Since the beginning of this year, strategic circles in the United States are engaged in heated debates on China policy through a myriad of articles — among them A Rival of America’s Making? The Debate Over Washington’s China Strategy.
A few rational voices have emerged in the U.S., including G. John Ikenberry, Charles Freeman, Susan Thornton, Evan A. Feigenbaum, Joseph Nye, Bonny Lin, Ryan Hass, Jessica Chen Weiss, Carla P. Freeman and Richard Haass, who have been making the case that the U.S. should run its own affairs well and have spoken up against the Cold War mentality and containment strategy in dealing with China.
Also, they call for a more prudent approach to the Taiwan question, for more engagement and cooperation and more high-level dialogue on crisis management and cooperation in global governance between the two countries.
One article — The China Trap: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Perilous Logic of Zero-Sum Competition — by Weiss, a professor at Cornell University and a member of the new generation of China experts, is one of the most revealing. It argues that the U.S. obsession with strategic competition is a drain on its foreign policy. The U.S. has been caught in a China trap of its own that features knee-jerk reactions and politically correct hard-line anti-China policies at the cost of other pressing issues that need to be addressed.
The review of America’s strategic policy toward China at this stage takes place in a distinct context closely associated with the three crises the U.S. has experienced this year. The first is the Russia-Ukraine war. In the view of many in U.S. strategic circles, the Biden administration has responded well. The U.S. military has not been directly involved, but has demonstrated its power through economic, information and political warfare, and the U.S. has further united the West, energized NATO and increased its leverage to deter China.
However, in the view of strategists such as Richard Haass, by comparison with the U.S. diplomatic mobilization in the Gulf War, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has exposed the decline of U.S. global leadership. Most of the world has not joined the sanctions against Russia and the strategic cooperation between Russia and China has given Russia — which is far less powerful than the former Soviet Union — the wherewithal to compete with the U.S. and the West.
The change in the dynamics between China, Russia and the U.S. is driven by the common interests of both the former, but is also the inevitable consequence of the U.S. hard-line policy toward China. In the face of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the U.S. finds itself caught in a two-front war, in the East and West, but also has to squarely face a significant decline in its control of the international system.
The second crisis is the one involving Taiwan. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “ill-advised” visit to the region led to serious consequences that exceeded the expectations of the U.S. strategic community. In the view of Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Ryan Hass, the mainland has gained the initiative to deal with the crisis through unprecedented military exercises, missile launches, ship and aircraft crossings of the median line, and the release of a white paper.
The crisis has demonstrated China’s resolve to defend the country’s territorial sovereignty and security, as well as other matters at stake in the Taiwan question, given the context of the U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. recognizes that “in spite of its provocation,” the Chinese mainland’s countermeasures “have not inspired strategic anxiety in neighboring countries. Rather, quite a few countries have chosen to side with China on this issue.”
The crisis has also alerted the U.S. strategic community to the dangers involved in the U.S. grand strategy being taken hostage by the Taiwan issue. Bonny Lin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies is among the scholars who are arguing that “the Biden administration should clarify the principle that in the event of provocation by Taiwan independence forces, U.S. commitments to Taiwan will be null and void.”
The third crisis is the U.S. domestic imbroglio. While the midterm election is around the corner, the country is still reeling from the negative effects of the 2020 general election both in domestic politics and international image. The acrimony surrounding the abortion rights debate, the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party and the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in connection with an investigation of his handling of top-secret documents all add to the partisan disputes, political polarization and social conflicts.
Should the Democrats lose their thin congressional majority in the midterms, President Joe Biden’s administration will face huge constraints over the next two years, with a direct impact on the 2024 election. As the presidential election draws near, public attention will shift from foreign issues and focus more on the economy, gun control, immigration and other domestic issues. This provides an opportunity to reduce tensions over America’s China policy.
Some strategic thinkers, including Joseph Nye, believe the biggest problem for the U.S. is not its external challenges, but “reviving its own democracy,” as a divided America will not only lose its will to lead international affairs and its soft power but will also cast doubt on the stability of U.S. foreign policy among its allies and partners. Michael Brenes and Van Jackson hold that Cold War thinking and great power rivalry strategies will not help solve the most pressing problems plaguing American democracy but will instead exacerbate the country’s decline.
Reflections on China policy in the U.S. strategic community at this stage are mostly driven by specific issues arising from America’s own national interests and tactical adjustments. The voices of rationality may not substantially change the main thrust of the Biden administration’s China strategy, but they provide important insights into the development of U.S.-China relations in the next stage.
First, the great debate on U.S. policy toward China is ongoing. The right course forward for China-U.S. relations is always a matter of debate. There is no shortage of strategists in the United States who think beyond the confines of a Cold War mentality and who are grounded in the general trends of world development. A group of China experts are not held hostage by anti-China politicians and insist on academic independence. They see the shifts in the world, historical trends and the changing times, all of which provide an opportunity for the strategic communities of both countries to reassess the importance of the bilateral relationship. Past interactions that fostered interdependence and win-win cooperation provide a sufficient theoretical underpinning for academic circles across the Pacific to predict the future of China-U.S. relations and guide the discussion.
Second, mindsets frame policy. It is relatively easy to adjust policies, but the change in mindset requires persistent effort. Under the last administration, Trump’s trade theory was costly to the U.S., as was other populist rhetoric that incrementally shaped U.S. public perception of China and set the stage for launching a trade war.
Although Biden has taken substantial measures to remove the negative impact of Trumpism on the U.S., the administration has no intention of redressing the biased perception of China; hence it has failed to address root causes and in unlikely to reverse America’s China policy.
Third, crisis and opportunity go hand in hand. Reflection opens up pathways to solutions. Fifty years ago, the tensions between the Soviet Union, China and the United States led to the opportunity of a breakthrough in China -U.S. relations. After 9/11, the threat of global terrorism led to China-U.S. counterterror cooperation. Under the Obama administration, a series of new non-traditional threats led to broad cooperation between China and the United States in the field of global governance.
When this new era finds itself faced with myriad traditional and non-traditional security challenges, should China be treated as a partner in governance or as an adversary oblivious to real security threats? The answer lies in the China policy debate and in the Biden administration’s choices. The answer will have far-reaching implications for both countries, as well as for the course of world history.