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Foreign Policy

Some Thoughtful Voices

May 17, 2021
  • Wang Fan

    Vice President, China Foreign Affairs University

Recently, voices in the United States calling for a tough policy toward China have become one-sided. The U.S. Congress, where the debate between the two major political parties is fiercest, also passed the Strategic Competition Act of 2021. Polls show a rising proportion of people who support a tough China policy. In this context, we can conclude that America’s tough-on-China approach will continue and may even strengthen.

However, there is another voice in the U.S. that deserves attention. Joseph Nye stresses that there is no need for the U.S. to be paranoid, and it should avoid overreacting and exaggerating its fears about China.

Michael D. Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute, a think tank, wrote recently in Foreign Policy that there is not much evidence to support the view that China is a serious threat to the U.S. Even as a military power, China does not have the ability to destroy the U.S. without destroying itself. Nor does Chinese economic influence rise to the point where it can pose an existential threat to the U.S. The ideological threat, far from being an existential threat, has also been overstated.

Rejecting the specious argument that China poses an existential threat will make it easier for the U.S. to meet the challenge. Ryan Hass, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs that China is the greatest challenge facing the United States. The U.S. should take this challenge seriously, but at the same time it should avoid overplaying the strength of its competitor, which can lead to misperceptions and thus to bad policy choices.

Sam Sacks, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security, puts forward the “small yard, high fence” theory. Sacks believes that the U.S. should select and identify several technologies key to American national security (the “small yard”) and take action to protect them (the “high wall”), to achieve a new U.S.-China relationship that can best serve the interests of the U.S. and take proper care of the interests of China.

Direct competition with China comes at a huge cost. The U.S. needs to consider the competition and coexistence with China in terms of both costs and risks. According to the Foreign Affairs article “How to Craft a Durable China Strategy” by Evan Medeiros, former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council, the new China policy needs to shift to a framework based on risk management and no longer seek to weaken competition for the sake of cooperation.

To build such a framework, the U.S. needs to begin by discussing what competition is and what it is not. It also needs to readjust its expectations for outcomes in the China-U.S. relationship and try to reset China’s expectations of U.S. behavior. Simultaneously, it needs to rebuild the decision-making process for China policy.

These attitudes reflect the following perspectives:

First, it is believed that the U.S. is exaggerating the threat from China. Some U.S. elites thus advocate an accurate and effective evaluation of America’s strategy to avoid excessive costs and risks to the U.S. that come from overstating the threat. The tough-on-China policy needs a degree of control.

Second, some think that being tough on China requires a change of approach, since competition will come at a huge cost. While China is posing a greater challenge, the U.S. is facing more domestic difficulties. So it will adopt more narrowly focused policies that target China directly, rather than making enemies everywhere. That is why the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan and eased relations with Iran. At the same time, it will bring its allies together against China.

Third, America’s China strategy will be long-term. The Biden administration’s strategy is based on a plan to weaken China through long-range competition unfolded in stages, rather than a one-shot approach like Trump’s.

These views, though not mainstream, reflect a more sophisticated design for America’s China strategy and are likely to have an impact on its evaluation process. Therefore, they are worthy of high attention. They also show that while it gets tough with China, the U.S. does have a bottom line for costs.

In other words, the Biden administration would emphasize both intense long-term competition and coexistence in its China strategy. It will therefore engage in competition with China on one hand while taking costs and risks into account on the other. Of course, these do not mean that the U.S. will adopt a soft and cooperative policy toward China. They just mean, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, that the U.S. will not use brute force to deal with China, but will start a more measured and selective economic decoupling.

On the technology front, there has been a quiet, bipartisan effort to develop an industrial policy that would strengthen U.S. competitiveness in semiconductors, 5G and other emerging technologies that the Biden administration wants to develop.

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