Warily Watching China

Read Time:
2m 58sec

Promises and Perils.
By Robert G. Sutter.
Rowman & Littlefield. 297 pp. $24.95

To the discomfort of many Asia-watchers in the United States, China is rapidly expanding its influence in Asia. In this new book, Robert Sutter, a former Asia specialist with the U.S. government who now teaches at Georgetown University, carefully explores Beijing’s growing regional presence and what it may mean for the United States.

China has plainly become a major regional actor, but not necessarily a menacing one. As Sutter sees it, China today is less a challenger to the status quo than a contributor to regional order. Beijing seems content to abide by Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to bide time while continuing to amass national power. But, Sutter warns, China could adopt a more aggressive posture in pursuit of its long-standing desire to secure its periphery from potential rivals.

Much like any other country, Sutter’s China seeks to consolidate its strengths, expand its influence over neighbors, and thwart efforts by other large powers to impinge upon its interests—hence its active leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other international associations that don’t include the United States. This is a foreign policy of pragmatism and careful calcu­lation, not of ideology or inherent aggressiveness. It’s a policy extremely sensitive to other powers, pushing and probing to gain incremental advantage but pulling back when it bumps against superior force. Foreign adventures have no place among China’s priorities; the preoccupation of its leaders since the end of the Cold War has been to reinforce their continued rule through political stability and economic growth.

The United States looms large in these pages. Though not a neighbor in a geographical sense, America remains the preeminent power in Asia—an uncomfortable reality that shapes Beijing’s every move on its periphery. And, as Sutter emphasizes, Washington is no passive observer; American action (and inaction) substantially influences Chinese policy in the region. China, in Sutter’s apt phrase, is less a “responsible” than a “responsive” power. To reduce the like­lihood of Beijing’s becoming disruptive, he advises, the United States must pursue a firm and consistent policy, specifying clear lines that must not be crossed.

Sutter judges George W. Bush more successful than Bill Clinton in managing this difficult relationship, in part because of Bush’s readiness to use power to punish U.S. enemies. Beijing has adopted a more accommodating posture toward the United States since mid-2001, based not on an embrace of Washington’s notions of good international citizenship, but on a simple assessment of costs and benefits. Yet, Sutter warns, suspicion and opposition toward U.S. policy in Asia remain a “driving force” in Chinese calculations. For American policymakers, he counsels a delicate balance. The United States must maintain its resolve to ensure that China stays on a generally constructive track in Asia, but it must also welcome China’s recent signs of accommodation, lest Beijing revert to a less benign approach.

Sutter is properly modest in his assertions, freely conceding that the contradictory and inconclusive evidence about Chinese strategic thinking can support different conclusions. Many experts will judge unduly pessimistic his assessment of the most probable future of U.S.–China relations: the pursuit, by Beijing, of increased influence at the expense of American interests in the region. Others will admire his forecast as hardheaded. But no one will accuse him of naiveté about Beijing’s long-range inten­tions. And that shrewdness is the great virtue of this entirely laudable book.

—Robert M. Hathaway

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