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Foreign Policy

Muscling China Won’t Work

Aug 03, 2021
  • Yang Wenjing

    Chief of US Foreign Policy, Institute of Contemporary International Relations

The China policy of the United States can be summed up based on its National Security Strategy Guidance and the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said the relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be, and that the U.S. will engage China from a “position of strength.”

Actually the idea is nothing new since it also resonates with Trump’s approach toward China. Trump declared that the U.S. would develop a constructive and results-oriented relationship, implying also that he would engage with China based on strength. 

To engage China from strength follows years of U.S. experience in dealing with China, according to the American experts we talked with. They conclude that China is “not interested in making specific progress through negotiations but rather keeping the momentum of talking as a symbol of cooperation with the U.S.” The strategic circles in America began to reflect on and doubt the merits of engagement as early as the late Obama era, and this orientation was picked up and embraced by the Trump administration, which resulted in a halt to most communication mechanisms between the U.S. and China. The only effective one was maintained solely for the purpose of trade negotiation to serve Trump’s “America first” agenda.

The administration of Joe Biden has also inherited this premise but with more incentives to talk under the  slogan of “peaceful coexistence” and a broader agenda for cooperation with China covering climate change, strategic balance, Iran and North Korea. However, the U.S. way of dealing with China is the same: try to exert as much leverage as possible to win an advantageous position before talks, in an attempt to force China to make some compromises during negotiations.

That’s why this time we see the U.S. moves to impose sanctions on several Chinese officials over Hong Kong and the groundless accusation that China is engaging in cyberattacks worldwide even before Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman came to Tianjin. She also posted two tweets before her visit, saying that “the Biden-Harris administration is pushing for a level playing field for American companies in China” — implying her tough attitude on the issue.

After Sherman’s meeting with Chinese diplomats, the news release from the U.S. side emphasized her criticisms of China on human rights and other actions that “run counter to our values and interests and those of our allies and partners,” which will certainly play to the tastes of her domestic audience. The U.S. also commented that the discussion was “frank and open” and that it looks forward to maintaining “open lines of communication.” Yet it seems the U.S. has not achieved anything worthwhile other than keeping dialogue going on.

The U.S. way of engaging China from strength will never work for China for three reasons:

First, the U.S. has labeled China its foremost national security challenge and “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” Logically, the combination of competition, confrontation and cooperation is inherently self-contradictory. One can hardly win substantial support from the other side when defining and treating the latter wholly as an adversary.

Consider what the Biden administration has done since taking office, furthering efforts toward economic decoupling, especially in the trade and technology spheres, fabricating an alliance and partnership front against China based on so-called “common interests and values” and alienating China in international regimes and norms by advocating such concepts as a “rules-based order” and democracy — not to mention U.S. efforts in dragging alliances to meddle in China’s domestic affairs on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. These all touch highly sensitive Chinese nerves and are seen as prohibitively hostile. As for Sherman, blaming China once again on all the above is by no means helpful if the U.S. really intends to engage.

Second, the U.S. approach poses a challenge to China’s long-held policy guidelines in dealing with other countries based on “mutual respect and equality,” which also accounts for one crucial pillar of the “new type of big power relationship.” To engage China from strength means to coerce China into yielding under U.S. pressure, which is dismissive of China’s sovereignty and dignity. With the rise of China’s power, this is not acceptable to the domestic audience and would be seen as a national shame.

Third, with the alertness and caution of the paradigm shift in U.S. policy toward China and the ensuing domestic mobilization to confront China’s threat, China has already begun to readjust both internal and external policies so to prepare for a possible decoupling with the U.S. economy. China’s rapid recovery from the pandemic and sound economic development afterward has further narrowed the gap in GDP with the U.S. and sped up the pace to surpass it.

In contrast, the U.S. is still struggling domestically under the pandemic and its political polarization hampers the efficiency of governance, which made its domestic economic initiative difficult to promote — such as the current infrastructure bill. China is increasingly confident in handling a world independent of U.S. influence and also has to make ready for such a possibility.

In the days to come, to engage and cooperate with each other is still important, not only for communication but also for common interests, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. However, the U.S. should keep in mind, to educate China on issues of difference and force China to change — and to impede China’s core interests in its political system, economic development and territorial integrity — will be ineffective and sometimes counterproductive in managing the bilateral relationship in this moment of high competition.

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