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Thomas Christensen

Biography: 

Thomas Christensen is an associate professor of Political Science at MIT. His research and teaching focus on international relations theory, the international relations of East Asia, and China's foreign relations. Professor Christensen has published a book, Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and SinoAmerican Conflict, 1947–1958, and articles on several topics, including "Theater Missile Defense and Taiwan's Security," Orbis, Winter 2000; "China: Getting the Questions Right," with Richard K. Betts, The National Interest, Winter 200/01; and "Posing Problems without Catching Up," International Security, Vol. 25, No. 4, Spring 2001. He is currently studying the role of nationalism and ideology in Communist alliances in East Asia during the Cold War and how the legacy of U.S. Cold War alliances affect contemporary East Asian international relations. Professor Christensen is also working on projects relating to the growth of Chinese power, China's contemporary military doctrine, and American strategy toward East Asia.

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Foreign Policy

Thomas Christensen is on leave

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Monday, January 30, 2006

This issue of the China Leadership Monitor does not include an article on foreign policy because our regular contributor on this issue, Professor Thomas Christensen, has been selected as deputy assistant secretary for East Asia in the Department of State. Although we will miss his contributions to the Monitor while he is in the nation's service, we offer him our congratulations.

Foreign Policy

Will China Become a "Responsible Stakeholder"?—The Six Party Talks, Taiwan Arms Sales, and Sino-Japanese Relations

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Sunday, October 30, 2005

In recent months, China's security policy has enjoyed significant successes. Relations with the United States have improved, particularly on issues related to North Korea. The mainland's generally relaxed approach toward Taiwan apparently has also paid dividends for Beijing by helping to solidify domestic resistance in Taipei to the purchase of weapons systems on offer from the United States since April 2001. Beijing, however, still has dangerously tense relations with Japan over disputed maritime claims that have implications for energy resource exploitation and control of sea lines of communication. These disputes, especially in the context of tensions over Japan's treatment of its wartime history, threaten to destabilize great power relations in the region and undercut China's efforts to promote itself as a power whose rise will only bring peace to East Asia.

Foreign Policy

Looking Beyond the Nuclear Bluster: Recent Progress and Remaining Problems in PRC Security Policy

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Saturday, July 30, 2005

At a July press conference, PLA Major General Zhu Chenghu appeared to threaten nuclear first strikes on the United States in retaliation for American intervention in the Taiwan Strait. Predictably, General Zhu's remarks received tremendous attention in Washington and elsewhere. In addition, the Pentagon's recently released annual report on Chinese military power evoked a harsh and excessive reaction in Beijing. Unfortunately, therefore, when many Americans reflect on the past few months of U.S.-China security relations, they will think of the specter of nuclear exchanges. In general, however, Beijing's diplomacy on security issues over the same period has improved, a more basic trend that should not be overshadowed by General Zhu's bluster and Beijing's heated response to the Pentagon report.

Foreign Policy

Old Problems Trump New Thinking: China's Security Relations with Taiwan, North Korea, and Japan

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Saturday, April 30, 2005

Recent months have hardly been proud ones for People's Republic of China (PRC) security policy. On diplomatic policies toward Taiwan, Japan, and North Korea, respectively, Beijing has appeared bullying, emotional, and ineffective. Given the widely negative reaction to the passage of an antisecession law, it remains to be seen whether recent trips by Taiwan's opposition party leaders to the mainland in April and May will improve relations across the Strait or will polarize Taiwan politics and destabilize cross-Strait relations. With respect to Japan, government inactivity in the face of acts of vandalism and racist sloganeering on the streets of its major cities seemingly contradicts the PRC's effort to put a smiling face on a rising China. On North Korea policy, Beijing either has decided to live with a nuclear Pyongyang or, more likely, has simply been ineffective in trying to lure the Democratic People's Republic of Korea back to the six-party talks. These outcomes do not match the Chinese Communist Party's self-styled image as a peaceful, responsible, and constructive rising power.

Foreign Policy

Taiwan's Legislative Yuan Elections and Cross-Strait Security Relations: Reduced Tensions and Remaining Challenges

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Sunday, January 30, 2005

In 2004 severe pessimism in Beijing about long-term trend lines in relations across the Taiwan Strait raised prospects for conflict over the next few years. However, Taiwan's December 2004 Legislative Yuan elections surprised observers on both sides of the Strait and in the United States. The inability of pro-independence parties to obtain a majority of seats makes it more difficult for them to push through controversial constitutional revisions that may be red lines for PRC military action against Taiwan. Despite mixed trends in the state of cross-Strait relations—manifested on one hand by agreement on two-way, nonstop charter flights between Taiwan and the mainland for the Chinese New Year and on the other by Beijing's pending "anti-secession" legislation—the atmosphere is markedly better than it was last year, and the likelihood of military conflict over the next two to three years seems appreciably lower than it did just a few months ago.

Foreign Policy

PRC Security Relations with the United States: Why Things Are Going So Well

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Thursday, October 30, 2003

My first contribution to China Leadership Monitor was completed 10 days before the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. In that essay, I laid out reasons for optimism and pessimism about trends in People's Republic of China (PRC) security relations with Taiwan, the United States, and U.S. allies in the region. If we apply the template laid out in that essay to the contemporary setting, it is quite clear that U.S.-PRC relations are more stable and constructive than they have been at any other time since the period prior to the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. In fact, on issues such as North Korea, Washington and Beijing are closer to the long-term goal of a security partnership, articulated by the Clinton administration, than anyone could have expected when the Bush administration first assumed office. The early months of 2001 saw tough rhetoric on China out of Washington and a brief crisis in bilateral relations following the collision of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) jet fighter and a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane. Since fall 2001, however, relations have improved dramatically. There are still problems, of course. For example, there is still much improvement to be made on issues such as PRC weapons proliferation. That having been said, cooperation in the war on terrorism has been real, as I have outlined in previous editions of CLM. Beijing was also not very vocal in its opposition to the war in Iraq. Moreover, in the past several weeks Beijing has been extremely helpful to Washington in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis and pressuring Pyongyang to accept a multilateral forum for negotiations. This cooperation has led to the assessment by Secretary of State Colin Powell that U.S.-PRC relations are at their most constructive "in decades." In this essay, I lay out the reasons for this basic turnaround in U.S.-PRC bilateral relations.

Foreign Policy

PRC Foreign Relations after the National People's Congress: Iraq, North Korea, SARS, and Taiwan

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The National People's Congress (NPC) in mid-March produced all the major leadership outcomes predicted by experts on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) personnel issues: Hu Jintao, of course, became president of the People's Republic of China (PRC); Jiang Zemin maintained his powerful position as chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC); and, as long anticipated, Li Zhaoxing replaced Tang Jiaxuan as foreign minister. Tang was promoted to replace Qian Qichen in the role of party overseer of Chinese foreign policy, while trade negotiator Wu Yi will handle the trade portfolio and advise Tang. This lineup is exactly what was predicted by my interlocutors in Beijing in January. Although the NPC followed predicted paths, this outcome does not mean the event was unimportant to PRC foreign policy. On the contrary, China's behavior on the international stage has changed significantly since the NPC on two key issues for U.S.-China relations and China's role in the region: North Korea and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Although neither problem is close to being solved permanently, China adopted an about-face on both issues in the weeks after the NPC ended and the U.S.-led war in Iraq began. The military overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad and the passing of the NPC were, arguably, the two most important determinants of the new trends. Relations with Taiwan have been affected by Iraq, North Korea, SARS, and electoral politics in Taipei. Release of the anticipated "assessment" of cross-Strait relations—allegedly a road map for how to pursue gradually the development of direct air, shipping, and communications links (the "three links") across the Taiwan Strait—has been delayed by some combination of international and domestic factors relating to the March 2004 Taiwan presidential elections (for discussion of the assessment, see my entry in CLM 6).

Foreign Policy

Optimistic Trends and Near-term Challenges: Sino-American Security Relations in Early 2003

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, April 30, 2003

In the last edition of China Leadership Monitor, I explored the ways in which the leadership transition to the "fourth generation" of Chinese leaders might possibly affect Sino-American security relations in the future. At the time (late December 2002), it was difficult to draw very many conclusions, particularly since I had not visited China after the Crawford summit and the 16th Party Congress. I subsequently traveled with a Harvard entourage to Taipei, Shanghai, and Beijing in January to interview government elites, government and nongovernment think-tank scholars, and university academics. The main topic of our discussions was relations across the Taiwan Strait, but we also discussed other issues related to U.S.-China security relations, especially questions regarding North Korea, arms proliferation, and Iraq.

Foreign Policy

The Party Transition: Will It Bring a New Maturity in Chinese Security Policy?

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Thursday, January 30, 2003

This essay addresses three questions relating to the 16th Party Congress. First, what do the power transition and the new lineup of leaders mean for the prospect for future flexibility and new thinking in Beijing on key security issues important to U.S.-China relations: Taiwan, the war on terrorism, Iraq and the U.N. Security Council, weapons proliferation, North Korea, etc.? Second, what evidence exists of new thinking more broadly in the younger generations of Chinese foreign policy elites (35-60 years old) who are replacing the generation of Jiang Zemin, Qian Qichen, and retiring generals such as Chi Haotian and Zhang Wannian? Third, what role do these changes play, if any, in the marked recent warming trends in relations between Washington and Beijing?

Foreign Policy

A Smooth Ride Despite Many Potholes: The Road to Crawford

by Thomas Christensenvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The last several months since Hu Jintao's visit to Washington have been very good ones in Sino-American relations. This is true not because the relationship was without sources of friction, but precisely because there were so many such sources, yet they produced little heat. One might draw the conclusion that this state of affairs means a permanent maturing of Sino-American relations. Unfortunately, one would have to base this assessment on scant and perhaps mercurial evidence, since there are so many domestic and international reasons for Beijing and Washington to cooperate in the near term. That word of caution having been voiced, the Bush administration and Jiang Zemin's government have chosen to build on areas of common interest and to minimize areas of conflict without backing away from core elements of their security policies and without ignoring the large differences that they still have over arms proliferation, relations across the Taiwan Strait, and the U.S. approach to the war on terrorism.

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