The China Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy

China is strategically positioned to expand its influence in Asia and the global arena. Expanding economic and political influence allows Beijing to facilitate the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia in which China is the center of gravity in all major regional issues–economics, finance, trade, security, and diplomacy. How will China exercise its growing influence–whether as a responsible consensus-builder or an assertive system-changer–and to what end? The question for strategists is how to ascertain Beijing’s strategic orientation through its decisions, actions, and public statements. Beijing’s ability to mitigate domestic vulnerabilities; manage strategic relationships with Japan, India, Pakistan, and the United States; and resolve crisis situations, such as tensions in the Korean peninsula and South China Sea, will test the potency, or lack thereof, of its power. 

China measures its great-power capabilities in the context of its sectors of influence and defines its sectors of influence in terms of global and systemic influence. Specifically, Beijing pursues the internationalization of the Chinese currency (renminbi) and monitors exchange rates and trade balances to influence the global trading system.[1] Beijing attempts to regulate market access to facilitate acquisition of technological innovation, intellectual property and capital, as evidenced with the Chinese government’s recent passage of China’s national security law that could impact foreign technology.[2]

China enhances cross-strait dominance with short-range missile capabilities, combined arms operations including special operations, psychological and information technology capabilities, proven ability to interdict U.S. carrier battle groups and deploy increasingly accurate cruise missiles, and a potential willingness to employ tactical nuclear devices to defend national sovereignty issues.[3]

China’s exercise of power is manifested in ten areas:

  1. Demographic weight as the world’s most populous country,
  2. World’s second largest country in terms of sheer physical terrain,
  3. World’s largest armed forces (2.33 million in active service) and the world’s fourth-largest nuclear weapons capabilities,
  4. A United Nations Security Council permanent member with veto power,
  5. Membership in virtually all the major global institutions, including the WTO, IMF, G-20, etc.,
  6. World’s largest economy per purchasing power parity,
  7. World’s largest generator of carbon dioxide emissions,
  8. World’s largest oil importer,
  9. World’s largest manufacturer, and
  10. World’s largest foreign exchange reserve holder.

Beijing weighs the domestic impact and international consequences that frame its strategic choices and factor into maximizing material capabilities to maintain a power advantage in each category.[4] While China’s developments in each area merits in-depth, separate analysis, a few examples underscore the sheer magnitude of China’s expansive reach. As the world’s most populous country, China with 680 million internet users accounts for 40% of the world’s e-commerce retail sales.[5] With the world’s largest terrain, China’s mega-infrastructure projects traverse the country and the globe.[6] As the world‘s largest reserve currency holder, China’s influence in global currency markets is growing.[7] China’s power leverage could affect international security and economic norms and practices for better or for worse. Moreover, as China’s influence and confidence grow, it could position itself as a counterweight to the United States–witness its launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), promulgation of the Asia Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea (ADIZ), “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” economicinitiative,[8] and reclamation advances in the South China Sea.

A critical variable in the unfolding trajectory of China’s strategic orientation is the U.S. approach toward China, specifically the ability of the next president to articulate a vision for U.S. leadership in Asia and the direction of U.S.-China relations. Although China-bashing serves as a default rhetorical campaign tool,[9] the absence of measured articulation on the strategic relevance of U.S.-China relations can perhaps be attributed to an identity crisis in American foreign policymaking. The struggle to define the core values and strategic objectives of American foreign policy in a post-9/11 “Great Recession” world is exacerbated by the specter of mounting national debt, deteriorating social values, and the American public’s introversion in tough economic times. But, in times of surmounting trials and deep divide the founding principles of the United States preserve and guide the essence of U.S. foreign policy.

It is beneficial to consider the foundation of U.S. foreign policy principles as analyzed in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World by Walter Russell Mead, who delineates four U.S. foreign policy schools–Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Wilsonian–rooted in American political tradition and described briefly below.[10]  The description of each school encapsulates distinct traits. As a caveat, leaders who exemplified these distinct schools in some cases also represented a combination of traits from other schools in their leadership outlook.

Hamiltonian: This school of foreign policy sees the first task of the American government as promoting the health of American enterprise at home and abroad. Hamiltonians have historically attempted to ensure the United States government supported the rights of American merchants and investors and, within its original context, was quick to understand the importance of the British world order for American interests. A partial list of Hamiltonians include: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, and George H.W. Bush.

Jacksonian: The Jacksonian school represents a deeply embedded, widely spread populist culture of honor, independence, courage, and military pride among the American people. One measure of Jacksonian influence in American politics is the degree to which successful generals become formidable political figures. All told, ten former generals have become presidents of the United States; and several other presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush, were assisted in their careers by heroic war records. Jacksonian attitudes and ideas have played and still do plan an immense role in shaping the American debate over foreign policy.

