clarity about Washington’s longer-term vision for the relationship with China. Xi’s constant attacks on the United States, democracy, and U.S. allies make it difficult to imagine a happy place in U.S.-China relations. But other than blunting Chinese aggression and coercion, what is this alignment between allies for? What kind of relationship or strategic equilibrium with China is the United States aiming to achieve? The Bush administration could answer that question to an extent that helped rally allies. Biden would do well to engage with U.S. allies on the proper answer in the current geopolitical environment.

Fourth, resources matter. Some blame the Global War on Terror for convincing the Bush administration it had to get along with China. The authors never heard those arguments in our time in the White House, nor is that alleged tradeoff even hinted at in the declassified memos in Hand-Off. The fundamentals of the Bush administration’s China strategy did not change because of 9/11. What did change was the availability of resources. Even after the Obama administration pledged to pivot to Asia in 2011, resources did not flow into military and diplomatic efforts the way they should have. Continuing struggles in the Middle East, federal budget sequestration, and now Russia’s war on Ukraine have all slowed the long anticipated rebalance of forces to deal with China. Biden and the U.S. Congress need to resource their strategy of competition, and finally make the pivot from the Bush administration’s war on terror real.


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