The balance to be struck is to confront China as warranted, compete as necessary, and cooperate when possible
There have been presidents with whose foreign policy I (and so many others like me) disagreed, but never before one as truly dangerous to the country and the world as the current incumbent. But as bad as Trump’s policies and persona are, they are the effect of deeper dynamics within the United States and the international community that, to a great extent, would have been there even if Trump had lost. Traditional Democratic internationalism has neither the policy basis nor the political appeal to get beyond what’s wrong with Trumpian America First to what’s right about the alternative. A rejuvenated progressive approach can do that in ways that work politically and provide the basis for a foreign policy geared to the world as it is, not how it used to be.
Republicans are going all-in on a new Cold War with China. Along with Mr. Tariff’s focus on economic warfare, the emphasis in the 2017 National Security Strategy on great power rivalry was more about China than Russia. The 2018 National Defense Strategy was even more China-centric. State Department Policy Planning Director Kiron Skinner added a clash of civilizations dimension, posing this as “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” The Committee on the Present Danger: China, reviving and re-branding the Cold War anti-détente group and bringing together longstanding neocons like Frank Gaffney and rightist populists like Steve Bannon, recently made its entry to the Washington scene.
Democrats are still wavering on their alternative. Joe Biden’s no big deal/we can do this in our sleep comments made last May were widely criticized as too complacent. On the other hand, calls for putting China “at the heart of their pitch to voters” have their own new Cold War ring. This misreads the politics. Only 39 percent of the American public sees China’s rise as a critical threat—the lowest percentage in more than 10 years. And while China’s greater assertiveness, regionally and globally, is cause for concern, experience shows how dangerous and distorting threat inflation can be. For their part, American allies are seeking balance not containment, as the India and Australia examples cited earlier demonstrate. And as happens to all great powers that overextend, Chinese President Xi Jinping is getting pushback on his Belt and Road Initiative from countries that feel exploited, and from millions in the streets of Hong Kong due to his heightened repression.
To be sure, there is ample basis for pressuring China on economic issues. Any number of congressional races over the past decade-plus have seen both Republican and Democratic candidates running campaign ads hitting China on currency manipulation, manufacturing subsidies, intellectual property theft, and other unfair trade practices. But Trump’s counterproductive economic warfare leaves plenty of room for policies that actually help American workers, farmers, and consumers. Even before the Spring 2019 threat to further ratchet up of tariffs, 72 percent of those polled were concerned that the trade war was hurting our own economy. A “weapon of mass destruction,” the head of the Apparel Importers Association termed the proposed additional 25 percent tariffs; hyperbolic, but point made.
On some issues it’s not just Beijing’s policies but American corporate practices that are of concern to progressives. One such issue, technology transfer agreements, in exchange for access to the Chinese domestic market, fit with the broader progressive critique of globalization as favoring company profits over worker jobs. Another issue is the role U.S. tech firms are playing in providing technology and expertise helping, as a Foreign Policy article put it, “build the Chinese Orwellian state.” Yet neither the Trump Administration nor Congress have begun to regulate or monitor this kind of behavior.
Amidst these and other issues, we should not lose sight of the ways in which the United States and China have managed to cooperate. It was a prior US–China understanding on climate change that made the 2015 Paris Agreement possible. China was part of the P-5+1 in the Iran JCPOA. Going forward, any number of issues would benefit from, if not require, the cooperation of the world’s two largest economies. The balance to be struck is to confront China as warranted, compete as necessary, and cooperate when possible. But we don’t have to get grandiose about whose century it’s going to be to take seriously the formidable challenges this huge, ambitious, innovative, and proud country presents.
Bruce W. Jentleson is William Preston Few Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. He has served in the Clinton and Obama State Departments, and as a Democratic foreign policy advisor in numerous presidential elections since 1987–88. This is an extract from a much longer article: ‘Right-Sizing Foreign Policy’, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas No. 54 (Fall 2019), https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/54/right-sizing-foreign-policy/