Jeffersonian: The Jeffersonian school opposed Hamiltonian policy and saw the preservation of American democracy in a dangerous world as the most pressing and vital interest of the American people. It has consistently looked for the least costly and dangerous method of defending American independence while counseling against attempts to impose American values on other countries. Democratic isolationists such as John Quincy Adams and George Kennan represent this school.

Wilsonian: The Wilsonian school was more interested in the legal and moral aspects of that economic agenda supported by the Hamiltonians. Wilsonians have typically believed American interests require that other countries accept basic American values and conduct both their foreign and domestic affairs accordingly. This school has deeper roots in American history than is sometimes recognized. The foreign policies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton carried salient strands of Wilsonian thinking. Carter added human rights as a policy dimension in the liberalization of authoritarian regimes. Clinton focused on the enlargement of democracy worldwide. 

The utility of Mead’s descriptions can be found in the explanatory power that resonates in the multi-faceted principles of American foreign policy. Various aspects of each school could help provide clearer definition and dimensionality to a contemporary U.S. foreign policy framework and to a much-needed effective U.S. Asia policy and China strategy. For the current field of U.S. presidential contenders–Democratic and Republican–the ongoing challenge is to articulate consistently and convincingly the core principles and objectives of the future president’s foreign policy agenda and strategy.   

A worthwhile forward-looking analytic exercise would be to explore how each candidate would interpret the principles of each school–Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, Jeffersonian, and Wilsonian–in formulating a China strategy. Such an assessment would warrant applying scenario-based analysis to identify key variables, actors, and strategic context and determining holistic implications for alliances, investment, trade, security, and civil society. Analysis of leadership dynamics among key American, Asian, and Chinese decision-makers would also illuminate the impact from implementation of and interactions with each school. Looking over the horizon, China’s emergence as a potentially formidable countervailing force to U.S. power and American values cannot be underestimated. Beijing’s ability to limit Washington’s options or undercut its leverage in advancing U.S. national interests would indicate China’s arrival as a consequential agenda-setter able to co-opt power with other countries or international entities at the expense of U.S. influence and global leadership.

Mercy A. Kuo authors a weekly column on the U.S. rebalance to Asia for The Diplomat and is an advisory board member of CHINADebate. She was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research and served as an analyst of Northeast and Southeast Asian political, security, and military affairs at the Central Intelligence Agency. She holds degrees from Oxford University (Ph.D.), University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (M.A.), and Pomona College (B.A) and is proficient in Chinese, Polish, and Italian.

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This article is adapted from the author’s original chapter on “China’s Strategic Orientation: Assessing Alternative Futures,” China and International Security: History, Strategy, and 21st Century Policy, Volume 3, by Donovan C. Chau and Thomas M. Kane, Editors. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, California.

[1] Mercy A. Kuo and Angelica O. Tang. “Renminbi Rising: Brave New Monetary World?” The Diplomat, January 19, 2016. (Retrieved April 7, 2016)

[2] “China passes new national security law extending control over internet,” The Guardian (July 1, 2015). (Retrieved April 7, 2016)

[3] “China’s Militarization and Cross-Strait Balance, ” US-China Economic and Security Commission report (September 15,2005)

[4] A theoretical characterization of this behavior might read, “States that maximize relative power are concerned primarily with the distribution of material capabilities. In particular, they try to gain as large a power advantage as possible over potential rivals, because power is the best means to survival in a dangerous world,” John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (University of Chicago: New York & London, 2001), 36.

[5] “Asia-Pacific is Home to Majority of World Retail Ecommerce Market,” eMarketeer (December 16, 2015). (Retrieved April 7, 2016)

[6] Steve Levine. “China is building the most extensive global commercial-military empire in history,”  Quartz (June 9, 2015). (Retrieved April 7, 2016)

[7] “China Foreign Exchange Reserves Rise for First Time in Five Months,” Bloomberg Markets (April 7, 2016). (Retrieved April 7, 2016)

[8] Mercy A. Kuo and Angelica O. Tang. “China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative: Outlook for OBOR and the US Rebalance,” The Diplomat (December 3, 2015). (Retrieved April 7, 2016)

[9] David Nakamura. “Anti-China rhetoric in campaign suggests change under a new president,” The Washington Post (September 23, 2015). (Retrieved April 6, 2016)

[10] Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, Walter Russell Mead, (Albert A. Knopf: New York 2001), 87-89.

Select References:

Alagappa, Muthiah, ed. Asian Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2003).

Fishman, Ted C., China Inc., (Scribner: New York, 2005).

Hoffman, W. John and Enright, Michael J., eds. China into the Future: Making Sense of the World’s Most Dynamic Economy, (John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte. Ld: Singapore, 2005).

Mearsheimer, John J., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2001).

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, (US Government Printing Office: Washington DC, 2008)