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U.S. Should Take A Tougher Stand Toward China, Report's Authors Say


Two former U.S. diplomats argue it's time to think of China less as a trading partner and more as a rival.

ROBERT BLACKWILL: China wants to replace the United States as the most important power in Asia.

INSKEEP: That's Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations. The U.S. has had a dominant military presence in the whole Pacific region since World War II. And China has prospered in that time of U.S. leadership. But Blackwill argues that China finds U.S. dominance unacceptable. He argues the U.S. should raise its defense spending and finish a trade deal with China's neighbors to stay ahead. Blackwill co-authored a report with Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

ASHLEY TELLIS: We've got to think of China very seriously as a competitor, a competitor that essentially does not want us in Asia over the long term because our presence in Asia becomes an obstacle to China's realization of its own ambitions.

INSKEEP: That argument grows out of a specific view of what China's ambitions are. Blackwill is a former official in President George W. Bush's administration. He's also been associated as a diplomat, writer and lobbyist with countries that neighbor China and worry about it. In analyzing China, he quotes a former leader of Singapore.

BLACKWILL: China, civilizationally, has no concept of equal partnership. They're at the center, and everyone else is a supplicant. So the idea of an enduring strategic partnership between the United States and China is delusional.

INSKEEP: What evidence shows this, Ashley Tellis, given that if we looked at the statements of the Chinese government, they would say, all we really want is stability and trade?

TELLIS: Well, not quite. I mean, there are two pieces of evidence that are actually worth looking at closely - first, the very expansive Chinese territorial claims that, even as we speak, are being demonstrated in the South China Sea.

INSKEEP: Oh, claims on bits of islands out in the sea and claims over the water itself. OK.

TELLIS: Well, but it's claims that are intended to ultimately deny the regional states and the United States freedom of action in that part of the world. And then the second is, of course, growing Chinese military capabilities.

BLACKWILL: And I'll add a third, which is Chinese geoeconomic policy, which is using economic instruments to coerce its neighbors. If the Philippines do something that China doesn't like, Philippine agricultural products will rot on Chinese ports. If Japan does something that China doesn't like, Japanese auto sales in China go down.

INSKEEP: So if that's what you believe China wants, to be number one, at least in Asia if not the world, what is it the United States wants?

TELLIS: We want to remain number number one because first, that position serves our interests well. And two, our allies want us to remain number one because that provides the best guarantee of their own security. If the security system that we have put in place since the end of the Second World War begins to come apart, the economic success in Asia that we take for granted is simply not going to last. Think about it in this way. The fact that the Japanese, the Koreans, the Taiwanese and the Southeast Asian states can focus now essentially on butter, as opposed to guns, creates a certain environment in Asia that serves their interests and serves our interests as well.

INSKEEP: Is the United States powerless, or at least constrained, to confront China because the United States trades so heavily with China, there's such economic codependence?

BLACKWILL: No. We should continue to trade as it's in our interest, but we have many instruments to balance the rise of Chinese power.

INSKEEP: Like what?

BLACKWILL: First of all, begin at home. The future of the American economy is the most important variable in the projection of American power everywhere, but especially in Asia. And the defense budget is also a crucial instrument, should be increased. So we have many instruments to balance the rise of Chinese power. But our Asian allies, I think, at the moment, worry that we won't use them. And the primary immediate challenge is to persuade them that we'll be there as the foundation we've been for Asia in security prosperity.

INSKEEP: You both have laid out a vision of a world in which the United States confronts China at the same time that the United States cooperates on trade or the environment or other issues. Is that really going to work? Isn't there going to be a moment where a Chinese leader is going to say, listen; thanks very much for your trade initiative and everything, but we really have a problem with you over here?

TELLIS: Well, that's the world that we have to be prepared for. That is the reality of the world. We can't wish it away. So the effort that we are trying to make in this report is to help people not be starry-eyed about it.

INSKEEP: Ashley Tellis is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He co-authored a report with Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations, who is a former U.S. ambassador to India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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