China: The Need to ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’

President Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous quote is his advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” But it is often taken out of context. Roosevelt made it clear that he was introducing his remarks on foreign policy by quoting a West African proverb. His other major quotes on U.S. foreign policy are far more sophisticated and far less rough rider in character. One key example is his statement that U.S. foreign policy should be “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” Roosevelt set goals in this latter statement that seem as valid today as when Roosevelt originally said it in 1902.

It is his advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” however, that seems particularly valid in the case of the current state of U.S. policy toward China. U.S. national strategy documents are all too correct in noting that the emergence of China as an authoritarian superpower has created a nation that “harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.”

The latest U.S. National Security Strategy document is equally correct in stating that

The PRC is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power. It is using its technological capacity and increasing influence over international institutions to create more permissive conditions for its own authoritarian model, and to mold global technology use and norms to privilege its interests and values. Beijing frequently uses its economic power to coerce countries. It benefits from the openness of the international economy while limiting access to its domestic market, and it seeks to make the world more dependent on the PRC while reducing its own dependence on the world. The PRC is also investing in a military that is rapidly modernizing, increasingly capable in the Indo-Pacific, and growing in strength and reach globally – all while seeking to erode U.S. alliances in the region and around the world.

The U.S. official view of China’s strategic and military progress in the latest edition of Chinese Military Power also justifies these statements in as much detail as the need to classify sensitive data permits. It provides a level of detail that makes it all too clear why the United States is giving priority to building up its forces in the Pacific, expanding and creating new strategic partnerships designed to deter and contain China’s military power. It also shows why the United States is seeking to develop an integrated civil and military strategy to contain China and to prevent China from taking military steps to annex Taiwan and enforce its claims in Asia and the Pacific. Real threats require real action, and a China that seeks to achieve both military and economic superiority to the United States does require a “big stick.”

At the same time, there is a clear need for the United States to “speak softly.” The United States needs to recognize China’s sensitivity to over 100 years of war and partial foreign occupation from the beginning of extraterritorial foreign enclaves the Opium Wars in 1839 to the expulsion of Japanese forces in 1945, and the end of extraterritorial foreign enclaves in 1999. “Face” is a critical issue for every nation and government in the world, but it is particularly critical in the case of China. It is far too easy for the United States to create a broad climate of Chinese anger and resistance, and one where U.S. statements that focus too exclusively on confrontation and the risk of conflict can impose critical limits on the already uncertain prospects for some form of U.S, and Chinese coexistence and cooperation.

The issue of Taiwan has become a particularly dangerous example. China’s own rhetoric has become more careless and extreme, but U.S. politics have led to a partisan competition to take the hardest and most visible position in defending Taiwan in a coming war. Some have openly or tacitly treated the need to help Taiwan deter and fight such an invasion as if a Chinese invasion was a near certainty. Some even take Chinese strategy documents out of context and use specific dates like 2027 or 2030.

These U.S. political statements not only pose a direct political challenge to the present Chinese government where better balanced words might be far more persuasive, they are matched by a flow of hardline announcements of U.S military exercises, war games and plans to assist Taiwan in a future war, and by U.S. efforts to expand strategic partnerships in Asia, the Pacific, and Indian Ocean area that focus too clearly on the need to defend against China in a future conflict. Speaking softly is far less provocative and does not involve a direct challenge in terms of face, but the message can easily be equally clear.

At a different level, the United States has taken a steadily harder line toward economic and technological competition with China. It has done so largely for valid reasons. Chinese technological espionage—management of its global “belt and road” efforts—focus on key economic targets and regions, and internal economic policy has become steadily more confrontational.

The United States may exaggerate the extent to which China is violating a somewhat mythical “rules-based order” for global economic competition. However, China has increasingly pushed economic competition to the point of confrontation. It has sought to take control of key resources like those needed for electric vehicles and used its economic leverage to create military links with other states and acquire basing rights.

The problem is not that the United States has recognized real threats. It is rather that it now speaks too loudly and in a confrontational manner. It stresses confrontation and the risk of combat in ways that are too confrontational and provocative rather than focusing on balancing Chinese actions by offering well-defined options for compromise and cooperation. The end result has sometimes been to speak loudly without having a credible stick, and in ways that confront nations with having to make clear public choices between the United States and China where a softer approach would make strategic partnership with the United States significantly easier.

Moreover, the United States has also overstated its priorities in competing and confronting China in ways that have undermined its broader global strategic interests. Its focus on Asia—which is essentially a focus on China—might well have done serious damage to its ties to Europe and NATO.

Many strategic partners outside the Pacific and Europe—particularly in the Middle East—feel that the United Sates can no longer be counted on to support them—pushing them, in some cases, to be more open to trade and security arrangement with both China and Russia. The result—to quote an old joke about Roosevelt’s advice—has sometimes been for the United States to appear “speak stickly and carry a big soft” in other parts of the world, a problem that ironically would have been far worse if Russia had not invaded Ukraine.

This does not mean the United States should have a different strategy, although it certainly needs to refine its military strategy to give more priority to Europe and dealing with Russia, and in sustaining and expanding its strategic partnerships in the rest of the world. Giving added priority to countering China does not mean that United States can ignore its overall global security priorities.

The United States needs to do a far better job in explaining to all of its current and potential partners that that many aspects of its current force modernization efforts will increase U.S. power projection and security assistance capabilities on a global basis and not simply in one part of Asia. It also needs to explain that any actual conflict with China—if it ever occurs—is likely to be limited in duration and within the limits it places on U.S. capabilities to intervene elsewhere in the world.

The United States has also failed to take effective action at the civil level. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have adopted trade policies, sanctions, and industrial policy that have been too incoherent and unstable and largely decoupled from an effective effort at integrated deterrence. Some have been useful, but other have flared briefly in incoherent forms, and the United States has yet to show that it can effectively integrate its civil and military policy.

The end result is that the United States now needs to focus far more on creating the most effective big stick it can in military and economic terms and let the “stick” speak for itself. China’s authoritarian regime differs sharply from Putin’s regime and many other such regimes—past and present—in showing that it has a high degree of realism. China also has excellent intelligence and a clear understanding of U.S. plans and actions, regardless of whether they classified or not. The United States can afford to speak softly if it can show that it really has the capabilities it needs to deter China and shape the pattern of global competition. In contrast, if the United States speaks too loudly without an effective stick, hardline rhetoric will only show the incoherence and weakness of U.S. strategy.

There is an equally good case for openly emphasizing U.S. military strength and that of its strategic partners while keeping efforts at war planning as quiet as possible. A constant focus on a war over Taiwan risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The United States should instead emphasize the risk of escalation to war, the cost, and dangers of war to all sides, and constantly offer alternative forms of cooperation and competition.

Looking into the future, The United States cannot prevent China from becoming a peer competitor. Only internal mistakes by China’s leadership can accomplish that. The United States also cannot force China to compromise in many areas or to accept the alternatives the United States offers. What the United States can do, however, is use the creation of effective military and civil strategies, and the “big sticks” they create, to speak “softly” in ways where it is always clear that the United States is open to dialogue and compromise. The United States can and should minimize political showboating in taking hardline approaches to China and should speak to all of China and the world by showing that cooperation is a real option. Finding the right way to speak softly is as important as creating and retaining the right big stick.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy