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Foreign Policy

Why the U.S.’ China Policy Will Remain Confrontational

Nov 09, 2018
  • Ethan Paul

    American scholar at Yenching Academy of Peking University


While the overall intentions of the Obama administration's "Pivot to Asia" are up for debate, any clear-eyed assessment of the Trump administration's China policy is that it is one of unabashed and comprehensive containment. As is well known, the Trump administration has directly labeled China a "strategic competitor" and a "whole-of-society threat," placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports, publicly accused China of using a "whole-of-government" approach to interfere in American elections and domestic affairs, and ratcheted up tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

This broad reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship extends well beyond the White House, with U.S. elites from across every domain of American political life coalescing around a shared narrative of growing disillusionment with China.

This narrative contends that the U.S.'s longstanding policy of "engagement" has in large part failed, insofar as China's integration into the existing international order did not mold its behavior into that of a "responsible stakeholder," nor did China's political and economic systems liberalize to the degree envisioned. Due to this failure, the story goes, for the foreseeable future China's long-term political, economic, and geopolitical interests are and will remain fundamentally incompatible with the U.S.' interests and its preconceived notion of its role in the world, and U.S. policy needs to adapt to meet this new reality.

While the Trump administration is clearly important for understanding the U.S.-China relationship over the short-term, the growing disillusionment among elites should be seen as a signal of where the relationship will go in the long-run, as elites ultimately determine the structure upon which foreign policy is conceived, deliberated, constructed, and implemented.

And the signal they are sending portends a long and protracted period of aggressive and hostile confrontation. Most of the policy domains that elites are growing increasingly disenchanted with are those which China views as core, fundamental interests, and in which China will not budge regardless of how much pressure is brought to bear. In particular, these include the ongoing rule and domestic political priorities of the Communist Party, a state-led economic agenda that will allow China to develop technological independence and advantages, a more assertive foreign policy in accordance with China's growing economic and political clout, and a stronger and more forward-looking military posture.

Moreover, even if U.S. elites recognize that they cannot and should not try to fundamentally alter China, in many respects the cat has already been let out of the bag: the Trump administration has shown Chinese policymakers that at least parts of the U.S. political system are willing to use China's exposure to the U.S. economy as leverage to extract policy concessions (something that President Bill Clinton tried in the 1990's, yet was forced to roll back due to pushback from the business community - a counterbalancing force that is noticeably less present today). Thus, the only way for China to guarantee its independence and sovereignty over the long-run, insofar as it is not forced to negotiate with the U.S. with a gun to its head, is for it to limit its interdependence with and reliance on the U.S. economy.

As a result, unless some sort of comprehensive "grand bargain" is struck soon, it is likely that the current tumult instigated by the Trump administration is just the beginning of what will be a long, drawn out and prolonged standoff between the two most powerful geopolitical actors in world history, one that will see a bifurcation of the world into two distinct and separate spheres of economic and political influence. In other words, the current spasms in the relationship, which many only view as short-term growing pains that will eventually pass, actually represent the birth of a second Cold War.

Nonetheless, skeptics will argue that this view is too pessimistic, and that the U.S. and China have too much to lose in such a scenario for both sides not to eventually cut a deal that reconciles their irreconcilable differences. I will argue here that, along with the short-term changes in elite perceptions outlined above, there are two larger trends internal to the U.S. that will tend to drive the relationship toward confrontation rather than compromise.

First, if the contradictory presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump have proven anything, it is that America is becoming an increasingly divided and polarized country. In many respects, these growing divisions have resulted in the complete bifurcation of American politics, with both sides of the partisan divide operating in their own distinct worlds: they receive their news from different media outlets prioritizing entirely different issues, approach many of these issues with their own set of facts and interpretations of basic historical events, and increasingly view the other side as a threat to the future wellbeing and security of the nation.

Democracies, especially those operating under a system of divided powers, cannot survive let alone thrive under such conditions, and natural pressures within the system will always drive it to find outlets for unification. Unfortunately, there is not a single issue in American politics which offers the same opportunity for broad bipartisan unity as China does.

Every single major coalition in the American electorate, including the business and finance community, human rights and democracy advocates, defense hawks, libertarians and privacy defenders, labor unions and economic leftists, and the increasingly powerful and outspoken white nationalists each have their own bones to pick with China.

Moreover, although the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns did not have much in common, they were both clearly speaking to what is a growing demand for populism among Americans, one that can effectively identify and fight back against the enemy of "real America." In the case of Trump, this enemy was Mexicans, Muslims, the news media, the liberal elite, refugees, and China, while in the case of Sanders, this enemy was the big banks, the health insurance industry, the broader corporate class, individual oligarchs such as the Koch brothers and corporations that moved their factories to China and Mexico. Again, it is likely that China is the sole entity that could satisfy America’s growing demands for populism in a bipartisan fashion.

