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Foreign Policy

Washington’s Muddled China Policy

Jun 25, 2021


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What do American policy-makers aim to achieve with their increasingly hardened and aggressive stance vis-à-vis China? It seems many outside the Beltway are at a loss as to what the exact objectives are. 

The former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, hinted just after stepping down that he thought the American stance towards China was ill-advised and too hardline. During a lecture, he noted how he had been discussing China with many senior American officials, but always ended up with more questions than answers. 

His main gripe was that the policy objectives in Washington were neither coherent nor clear. From Cohen’s point of view, China is a friendly country to Israel with extensive trade, science, research, and technology relations. In his words: “We need to be careful not to refer to China as a challenge. We don’t want to create a confrontation with the Chinese who do not conspire against us in any way.” 

The irony of this is that Cohen was up until recently one of the most powerful and influential security officials in Israel. He had especially close relations with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the chief designers of the Trump administration’s hardline stance against China. 

Since roughly the second half of Trump’s presidential tenure, American policy towards China shifted remarkably. The opening salvo was Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute in October 2018, often seen as a portend of a new cold war. But no speech was more pointed in painting an ominous threat perception of China than Mike Pompeo’s at the Nixon Presidential Library in July 2020. 

It stands as one of the most striking examples of trying to create a nefarious “other,” arguing that China, especially the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), must be seen as a major threat to the Western liberal order. As a result, the United States and all like-minded powers must contain China and rapidly decouple their economies, Pompeo reasoned. 

Following the Trump administration, Congress became increasingly pre-occupied with meeting the China challenge as well. The culmination of this progression is the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (formerly known as the Endless Frontiers Act), a version of which was just passed by the U.S. Senate. It is a rare example of bipartisan cooperation. In fact, evoking the threat of China might be the only way to bring Democrats and Republicans together. Some predict that it could be the last bipartisan bill of the year. 

The Act represents an ambitious effort to undertake large-scale industrial policy that can ramp up technology manufacturing and match competition from China. However, the bill takes a scattershot approach, attempting to do a bit of everything, and not much of anything. The funds earmarked for the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy are much needed to spur research and development. But, overall, funds to support cutting-edge science and manufacturing are minor compared to what, for instance, South Korea and China have budgeted. 

The bill is also replete with measures that are less important in substance, but full of symbolism. They continue many Trumpian tough-on-China measures included in the proposed Countering Chinese Communist Party Malign Influence Act sponsored by Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas. Measures range from various sanctions, such as barring U.S. officials from attending the 2022 Beijing Olympics, to beefing up relations with Taiwan. 

The Biden administration never distanced itself from Trump’s tough-on-China stance. Key security officials under Biden, such as Jake Sullivan, Kurt Campbell, and Ely Ratner, voiced concerns about America’s engagement policy with China just as the Trump administration began its hardline advance. Nonetheless, opportunities for “peaceful coexistence” with China are still voiced at times. 

As Cohen of Israel’s Mossad argues, the continued if not increasingly hardline stance in Washington lacks a clear rationale and objective. What do American policy-makers aim to achieve? With every measure to lower tensions with China, such as lifting Trump’s ill-advised ban on WeChat and TikTok, other potentially disruptive measures (a review of all foreign-owned apps, though with China as the unnamed, yet implied target) are introduced. 

Biden’s messaging stresses U.S. competition with China and the threat of a global authoritarian take-over, both to get domestic legislation passed and to rally foreign powers to America’s side. Yet, for foreign powers, including many allies, the question of what the end goal is for Washington looms very large. Big European countries, such as France and Germany, are weary of joining the United States to confront China, as are Israel, South Korea, and Japan. In fact, a recent survey of European companies doing business in China indicated that they are now more committed to the Chinese market than at any time in the last decade. 

Distrust of Washington’s China policy is understandable. The policy is muddled and oftentimes paranoid. Policy objectives are implicit and often unrealistic, while misinterpreting the strategic objectives and concerns of Beijing. 

Each of these problems calls for a major rethink. To begin, cooperation with China on climate change, a global corporate minimum tax, revisions to the World Trade Organization charter, and many other global issues are unlikely to make much headway if paired with openly hostile and adversarial measures. Many actions by the U.S. government are full of existential symbolism for the CCP, yet have few discernible purposes other than vexing Beijing. 

Second, openly hostile and adversarial measures are highly unlikely to achieve their desired objectives. Rather than softening Chinese attitudes towards conflictual issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, they often harden them. There has to be a realistic assessment of how much American power can actually do to change Chinese behavior. In this respect, Biden’s instincts are much better than Trump’s: to change Chinese behavior, America must strike a united front with other like-minded powers. But, as seen in the recently concluded G-7 meetings, few allies fully share Washington’s strategic threat perception of China. 

Finally, unlike the Soviet Union, the CCP at present is not in the business of sponsoring a global authoritarian (or in the case of the Soviet Union, communist) take-over. The CCP’s aims are defensive: to make the world safe for its political regime. The fear of a “color revolution” is deeply ingrained in its reasoning. Trying to push back against liberal democratic norms and ideas is not to turn back the clock on liberal democracy, but to carve out breathing space for the CCP’s authoritarian regime. 

This is a major distinction lost on Washington’s China hawks. The CCP perceives the international order as still hostile. This is reinforced by Washington’s adversarial policy, which often seems aimed at putting so much pressure on the Chinese polity as to cause regime change. However, American pressure is much less likely to result in regime change than Beijing becoming much more openly hostile. 

Perhaps Washington wants to replace the old Soviet Union with China. This is ill-advised. On the one hand, China possesses a capitalist political economy (even if state-coordinated) with high levels of global integration and deep economic interdependence with the United States. China is also in the process of opening its financial markets and fostering a global currency. These are not the actions of a country seeking to overthrow the present order or sponsor authoritarian regime change throughout the globe. 

On the other hand, China, unlike the Soviet Union, has no true diplomatic allies, though relations with Russia are getting closer. Beijing does not foster military alliances. It does not seek to form an ideological block to counter American influence. Quite the opposite, for the most part China has integrated with existing American-led institutions, even if Beijing tries to change their emphases away from the spreading of liberal democratic norms and ideas. 

What Washington faces is nothing like a cold war. It is capitalist competition over the technological frontiers of the future with many complexities and intricacies that American policy is not grappling with. Most ominously, if pushed to their logical conclusion, U.S. policies to contain or even to crush China would create an ever more brutal security competition. The Thucydides Trap then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Washington is in need of a heavy dose of realpolitik. Just hoping that American toughness on China will lead to the reform or collapse of the CCP is naïve and dangerous. Equally unrealistic is hoping that other powers will join the American crusade wholesale. Especially when developing policy objectives with allies, there needs to be a realistic give-and-take. Hopefully, this could stir a reevaluation in Washington of what is possible and not, what works and not, and which measures truly improve American security and competitiveness in the long run. 

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