US-China relations headed for “scratchy time,” says Oksenberg lecturer


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Kenneth Lieberthal of The Brookings Institution delivered the keynote speech at the annual Oksenberg Lecture on June 3.
Photo credit: 
Irene Bryant/Debbie Warren

The Obama administration’s policy of “re-balance” toward Asia, that began as early as 2009, is now increasingly under stress, as those in the region question American staying power and China emerges as a challenger to U.S. dominance. As the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas in recent months have demonstrated, China’s relations with the region and the United States have become visibly strained, bringing the U.S. re-balance policy into question and raising concerns about security tensions and the danger of conflict. 

U.S.-China relations are heading, for the foreseeable future, into “a very scratchy time,” predicted Kenneth Lieberthal, a respected senior China scholar at The Brookings Institution, in his keynote speech delivered at the annual Oksenberg Lecture on June 3 at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Lieberthal told a standing room audience in Encina Hall that while the U.S. attempt to temper its relations with China and others has “worked quite well over time,” now, “at a geostrategic level, we seem to be sliding with increasing speed toward an inflection point in U.S.-China relations.”

Lieberthal was joined by a panel of China experts, including Cui Liru of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), and Stanford’s Karl Eikenberry and Thomas Fingar, distinguished fellows at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Jean C. Oi, director of the Stanford China Program.

The discussion was part of the Oksenberg Lecture, an annual dialogue that functions as a policy workshop on U.S.-Asia relations, named in honor of late professor and senior fellow Michel Oksenberg (1938–2001). Oksenberg was a noted China specialist, who served as a senior member of the National Security Council and is credited as the architect of the normalization of relations with China under the Carter administration in the late 1970s.

Points of tension in the U.S.-China relationship have been increasingly visible. Senior American officials have assailed China for its aggressive actions toward its neighbors over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and in South China Sea, including its latest altercations with Vietnam and the Philippines. The United States recently indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army for carrying out cyber espionage against U.S. technology companies.

Incidents like these have prompted both countries to throw harsh words at each other, leading to a situation of brinkmanship. However, Lieberthal pointed out that tense relations between the United States and China are certainly not new. Most notably, relations took a nosedive in 1989 when China cracked down on democratization protests at Tiananmen Square, in 1999 after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia, and in 2008, in response to the global financial crisis.

The U.S.-China relationship has been riddled with periods of distrust in the past. But now, “the speed and scale of China’s economic growth, especially over the last two decades, has also increased concerns, on all sides, that the evolving distribution of power may create new frictions and suspicions,” Lieberthal said.

Yet, refusing to work with each other is not an option, the senior scholar, who also served in the Clinton administration, told the audience. Without the United States and China in conversation, progress in multilateral areas such as climate change and trade would falter, he argued. Given the two countries’ position as the world’s largest economies, the international system would effectively be constrained if the two were entrenched in long-term bitterness.

Lieberthal recognized the common admonition, “if we treat China as an enemy, it will surely become one,” saying this warning could be applied to both sides. China and the United States must make greater efforts to manage and mitigate tensions.

“The question is whether we can prevent bad things, not only specific conflicts, but the political tensions and politics that make cooperation on major issues very, very difficult at best.”

He then outlined a few steps that could help China and the United States sort out their disputes. His recommendations began with the need for strong determination on the part of top political leaders to move things forward and the importance of clear, consistent use of vocabulary when discussing issues.

As a final point, but one that was offered as a contingent factor to success, Lieberthal said U.S.-China relations and both countries’ roles in greater Asia will depend on “how effective each of us is in dealing with domestic reforms,” because, “that will determine how dynamic, how vibrant, how innovative, and how secure we feel.”


During the lecture, Ret. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry shared his observations from the Shangri-La Dialogue, an inter-governmental security forum held from May 30 – June 1 in Singapore. The Dialogue has in recent years become a gathering of premiere defense ministers to discuss security issues in Track I and “quasi-track” meetings.

Afterward, Eikenberry talked with Shorenstein APARC about key highlights and implications that emerged from the Dialogue:


Photo credit: Flickr/The International Institute for Strategic Studies 

Media reported a tense environment overlaid the Dialogue. What was the general atmosphere there?

The remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue by Japanese Prime Minister Abe and U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel on the one hand, and Chinese General Wang Guanzhong, made clear very different views on the causes for tension surrounding various maritime sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas. Still, if you read the full text of all three speeches and the Q&As that followed, there is still great emphasis placed on dialogue and common interests. And in the many meetings that took place between national delegations on the margins of the conference events, the emphasis was on cooperation. 

What revelations at the Dialogue were surprising?

I think the degree to which dissatisfaction with China’s assertive behavior in pursuing its maritime claims was expressed by many of the participants – not just the United States and Japan. Vietnam, the Philippines and India were explicit. Analysts have said the only China (through threatening behavior) could contain China by catalyzing a counterbalancing response. From the results of the Dialogue, I think this is correct.   

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized values and international law throughout his keynote speech. What is your take on this?

The Prime Minister did emphasize both democracy and rule of law during his prepared remarks and answers to questions from conference participants. He was drawing an obvious distinction between Japan’s and China’s political systems and commitment to approaches to resolving territorial disputes. I think the Prime Minister is trying to establish Japan as a leader in East and Southeast Asia, and wanted to make clear what he views as important differences between the Japanese and Chinese “models.” 

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referenced China’s suspension of the U.S.-China Cyber Working Group. What direction do you think the cybersecurity dialogue will go now?

It was unfortunate that China suspended its participation in the U.S.-China Cyber Working Group after the U.S. Government’s indictment of five People’s Liberation Army officers for alleged cyber theft. The U.S. Government has been providing the PRC Government with evidence of cyber theft being conducted by entities in China and has failed to receive any meaningful response so the indictments seem warranted. It would seem that the Cyber Working Group is precisely the forum to discuss this matter and the many related to managing the cyber domain with agreed rules and procedures. Working Groups provide a forum to address disagreement and disputes. I think China’s response was counterproductive and hope the government will indicate a willingness to resume the dialogues in the near future.

Where do you see the regional security conversation heading next?

The risk is that security dialogues will be divided into two camps – one led by the United States and its close allies and partners, and the other by China – somewhat isolated at this time but seeking to entice Asian nations to bandwagon to its side. Perhaps further regional economic integration can facilitate a more common approach to security, but this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue is perhaps a warning that trends, for now, are not heading in a positive direction.