While a broad anti-China coalition has yet to emerge as a prominent electoral force on the national stage, all it would take for it to do so is an ambitious politician with the vision, eloquence, and political skill that would inevitably be necessary to manage such a coalition's internal contradictions. While Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, arguably has none of these necessary traits, his increasingly outspoken and hawkish stance on China portends that he will be the first to attempt such a strategy in a future presidential contest. He will almost certainly not be the last.

Second, a natural consequence of political division and disagreement is gridlock and decay. Apart from expressing support for Israel and passing tax cuts, the only other policy goal the U.S. Congress has been consistently effective at accomplishing is spending money on the military. Indeed, next year’s Congressional budget allocated $717 billion to the military, roughly the size of the next seven-largest spenders combined.

There is no reason not to expect this level of funding to remain for the foreseeable future, and thus there is every reason to expect U.S. military power and reach to continue to be in a league and class of its own.

Yet, military power is not the only important component of national power: America's dynamic economy and the attractiveness of America's values and vision, known as "soft power” among political scientists, were also both critical to America's post-World-War II dominance, and if anything are more important for exercising influence in today's globalized, interconnected and pluralistic world.

Yet, America's capabilities in these regards have been, and are likely to continue to be, decaying.

It is true that, over the last thirty years the U.S. economy has created enormous amounts of wealth, and that the U.S. has some of the best universities and most innovative businesses in the world. Nonetheless, the simple reality is that all of the benefits of this wealth and institutional power are increasingly being held a small portion of the population.

On its current path, this trend is both economically unsustainable and politically untenable, insofar as it will lead to a completely unbalanced and fragile economy and will create a broad coalition of displaced, angry, and motivated individuals who could just as easily elect a demagogic and destructive leader as one who seeks to implement sound economic policy.

However, this is only likely to get much, much worse: the coming age of automation, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing will supercharge present levels of inequality and disruption, as these technologies will naturally empower the limited few with the capital or skill necessary to leverage their advantages. Everyone else, such as the truck driver who was previously able to make a decent living but whose entire industry was wiped out over the course of a decade, will be confined to an increasingly large labor pool filled with the displaced and disgruntled, each competing with each other for the few menial jobs that will remain.

And, given that the U.S. Congress has shown itself utterly unable to deal with both large and small economic problems in the past, ranging from the enormous cost of and waste in the U.S. healthcare system to the rapid rise in the cost of a college education, it is evidently reasonable that it will be unable to bring any semblance of stability or balance to the coming economic transition.

Along with limiting its ability to maintain domestic stability, these economic problems will, over the long-run, dramatically limit its ability to develop and exercise leverage abroad in manners that have undergirded American power in the past.

Decay in American soft power can also be partially explained by and attributed to American political dysfunction. For example, when the political party that controls all three branches of government does not take seriously, or even believe in, human-caused climate change, this is going to send a signal to other governments and populaces alike that your system of government is not an attractive one, and that you cannot be trusted as a political partner or leader.

Yet, mere failures in the American policymaking process do not tell the whole story.

Unfortunately, when a country elects a president who brags about sexually assaulting women, calls for the complete ban of a religious group, and lies in such a consistent and brazen manner, this sends a similar if not stronger signal about whether or not that country can be trusted as a global leader. Likewise, in the last month 12 Jews were murdered in their place of worship in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an event that occurred only a week after a man sent bombs to the houses and workplaces of prominent Democratic officials, again calling into question whether or not there is something deeply wrong at the heart of American culture.

Given that these two trends are unlikely to abate anytime soon, while at the same time the U.S. military will continue to receive exorbitant levels of funding, it is reasonable to expect that American foreign policy will become increasingly reliant on, and dominated by, military power and force. Apart from the ways in which this will bureaucratically empower the military, this reliance on one sole source of power will also color the perceptions of the entire U.S. government, naturally resulting in a more hawkish and aggressive stance towards its enemies, particularly China.

The downsides of a prolonged period of confrontation and strategic competition between the U.S. and China over the course of the next half-century are obvious. First and foremost is the likelihood, however remote, that such a relationship would degenerate into outright conflict and war, a cataclysmic turn of events that would assuredly result in tens of million of deaths, the near-obliteration of the global economy, and the possible destruction of the world as we know it, considering the nuclear capabilities of both states. That the consequences are so awesome, and in many respects beyond our ability to comprehend, should not tempt us into complacency; the only way to prevent such an outcome is to be constantly vigilant and forward-looking, always remembering that many parts of the American political system, including the American electorate itself, have shown themselves captured by a unique irrationality.

