So what does this assessment of Chinese behavior mean for U.S. policy in an Obama second term? First, it reinforces the administration’s rationale for upping America’s strategic game in the Asia-Pacific region. What the Senate should be looking to hear, however, is exactly how the new national security team will go about making that a reality, especially in an era of major cuts in defense spending.
Second, it means that, to the extent engagement is pursued, it should be with an eye to what is mutually and concretely beneficial, not with the expectation that the process itself will lead to China’s transformation.
Finding the right balance in U.S.-China policy is a complex task. But the first step for the new secretaries of State and Defense in getting it right must be to understand what engagement can and can’t do, and to realize it is unlikely that China will become a member in good standing of the liberal international order until its leaders have made the decision to become liberal at home.