April 5, 2017

Alek Chance

The president’s foreign policy views are outside the beltway mainstream but his belief that the United States China policy must be revamped is widely shared.

The meeting of U.S. and Chinese presidents always receives considerable attention, and justifiably so. But Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Mar-a-Lago seems to be invoking an extra sense of anxiety among U.S. foreign policy watchers. No doubt much of the malaise can be attributed to Donald Trump’s willingness to rock the diplomatic boat—he has already tangled with the “One China Policy,” has persistently labeled China a bad actor on the trade and monetary front, and Secretary of State-Designate Rex Tillerson’s comments on the South China Sea at his confirmation hearing raised eyebrows. We are still waiting to see what measures the administration will take on issues of trade or alleged currency manipulation, but they are likely to raise tensions.

But this isn’t the whole story. While many foreign policy insiders are skeptical of his overall approach to foreign affairs, Trump’s frustration with China resonates with many Americans concerned who believe that the US-China relationship is at a “tipping point.” Over the last few years, Americans’ confidence in longstanding China policy has wavered, with some experts noting a lack of consensus on how to deal with the world’s number two power, and others simply announcing that American policy has failed. Most agree that the relationship has a far more complicated future than once anticipated.

There is a certain degree of consensus within the U.S. expert community regarding a list of disappointments with China, both in its domestic and foreign policies.

First, there is a widespread frustration with the pace of economic reforms in China, which negatively impact American business interests. The Chinese economy has not opened up for foreign investment in ways that proponents of engagement once envisioned, and according to many accounts, the business climate has actually been getting worse for foreigners. These factors contribute to a sense that China does not conduct its economic relations with an appropriate sense of reciprocity. While such practices may not be so straightforwardly prohibited as some might argue, they are at best seen to be cases of China following the letter of the law but not the spirit of mutually beneficial economic cooperation. A result of this has been the erosion of support for China among American businessmen, once an important constituency for a soft China policy.

Second, many Americans give voice to the complaint that China is a “free rider” in the international system that benefits from but does not sufficiently contribute to global public goods as a “responsible stakeholder.” This includes perceived obstructionism on the North Korea issue and other areas of global crisis management, manipulation of trade regimes, and a tendency to undermine Western-preferred norms regarding governance and sustainability through its development practices. Recently, China has joined in the game of multilateral international development in a massive way with the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. These measures have intensified concerns about China competing with or even “replacing” Western-led institutions.

Finally, and more broadly, China’s more proactive economic diplomacy combines with its behavior in the South China Sea to intensify longstanding American concerns about an increasingly “assertive” China. Perceived assertiveness raises important questions about how China’s plans might affect U.S. interests and alliances in the Asia-Pacific and the global order itself. Despite Chinese protestations to the contrary, many Americans are concerned that China’s activities in the maritime space are part of a long-term gambit to “drive America out” of the Western Pacific and alter the regional security architecture to better suit its interests.

In the background of these frustrations is a sense of sense of shattered optimism about China. In the past, a dominant view of China embraced the assumptions of liberal internationalism: that U.S. engagement with China would inexorably draw it towards free-market capitalism and more liberal domestic governance. Economic reforms and integration into the global economy were thought to ensure that China that would become more like the United States and therefore more amenable to American views of global governance and accepting of the status quo. Over the last several years, there has been a slow, disappointing realization that China’s party governance structure and mixed economy are more resilient than most had believed and might be here to stay.

In coming to terms with the persistence of the existing Chinese regime and political economy, alternate visions for the future of the relationship have recently proliferated inside the beltway and in academia. Most see the relationship as facing considerable risk of becoming more contentious. Many either display strategic mistrust of China or identify mutual mistrust as an important factor.

One can identify two major trends in these new approaches. On the one hand, some have argued that the United States has been naively supporting a growing competitor, and should take firmer action to limit China’s ability to benefit from its relationship with the US, particularly in terms its access to technology—something critics have dubbed a containment strategy. Many voices also call for strengthened and qualitatively improved relationships with the United States’ Asian allies and new partners like India. On the other hand, some analysts have contended that the United States will inevitably lose its predominance in China’s immediate backyard, necessitating a process of strategic accommodation to bring about a more sustainable balance of power. Those noting the need for an adjustment in the United States’ security obligations typically point to instability across the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula. Others have noted that the United States has at times failed to reassure China about its benign intentions, or has unnecessarily rejected reassurance concepts generated by Beijing, such as President Xi Jinping’s “New Model” for major-state relations. Some have argued that a model of tit-for-tat concessions or “cooperation spirals” must be initiated in order to find sustainable solutions to many problems in the Western Pacific and beyond, or that a grand bargain should be hammered out in one fell swoop.

Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the stage had already been set for a potentially significant reconsideration of the United States’ China policy. Whether confrontation, accommodation, or a dialectic of reassurance is the right approach, Americans are presented with the task of reconceiving some basic premises of the relationship. If U.S. policy cannot be built around China’s eventual transformation into a Western-style liberal polity, new principles for a more pluralistic world order must then be envisioned. American foreign policy thinkers also face the demand to more carefully consider which elements of the “liberal world order” are truly dependent on a homogeneous system of liberal, capitalist democracies, and which elements can be embraced by a nation like China. The answer here will surely be a mixed bag: as Xi Jinping made clear in his recent address at Davos, China will continue to be a proponent of free trade; on the other hand, China’s views on internet governance or roles for state owned enterprises will continue to be at variance with Western approaches. Finally, the United States must become adept at dealing with a great power that is neither destined to be a like-minded partner nor doomed to be an ideological adversary. Many have observed that American foreign policy conventions aren’t well suited to this task of pragmatic statesmanship. Here’s hoping that America’s very unconventional president can somehow hit upon the right approach.

This article previously appeared in the Huffington Post.