Beyond a brutal war, the other obvious downside is that such a confrontation would prevent cooperation on areas of mutual interest. From stopping climate change to preventing nuclear proliferation to writing the rules of the automated and digitized economy to countering the rise of the next generation of terrorists, the U.S. and China share plenty of obvious interests, cooperation on these fronts would inevitably become infected by the mistrust and duplicity that stem from great power competition.

The third, and not so obvious downside is the enormous opportunity cost. A prolonged U.S.-China confrontation, even one that does not devolve into outright conflict, would cost both countries tens of trillions of dollars as they ramp up investments in their militaries and strategic economic sectors, engage in acts of espionage and counter-espionage in order to gain strategic advantages, and enter into costly relationships, partnerships, and deals which incur an economic cost in exchange for some sort of geopolitical leverage.

This enormous pile of cash that would be required to fund said competition would be much better spent investing in the education, healthcare, living standards, housing, and skills of each country's population.

I will close by offering four clear policy recommendations for the U.S. which each seek to limit the likelihood of a prolonged U.S.-China confrontation.

First and foremost, the U.S. needs to try to see things from China's perspective and grapple with the U.S.' own long history of failure in the areas of domestic and foreign policy. For the country who fifteen years ago unilaterally invaded Iraq, an action that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and the creation of a power vacuum that ultimately precipitated the rise of the Islamic State, to lament that China is not a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system is the definition of hypocrisy and revisionism. The same could easily be said for the U.S.' domestic economic policies (it was only ten years ago that the U.S.'s freewheeling and poorly regulated financial system nearly brought down the entire global economy) and the U.S.' position on human rights (Saudi Arabia, one of the U.S.' closest allies, is currently engaged in a civil war in Yemen, using weapons produced in and supplied by the U.S., that has helped create the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history).

As a result of this sort of hypocrisy, which seems to coat nearly every aspect of the U.S.-China relationship, it would be evidently reasonable for a Chinese policymaker to look at U.S. policy toward China and seen an agenda rooted in no higher principles or purpose other than the U.S.'s imperial ambitions. In other words, because the U.S. consistently fails to follow through on the values it seeks to hold others to, it follows that the U.S. only cares about these values insofar as they can be used as a club against others to further its own agenda.

Such an evaluation will, in turn, only drive Chinese policymakers to view themselves as engaged in a zero-sum conflict with a ruthless enemy that cannot be trusted or legitimately negotiated with, a view that will subsequently produce policy outcomes in Beijing that will only draw more pushback from Washington, thus precipitating a downward spiral that fundamentally corrupts the relationship.

While said corruption will not be fixed in one sweep, the first step toward at least mending it is to start holding others to the same standard that you hold yourself to, in a manner that allows you to acknowledge the legitimacy of their perceptions, fears, and interests, rather than just assuming they are all rooted in bad faith.

This leads directly to the second policy recommendation: once the U.S. begins to put itself in China’s shoes and hold it to the same standard it holds itself to, the U.S. can begin to deal with the fact that, although it may have fundamental policy disagreements with China, it is natural for it to take on greater influence in, and even to want to fundamentally alter, the current international order.

Rather than framing China's geopolitical ambitions as in inherent opposition to U.S. interests, the U.S. should welcome them as the inevitable outcome of larger and uncontrollable geopolitical trends, and should even partner with China where possible. For example, the U.S. could join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, could negotiate a TPP-like trade deal in which China's voice is given a central role throughout the process, and could use some of its comparative advantages to supplement some Belt and Road projects. While, as with any international endeavor, such efforts would inevitably run into snags, it would go a long way toward signaling to Beijing and the Chinese people that the U.S. does not see China's growing global influence as inherently suspicious or as necessarily coming at the cost of American interests.

Third, the U.S. should try to internalize not only the consequences of a direct conflict, but also the opportunity cost associated with a prolonged confrontation. Said internalization should lead U.S. policymakers to realize that there are some fights which are simply not worth engaging in, and that both parties would ultimately be better off if they cut a deal, even at the cost of American pride. This is most relevant in the South China Sea, where a large portion of long-term military investments would be deployed to, and where the likelihood of a small incident sparking a larger military conflict is highest.

Lastly, the U.S. should come to grips with the nature of American decay and 21st century power. Resources need to be rebalanced away from the military and invested instead in America's long-term economic health, its diplomatic capacity, and its ability to furnish public goods. Whatever forces are corrupting America's political and social institutions, which are resulting in outcomes like the resurgence of a powerful white nationalism and the dominance of a political party that expressly denies the existence of human-caused climate change, need to be likewise dealt with.

This would not only prevent American foreign policy from being coopted or captured entirely by the military, but would also allow it to exercise more influence on the global stage for an extended period of time. And this is not just in the U.S.' interests: an America that is more balanced, stable and certain of its place in the world will be far less likely to lash out at China, and far more likely to cooperate with it on issues in which we share a common mutual interest.

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