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Assuring Beijing Key To Building Guardrails On US–China Relations
Harrison Prétat
2023-03-12
Region : America,
Issue : Security, Politics,
Speaking at the Aspen Institute in December 2022, National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell highlighted the need to ‘build the guardrails’ to keep US–China relations from ‘moving into destabilising areas’. To do so, Washington needs to establish regular dialogue to dispel Beijing’s worst fears about US intentions and disincentivise assertive and risky behaviour.
The sentiment among analysts in Beijing largely accords with public messaging from Chinese officials and media. They fear the United States is adopting a Cold War-style, zero-sum strategy that aims to stifle China’s rise. The Quad, AUKUS and even the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) are viewed as the beginnings of a US-led bloc that will constrain China. Not all Chinese analysts share these views, but even those sceptical find it hard to convince others that the United States is not arranging an ideologically driven containment strategy.
US moves to strengthen alliances and pursue multilateral arrangements have largely been a reaction to growing assertiveness from Beijing. They have been driven as much by demand from China’s concerned neighbours as by Washington’s own initiative. The United States and others have looked to develop new partnerships and strengthen existing ones in order to stop Beijing salami-slicing its way through international rules and norms or into an escalatory cycle leading to major conflict.
But whatever the actual origin and intent of regional deterrence initiatives, China’s actions will be dictated by Beijing’s perceptions. If Beijing concludes current US initiatives are the beginning of a containment effort, Beijing may see now as its only chance to secure control over disputed territory or maritime areas. To head off this danger, Washington needs to complement its deterrent measures with assurance mechanisms that clarify the limited aims of US multilateral organising in the region. This would demonstrate to Beijing that risky military action is not necessary to preserve its core interests.
The United States should seek to re-establish proactive dialogue mechanisms with China to clarify its regional goals and hear Chinese concerns. The purpose would be to prevent the worst strategic misunderstandings that might result from US-led regional arrangements.
Offering assurances about US strategic intentions is unlikely to result in meaningful reciprocation from Beijing — but that’s not the point. Reduced fears in Beijing about US strategic intentions is a success in itself, as it reduces incentives for China to take military risks.
Washington should start by seeking a regular bilateral dialogue with Beijing dedicated to explaining strategic concerns and avoiding miscalculation. The Strategic Security Dialogue in 2011–16 and the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in 2017–18 previously filled this role. The track record of those cabinet-level talks was mixed, but the lack of communication mechanisms since China withdrew from the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue is even worse. A relaunched dialogue’s aims should include exchanging US and Chinese perspectives on regional initiatives like the Quad, AUKUS and the IPEF.
Convincing Beijing to restart such talks will not be easy — it rebuffed two recent US offers of a meeting or phone call between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. But the effort to re-establish strategic dialogue must continue.
Bilateral assurance mechanisms will be a natural first step, but multilateral mechanisms would be best. Multilateral talks might better show Beijing that all participants are genuinely motivated by the same concerns and that they are not interested in containing China nor are they being manipulated by the United States. Multilateral mechanisms might be more durable than strictly bilateral talks, which have proven relatively easy to unilaterally cancel.
The most natural grouping to start with is the Quad. Though a dedicated Quad–China dialogue would be ideal, it is more practical to push for informal meetings held on the sidelines of existing regional fora, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum. Regardless of the format, Indian participation will require a major reassessment from New Delhi, which has so far opposed any overt admission that the grouping is concerned with China. Washington should begin to socialise the idea with New Delhi.
Regular dialogue mechanisms designed to increase communication and reduce unwarranted fears are crucial to reducing incentives for China to gamble on assertive actions. But they cannot function if they are undercut by political messaging. It is crucial that US messaging on China policy avoids feeding into Chinese suspicions about containment. ‘Tough on China’ rhetoric intended for domestic political constituencies will reduce the effectiveness of US deterrence efforts if it contradicts other assurances to Beijing.
US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2022 produced some positive results in terms of clarifying US strategic intentions and setting a foundation for lowering tensions. The Chinese readout of the summit highlighted a set of assurances offered by Biden, including that the United States does not seek to change China’s system of government, does not seek a new Cold War and does not support Taiwanese independence. One can imagine why the White House readout did not reproduce these positions, but they mark an important start in reassuring Beijing about US strategic intentions.
Assurance is an essential counterpart to US-led deterrence measures — one that Washington will need to practise in both word and deed over the coming years to reduce the risk of conflict.
*About the author: Harrison Prétat is Associate Director and Associate Fellow in the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
This article originally appeared in East Asia Forum
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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