Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Strategy on China: Keep It Vague

| January 9, 2012

THE NEW national security priorities accompanying a sharp reduction in defense spending, released last week under the Pentagon's consultant-inspired title "Strategic Guidance," are being analyzed throughout Washington. What do they say about the future of our military? The next war?

How about: What do they say about our expectations for China? Not much, actually. The document is only eight pages. That's a footnote in most military documents. Its true significance isn't in the text of the document or the budget it envisions. It's in its vagueness and what is left open-ended.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were brutal reality checks, proof that predictions about the future are rarely correct. Thus, as our focus turns toward the Pacific and Asia, the new strategic-guidance report offers a lot of tea leaves, nothing more. When the entire leadership of the second most powerful economy in the world will change this year, it's worth being opaque. Yes, China is having "elections," too.

In 2012, China's leadership will begin a long-awaited transition. For almost a decade, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have led China as it expanded its influence throughout Asia. Militarily, politically, and economically, China has become a hegemon in ways that even its leadership could have hardly imagined a decade ago.

That leadership will now step aside during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party later this year. Seven of the nine all-powerful Standing Committee members are slated to retire. Seven of the 10 members of the central military commission will also be replaced. It is an unprecedented turnover.

With those kinds of leadership changes occurring in China, the most important move the United States can make now is to deepen its engagement throughout East Asia — including maintaining our troops and naval presence there — but to stay flexible and prepared to adjust to whatever may come next in China.

And China's changes are difficult to predict. In the past, leadership transitions in China have resulted in tragedy, such as the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square. The shift that brought Hu into power in 2002 was remarkable simply for its orderliness; the 2012 transition is likely to follow the same pattern.

But this is the first shift to occur during China's rise to international power, with resulting demands by its own population for economic and even political freedoms. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who may not know how to win a presidential election, nonetheless knows a lot about China from his time there as ambassador. The transition from an "export model to a consumption model," he said Thursday in New Hampshire, will put tremendous pressure on Chinese leaders to satisfy the needs of a growing middle class, including providing for a social safety net.

Talking to Huntsman about China provides an understanding of a nation that will not be tamed by tough talk or by candidates who view it solely through the lens of economic policy. Often in the same breath, China-bashers will describe it as a nation ready to devour the world and one on its last legs because of crippling corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental decay. The truth about a nation that constitutes some 20 percent of the world's population is somewhere in between.

The new generation of Chinese leaders will "be more sophisticated and more educated than their parents but equally tied to their party and the connections that got them there," says Harvard Law School's Bill Alford, a China expert. Many are less likely to take umbrage at what American politicians say here about China. In other words, they, too, know it's silly season.

Xi Jinping, currently China's vice president, is expected to be promoted to the top spot. In response, the White House recently announced that Vice President Joe Biden will now manage the China portfolio, likely because Xi and Biden are counterparts. Xi is best remembered for a calculated rant he made against China's critics while visiting Mexico, right across our border.

Xi's speech was likely intended for an international audience, and he did not complain about the United States directly. Two can play that game. President Obama didn't mention China by name in his press conference last week about the Pentagon's priorities. Our entire 2012 strategic relationship with China has come down to that: They'll see what happens here, we'll see what happens there, and until then, we'll all just talk vaguely and hedge.

It's actually a smart strategy, and it fits on eight pages.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Strategy on China: Keep It Vague.” The Boston Globe, January 9, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem