from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

U.S. Policy Toward China: Dumping the Baby, the Bathwater, and the Tub

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

February 15, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

According to a recent Foreign Affairs article, U.S. policy toward China has failed. Two senior Asia officials who served in the Obama administration, my good friends Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner (who is also my CFR colleague), argued in the piece that U.S. strategy toward China has been a miserable failure, filled with one misguided effort to change China after another. In their assessment, nothing the United States has done to influence Beijing’s behavior has worked—not sticks, not carrots, not soybeans, nothing.

It is easy to see where they are coming from. China is not a thriving liberal democracy and reliable partner for the United States. Instead, it is an increasingly authoritarian, economically and militarily powerful country bent on pushing the United States out of Asia and shaping international norms to suit its own purposes (which are mostly, but not completely, at cross-purposes with those of the United States). It is also seeking to establish itself as a peer competitor militarily and in the development of advanced technology. The current situation is disappointing to say the least; massively concerning to say the most.

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But, does the fact that China is not developing the way we want mean that we have failed? Only if we believe that 1) we had the power to determine how China would turn out; 2) we can’t point to any success in the current situation; and 3) we believe that this is the end of the road for China’s political and economic evolution.

Let’s start with point one. We were never in a position to control the political and economic outcomes of China. We are not in a position to control the outcomes in any country. Just take a quick look at Cuba or even Thailand and the Philippines--our nominal treaty allies. When we try to effect wholesale change, say for example in Iraq, things often deteriorate rapidly. What we can do is to structure opportunities and constraints, but ultimately the political decision-makers in sovereign countries decide their own path forward.

Point two. China is not all bad all the time. We have had, and can continue to have, a positive impact. With pressure from the United States, China stepped up to the plate to do more than it originally had planned on climate change, Ebola, and sanctions on North Korea. Since the mid-1990s, partnerships between Chinese and American NGOs—and U.S. and Chinese government actors—have produced significant and important changes in Chinese laws and behavior in areas such as the environment, the economy, and broader social policy.

Point three—and perhaps the most important—political change is a long game, and the game is not over. There are many people in China—including senior officials, billionaire entrepreneurs, well-known cultural figures, and civil society activists—who are not enamored of Xi Jinping’s more repressive political turn. Chinese leaders change over time and bring their own political inclinations. Does anyone remember Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang?  Could we imagine a different China emerging over the past five years with a different Chinese leader at the helm, for example, Li Keqiang or Wang Yang? We have only to look at our own political system over the past fifty years to understand the importance of the impact of individual leaders in shaping domestic and foreign policy. This is not naiveté—it is comparative politics 101.

What to do now? Campbell and Ratner suggest two guiding principles for U.S. policy moving forward: first, humility in considering how much we can change China; and second, strengthening U.S. fundamentals at home in order to project a strong, competitive policy abroad. I couldn’t agree more. But we have other tools as well. Let’s think of this new China under Xi Jinping as presenting not only new challenges but also new opportunities. We can leverage Xi Jinping’s ambition to pressure him to do more to respond to global challenges or to uphold the principles of globalization that he claims to champion. Adopting reciprocity, we can fight back against Chinese protectionism with our own brand of protectionism. And, of course, old tools are still important. We should deepen our outreach to likeminded allies and partners. I visited Vietnam in January and was struck by the enthusiasm for partnership with the United States—not only through growing security cooperation but also capacity building, such as helping Vietnamese farmers diversify their agricultural exports away from a reliance on China (in this case, a partnership project between the U.S-led Asia Foundation, on whose board I sit, and the Australian government). Campbell and Ratner are concerned about China chipping away at the U.S. system of alliances and partnerships. However, we have the tools to ensure that doesn’t happen, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use them.

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An effective response to China will require the mobilization of all the U.S. inherent strengths, as well as the adoption of new tools. We may be back on our heels now, but Americans love an underdog. So let’s dig in and get to work.

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