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Foreign Policy

China Needs to Engage the US Proactively

Nov 27, 2019
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor, National Niigata University in Japan

In the 1990s, U.S. policy circles debated whether the country should “engage” or “contain” China. Those in favor of engagement won, and the policy contributed to the rapid development of China-U.S. relations for more than 20 years.

But with the relative decrease of American power since the global financial crisis of 2008, doubts about the effectiveness of the engagement policy have been growing in the U.S. Since President Donald Trump took office, and as the trade war and high tech and geopolitical competition intensified, voices against engagement and calls for containment have also increased.

The 2017 National Security Strategy Report talked about the need for the U.S. to “rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

This is probably been the most direct official repudiation of the engagement policy. Many in U.S. policy and academic circles also believe that engagement has not only failed its purpose but also strengthened China and fueled a fundamental change in the balance of power such that China no longer hides its light, and that the U.S., which has been duped by China, must now give up the old engagement policy and turn to containment.

Chinese experts and scholars have done various analyses of the new developments in China-U.S. relations. Most of the discussions have focused on whether the U.S. engagement policy has qualitatively changed and whether there is now general agreement in the U.S. that it should be abandoned.

To be sure, analyzing American policy intentions is of great significance. But such an excessive focus on the U.S. perspective only showcases an outdated U.S.-centric mindset. China needs an innovative approach in its relations with the U.S., a need that has arisen, especially, since it became the world’s second-largest economy. China has been focusing on American thinking and behavior. Now it should focus more on its own thinking and try to shape American perceptions and policies toward China through proactive engagement.

The core goal of proactive engagement with the U.S. is to eliminate both the domestic and international soil in which the “futility of engagement” argument is cultivated.

Is it possible for China to engage the U.S. and change its behavior and perception? No serious thought has been given from this perspective, because it is presumed that America, a strong country, cannot be changed by China.

Despite major shifts in the balance of power, some scholars believe that the China-U.S. relationship is by nature one of structural contradictions between a rising power and a status quo power, and that confrontation will be the norm. In this connection, no matter what China says or does, the U.S. will always be suspicious and predisposed to contain it. Thus, there is no point in China taking the initiative and engaging the U.S. Only when China really possesses strength close to or greater than that of the U.S. will the international structure be stable. Only then will the two countries enjoy tranquility.

This structural stability argument seems to make sense. The problem is, arriving at that state will probably take a long time in a process filled with risks and conflicts. Without conscious and active control of those risks, the desired structural stability will probably not appear. For this reason, China must work hard to reduce the domestic market for this argument.

Internationally, and in the U.S. in particular, some people believe that engaging China has resulted in unequal exchanges between the two sides — the serious asymmetry in information openness, for example. An extension of this logic will necessarily lead to an attribution to the Chinese system. Should such a view prevail in the U.S., or even in the wider West, containment will become mainstream wisdom, and confrontation with China will be inevitable.

The key for China lies not with eliminating the “futility of engagement” argument, as such a view will exist anyway, but with reducing the soil that nurtures it. This requires China to reach out more proactively to people in all walks of life in the U.S. and to actively interact with U.S. allies and partners. At the same time, China itself needs to accelerate its reform, opening-up, readjustment and upgrading.

Americans’ perception of China and U.S. policy intentions are not constructed unilaterally but rather are shaped in a process of interaction and mutual influence, both with China and the rest of the world. In this connection, proactive engagement by China with the U.S. is by no means soft appeasement or concession. Instead, it will be conducive to the development of stable relations and serve China’s own long-term national interests, as well as the overall interests of the world community.

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