“Competitive strategic engagement”

Daniel Drezner is rightly intrigued by a new essay by Thomas Wright of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on shifts in the U.S. approach to China.   Wright argues that the Obama administration, having  courted Beijing, was shocked by the response:

Instead of accepting the offer of a full partnership, China became far more antagonistic and assertive on the world stage. It expanded its claims in the South China Sea, engaged in a major spat with Google over Internet freedom, played an obstructionist role at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, regularly and openly criticized US leadership, and, sought to water down sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme at the UN Security Council.

This is familiar. But Wright probes the effects of Beijing’s hawkishness:

More than any other development, China’s increasing assertiveness revealed a fundamental flaw in the Obama administration’s worldview—that although multilateralism is needed more than ever, emerging powers (and not just China) will often define their interests in ways that conflict with US interests and they will continue to engage in traditional geopolitical competition with the United States.

So what does this mean for US foreign policy? The United States is likely entering a geopolitical period unlike any it has faced before. Americans are used to countries being friends or enemies—for us or against us (something that fit 20th century realities almost perfectly). But relations with China will be a peculiar blend of cooperation and rivalry, meaning the US will be faced with a more competitive world than it has over the past 20 years (although unlike the Cold War, it will be a competition within limits, between interdependent powers, and with plenty of potential for cooperation).

Such unprecedented developments have also sparked a vital debate inside the Obama administration about how to respond, and how best to preserve the liberal international order created at the end of World War II.

On the one hand are those who wish to persist with cooperative strategic engagement so the international order is run by a concert of powers, with the United States and China at its heart. On the other are those who believe that, even as they cooperate, relations between the United States and emerging powers will be far more competitive and prone to limited rivalry than relations between members of the old Western order, meaning the United States will have no choice but to compete with emerging powers to shape the international order while maintaining a geopolitical advantage over its competitors.

If the China policy is an early test case, then it shows a tilt toward competitive strategic engagement. The question now is whether this approach will stick and gradually spread to influence the president’s overall grand strategy.

It’s back, as I argued earlier in the year, to realism.