America’s foreign policy establishment is at war with itself over the shape of the country’s approach toward a steadily rising China. For now, it is only an epistolary war. But as the debate deepens, its outcome will go far toward deciding how the United States responds to its most serious global rival for economic and geopolitical power for decades ahead.
Among a slew of recent op-eds and policy papers about how Washington should manage the perceived challenge that China represents, two statements stand out as poles in the debate and, as such, deserve extended consideration.
The first, which appeared in early July in The Washington Post, takes on the Trump administration for driving a “downward spiral” in relations with China. While the authors mostly trace this to President Donald Trump’s confrontational approach on trade, they also criticize the administration more generally for treating Beijing increasingly like an enemy, beginning with an early strategy document identifying China as a strategic competitor.
To be sure, this letter—signed by a large number of leading China scholars and former American officials—identifies a certain amount of worrisome Chinese behavior, including growing domestic repression, an increasing state role in the economy, a failure to respect past agreements and a more aggressive foreign policy. These all demand what the letter calls a “firm and effective response.” But the authors insist that China is not an economic enemy or existential threat to the United States, nor is it a monolith. To the contrary, they go on to say, many Chinese elites believe that a “moderate and cooperative relationship” with the United States is in China’s interest, but the increasingly confrontational stance from Washington only strengthens the hand of Chinese nationalists.
The problem with this reasoning is that there is little sign in today’s Beijing that these proverbial moderates exercise much influence. What’s more, the letter’s uber-traditional stance continues to put the onus of forbearance heavily on Washington, where it has been since Beijing launched the reform-and-opening policies that began to reinsert China into the world economy in 1979.
These traditionalists are on much more solid ground when they say that treating China as an enemy and working to decouple it from the Western-led spheres of the global economy will damage the “international role and reputation” of the United States. Other countries don’t want to be forced to choose between China and an American-led West, and if pushed, some—perhaps even many—may choose not to side with Washington.
The authors also dismiss fears that China wants to replace the U.S. as a global leader as overblown. This may be so, but such suspicions are not entirely paranoid or bereft of evidence. If anything, the U.S. has suspended its disbelief about China’s ambitions and capacities for too long, flattering itself with notions of its own indispensable leadership, while underappreciating the fact that for a country of China’s size and history, a desire to be preeminent in the world comes pretty naturally.
The United States, the authors say, should maintain its military deterrence of China, adopt a defensive-minded posture and work with its allies. This all sounds like good common sense. The problem is that such a stance has done little to stop or even slow China from flexing its muscles. Nor has it halted China’s creeping expansionism that I wrote about in my book, “Everything Under the Heavens,” particularly in the South China Sea.
Finally, the authors say that America should work harder at strengthening its own competitive capacities. Here one wishes to declare in agreement, “Yes, and how!” At the same time, they assert that America should strive harder to serve as a model for others. Once again, but with a twist, “Yes, but under Trump, how?”
The second letter worth examining more closely was written in direct response to the first and signed by a number of former defense and diplomatic officials as well as scholars. In it, the authors eschew all nuance and describe China as a “virulent and increasing threat to human freedoms,” which they blame on what they call “misrule” by the Chinese Communist Party. The problem with claims as sweeping as these, of course, is that they bear little serious scrutiny.
It is true that the prevailing evidence suggests that what is arguably one of the world’s worst human rights abuses is taking place in China today: the arbitrary detention and forcible reeducation of large numbers of Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the far west of the country. Ostensibly an anti-terrorism measure, the real purpose of the massive detention program seems both far grander in scope and more sinister: to suppress Islam in the country and force the Uighur population into cultural conformity.
As bad as this sounds, however, there is little reason to believe that large sections of the Chinese population harbor resentment about being misruled. And as long as standards of living are rising, as they have been sharply for decades, a radical change in this sentiment seems unlikely, even given the tight limits on expression and association in China that people in many other societies, both rich and poor, might find intolerable.
Things only get more problematic from there. This second letter credits the United States with having “pursued an open policy of ‘engagement’” with China for the past 40 years, only to complain that this has resulted in an “incremental erosion of U.S. national security.” Here, one would like to hear the counterfactual. Would it have been preferable to continue treating Beijing as an irredeemable adversary after Mao’s death? Can the authors really believe that keeping China locked out of the global economy—thereby condemning its massive population to continued poverty—would have been better for American security, let alone morally defensible? Moreover, the United States was bound to become relatively less powerful as the global economy grew more diversified and democratized, a process that will continue in the decades ahead as many more people continue to emerge from poverty, whether in India or Africa or elsewhere.
From here, the wheels really fall off the second letter’s argument. The authors maintain that for the U.S., “politics is the norm and war is the exception. It’s the opposite of the [Chinese] worldview.” But China has fought precisely one war since Mao’s death in 1976, a border conflict with Vietnam that it initiated with America’s blessing in 1979. By contrast, the United States has engaged in so many conflicts over this time that when Trump called former President Jimmy Carter a few months ago to ask for advice on how to deal with China, Carter had one suggestion: stop fighting wars.
The authors of the second letter go on to cite a grab bag of grievances, from China’s pushiness in the East and South China Seas to its ambitious infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, and what they call its “debt-trap diplomacy and ambitions for worldwide hegemony.” They use these to claim that China’s grand strategy and pursuit of power are a threat to the existing international order.
In fact, China takes a quite eclectic approach to the international order. It supports—and draws support from—institutions built in another era mostly through Western leadership, while creating new institutions and mechanisms, like the BRI and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, when it senses a need and, especially, a vacuum. As for the idea that China has a chiseled and predetermined grand plan for world dominance, the working title for another book of mine—this one on China’s engagement with Africa—was “Haphazard Empire,” so improvised did the whole enterprise seem upon closer examination.
The writers of the second letter, whom I’ll call hardliners, haven’t gotten everything wrong. The United States has coasted along in its policy toward China for far too long, believing its own press about the elixir of American-style capitalism and liberal values, and its power to turn other societies into acceptable facsimiles of itself. Quite often, Washington has not been as firm as it should have been on reciprocal matters of trade or intellectual property, or even regional and international security and human rights. That said, all but declaring China an evil menace will achieve little good, and probably much bad.
The inadequacy of both of these letters points to a conclusion that is hard to shake. The United States has never before seen anything like the challenge that China represents, as no previous rival has combined its size, its sustained speed of growth and its civilizational determination to strengthen itself. The point here is not that China is destined to conquer all in its path. It has immense problems of its own that few in America can even imagine. Some of these will be the subject of future columns.
Nonetheless, beyond vague calls for the U.S. to get its own house in order and reinvigorate its partnerships, which few sensible people can argue with, it is far from obvious what else Americans should do about the across-the-board challenge that China presents.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of four books, including most recently “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.” You can follow him on Twitter@hofrench. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday.