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Foreign Policy

A Generational Divide in America’s Approach to China

Sep 25 , 2019

The Washington Post ran an article on 17 August entitled “Generational clash emerges among U.S. experts on China,” with the central message that the strategic community in Washington is in the midst of a generational divergence when it comes to China policy. The new generation advocates a more belligerent and hardline approach compared to the veteran China hands, driven by their negative outlook on bilateral ties. We should refrain from portraying the dynamic shift with too broad a brushstroke, as there have always been both hawks and those of the “China school.” Nevertheless, the prevailing thinking has changed. To dissect this shift in attitude, the following three aspects warrant attention.

First, this generational gap reflects a divergence in historical contexts. Times shape the people living in them. The older generation was born in the baby boom era, and bore vivid memories of the devastation wrecked by World War and the Cold War, and hence were passionate in pursuing peace. They witnessed the changing dynamics between China, the former Soviet Union and the United States through the years, and appreciated what China had achieved by moving past the cultural revolution, pursuing reform and opening up. It is a generation that understands the importance of U.S. engagement with China to advance win-win cooperation.

By contrast, the newer generation was born and raised in the post-Cold War era. In a far less volatile world, the United States reached the apogee of its power, so much so that the theory of “the end of history” gained traction because people began to think of the United States as invincible. These heady times have contributed to a new generation confident and proud of a U.S.-led globalized and information-based economy, while lacking material knowledge about and experience with the Soviet Union and China, and thus less equipped than the older generation to put China’s rise in perspective.

Second, the gap is driven by divergence in research and career backgrounds. The veterans such as John King Fairbank, Robert Barnett and Robert Scalapino all lived in China for many years and grew to know the country. Dr. Kissinger, Oksenberg, Harry Harding,Ken Liberthal and David Lampton were deeply involved in strategic policy-making regarding China, informed by extensive research over the course of their careers, which resulted in a holistic and well-founded understanding of China. The new generation tends to focus on certain aspects of China-U.S. relations in their research and adopt a more linear and quantified approach as opposed to a systemic and standardized research modus operandi. Many of them join the ranks of policy-making bodies with only partial understanding rather than a comprehensive grasp of China’s historic and modern development trajectory, which hampers their ability to see the big picture of China-U.S. relations.

Third, the gap is the result of changes in the external environment. The new generation of China experts operate in a more complex environment, where amateur media influencers and populism thrive, and anti-globalization, anti-elite sentiments surge, with the pendulum swinging towards ultra-conservatism. Back at home, the Trump administration represents a new form of governance shaped by America First, and looks for solutions (or scapegoats) to domestic plight from the outside. Political narratives are shaped by the grassroots instead of the elites as before. The new generation of China experts have been emboldened by far-right, populist voices that are increasingly influencing public sentiment in America.

China experts have always played an important role in China-U.S. relations, both as a window for Americans to learn about China, and as a bridge connecting policy-makers on both sides and enhancing trust. This year marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the United States. The steady development of China-U.S. relations over the past decades would not have been possible without the tremendous efforts and commitment of the veteran generation of China experts. History is but the change of circumstances and the people. Eventually, the new generation will take over the mantle from the veterans. Pessimist outlooks among the new generation of China experts, however, will only add to existing tension, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy out of the so-called Thucydides Trap. So it is imperative that the new generation see China and its development in a unbiased and objective manner. But how?

First, seeing is believing. China hands in the United States should visit China in person, or even live and work in China. Beijing and Shanghai are a must, but the rural, the communities and Western China should also be on the itinerary. They should see modern China, as well as developing China to get a full picture of the country. Second, diplomacy is essential. When tensions run high, it is all the more important to engage in dialogue and communication. Official level exchanges have dwindled compared with the Obama era. Scholars should take up the slack and reach out to their counterparts, work in concert on research and narrative-setting, co-author articles and involve more people in the conversation. Lastly, use history as a guide. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of international relations as a discipline. Scholars should review the past century of research achievements, in particular on the two world wars and the Cold War in the quest for a breakthrough of the current stalemate. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the United States, and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, presenting a good opportunity for the academia from the two countries to draw lessons from history and set the stage intellectually for China-U.S. relations over the next 40 years.

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