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Foreign Policy

Washington’s Search for a New Paradigm on China

Nov 19, 2018
  • Cheng Li

    Director, John L. Thornton China Center, The Brookings Institution
  • Diana Liang

    Research Assistant, Brookings Institution


With the conclusion of America’s recent mid-term elections, many analysts believe that a U.S. position on China will solidify. The Democrats, who gained a majority in the House, and President Donald Trump hold a shared interest in increasing pressure on China. Washington’s search for a new and more confrontational paradigm on U.S.-China relations, therefore, may accelerate.

Yet, while one can reasonably assume that current U.S. anxieties and criticism of China’s political-economic policy and security outlook are largely bipartisan in nature, it would be an overstatement to conclude that the United States has reached broad strategic and policy consensus on dealing with China. In fact, in three major domains – economics, politics and ideology, and strategy and security­ ­– there remain important disagreements in spite of some noticeable consensus.

Delineating how the grounds of the bilateral relationship have shifted, where new consensus has been reached, and in what areas views remain divergent in Washington will be vital to informing any debate over new, strategic approaches to China. At the same time, it may allow the Chinese side to avoid miscalculation and overreaction – such as Beijing hastily concluding that the U.S. will inevitably seek to contain China.

Support for Action against Chinese Economic Practices, but not for a Trade War

Trade issues have been a highly visible dimension of U.S.-China tensions. A consensus has emerged in the form of a wide-ranging resentment throughout America of Chinese economic practices. U.S. business and government circles have converged on long-standing grievances, including China’s poor record on intellectual property rights and forced technology transfers. Whereas in the past, U.S. business leaders had helped make China’s case to hawkish U.S. governments, their frustration in recent years over growing difficulties regarding market access in China has left them less willing to try to calm U.S. leaders. Furthermore, China’s industrial policy, particularly the Made in China 2025 initiative, has caused deep resentment among American companies and their counterparts elsewhere. They have called these practices “state capitalism,” in opposition to fair market competition.

However, consensus has not been reached on the Trump administration’s trade war against China. Far from enjoying support among U.S. policy circles, China analysts, and the business community, the administration’s actions have emboldened leaders in various sectors to assert that a full-blown trade war undermines American interests. It is one thing to exert pressure on China to encourage changes to unfair economic behavior, but it is another thing to employ brash actions and rhetoric that heightens the risk of a “decoupling” from the second largest economy in the world, especially as China places greater emphasis on improving economic relations with the EU and Japan. The trade war has been widely criticized as having an undue emphasis on tariffs and an excessive focus on trade deficits. U.S. farmers who might otherwise be Trump supporters have also raised concerns over their short-term losses from tariffs and reduced Chinese demand, as well as over the longer-term effects of lost market share in China.

Warnings about Chinese Influence, but also against U.S. Sensationalism

On the political and ideological front, there is mounting concern over Chinese overseas influence activities. Media and think tank reports have issued warnings about Chinese political activities in U.S. universities, especially regarding the potential for inducing self-censorship among scholars at U.S. institutions. These reports note the use of funding (what Vice President Mike Pence called “easy money”) to buy pro-China positions among U.S. institutions and opinion leaders. They also point to China’s threats to cause bureaucratic trouble for universities with centers in China and withhold Chinese visas for researchers in order to alter discussions of Chinese politics and policies in the United States. Americans are profoundly concerned about these “sharp power” activities, which implicate China in seeking to limit freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry and undercutting rights and values core to American identity.

This perspective is shared on a bipartisan basis in Washington and by other democratic countries. There is a strong sense that Washington plans to take Chinese influence efforts more seriously. This has colored views over the competitive aspects – and increased the potential for conflict – in U.S.-China relations.

Nevertheless, U.S. policy circles continue to disagree on the extent of Chinese influence activities in the United States. A notable example of this are the claims of Chinese interference in U.S. elections. Whereas Vice President Pence made public accusations about Chinese interference prior to the midterms, most analysts believe that Pence’s claims aimed to distract from the Trump administration’s “Russiagate” rather than outline a legitimate security threat assessment. There is contention over whether Chinese influence efforts more broadly (such as purchasing advertising supplements in national newspapers) are unique and their similarity to U.S. efforts to promote soft power.

How the U.S. should respond to this new assessment of Chinese influence and interference remains open to debate. For example, during a Senate Intelligence committee in February 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray identified Chinese students and scholars as a national security risk to the United States. Wray described them as “nontraditional collectors” exploiting the U.S.’ open research environment, posing not a whole-of-government but a whole-of-society threat requiring a whole-of-society response. These comments were rebuked by members of Congress and Chinese American groups. While a full-fledged response has yet to take shape, it is worth cautioning against U.S. policy responses that might be closer to McCarthyism than the idealistic liberal world order and values that have traditionally underpinned American soft power.

Agreement on Security Challenges, but not on Strategy

The security and strategy spheres have arguably seen some of the most vigorous debate. The emerging consensus includes calls to reexamine engagement policy and to redefine the U.S.-China relationship – moves that would be hugely consequential. Discussions on engagement with China have proliferated throughout a variety of mediums. There seems to be a growing consensus that a new strategy is warranted. Helping drive this reexamination is concern over China’s military modernization, rapid science and technology development, and policies advantaging its artificial intelligence sector. Reassessing engagement policy is no longer of interest only to the most hawkish Washington analysts – it has accrued bipartisan interest.

Nonetheless, the substance of this strategic revision remains hotly debated and no consensus has crystallized. A significant contingent in Washington believes that engagement should persist, albeit with some modifications. It remains unclear what Engagement 2.0 will look like. These public discussions reveal the diverse views among China analysts and opinion leaders in the United States. Highly critical analysts argue that past policy has largely failed to push China to act in accordance with international rules and norms, while those less critical argue that engagement continues to be in the U.S. interest.

There are myriad views, most pessimistic. When it comes to pursuing a strategic review, some believe that there is no strategy – at least no sound strategy – coming from this administration, outside of the broad statements in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. To the extent that there is a containment strategy, there are disagreements about what containment would entail. Some argue that any new containment policy would be too late and ineffective. Others note that if poorly managed, a shift towards a more confrontational framework could increase the risk of war with China.

Conclusion: Miscalculations can be Fatal

At this time of profound change, it is imperative to remember that nothing – least of all confrontation – is inevitable. Though U.S. China policy has changed in fundamental ways, there remain important ongoing disagreements and debates in the United States.

Unpacking this shifting debate on China is crucial to understanding the increasingly mine-riddled landscape of U.S.-China relations, and perhaps moderate the final conclusions drawn and frameworks applied in this reassessment of policy. Adroit management will be needed to prevent relations from spiraling out of control. Activities such as hosting high-level dialogues will continue to be useful to managing U.S.-China relations. These ongoing changes in U.S. policy towards China require renewed efforts to ensure that neither our assumptions nor our actions put us on a destructive path. Should conflict erupt, it must be prompted by choice and not by misunderstanding and miscalculations.

Finally, it is also worth remembering that things could always become worse – especially if instigated by domestic politics in both countries or by inflated fear and anxiety. The risks should remind us to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, seek to understand criticism, and continue to try to find a better way forward.

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