The evolution of America’s China strategy
3 Nov 2022|

In its new national security strategy, US President Joe Biden’s administration recognises that Russia and China each present a different kind of challenge. Whereas Russia ‘poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system … [with] its brutal war of aggression’, China is the only competitor to the US ‘with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective’. The Pentagon thus refers to China as its ‘pacing challenge’.

Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party to consolidate his power and to promote his ideological and nationalist objectives, it is worth reviewing the evolution of America’s China strategy. Some critics see the situation today as proof that presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were naive to pursue a strategy of engagement, including granting China membership in the World Trade Organization. But while there was certainly excessive optimism about China two decades ago, it wasn’t necessarily naive.

After the Cold War, the US, Japan and China were the three major powers in East Asia, and elementary realism suggested that the US ought to revive its alliance with Japan, rather than discounting it as an outdated relic of the post-World War II era. Long before China was admitted to the WTO in 2001, the Clinton administration had reaffirmed the US–Japan alliance, which remains the bedrock of Biden’s strategy.

Clinton and Bush realised that Cold War-style containment of China would be impossible, because other countries, attracted to the huge Chinese market, would not have gone along with it. So, the US instead sought to create an environment in which China’s rising power would also reshape its behaviour. Continuing Clinton’s policy, the Bush administration tried to coax China to contribute to global public goods and institutions by acting as what then-deputy secretary of state Robert B. Zoellick called ‘a responsible stakeholder’. The policy was to ‘engage, but hedge’. While augmenting a policy of balancing power with engagement obviously did not guarantee Chinese friendship, it did keep alive possible scenarios other than full hostility.

Was engagement a failure? Cai Xia, a former professor at the CCP’s Central Party School in Beijing, thinks so, arguing that the party’s

fundamental interests and its basic mentality of using the US while remaining hostile to it have not changed over the past 70 years. By contrast, since the 1970s, the two political parties in the United States and the US government have always had unrealistic good wishes for the Chinese communist regime, eagerly hoping that [it] would become more liberal, even democratic, and a ‘responsible’ power in the world.

Cai is well placed to judge a policy that began with US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. But some of those who have described engagement as naive ignore the fact that the ‘hedge’ or insurance policy came first, and that the US–Japan alliance remains robust today.

Of course, there were some elements of naivete, as when Clinton famously predicted that China’s efforts to control the internet would fail. He thought the task would be like ‘nailing Jell-O to a wall’, but we now know that China’s ‘great firewall’ works quite well. It’s also clear in retrospect that the Bush administration and that of his successor, Barack Obama, should have done more to punish China for its failure to comply with the spirit and rules of the WTO.

In any case, the Xi era has dashed the earlier expectations that rapid economic growth would produce greater liberalisation, if not democratisation. For a while, China allowed greater freedom of travel, more foreign contacts, a wider range of opinions in publications and the development of some civil society organisations, including some devoted to human rights. But all that has now been curtailed.

Were the basic assumptions of engagement wrong? Before taking office, two of the leading officials responsible for the Biden administration’s new strategy wrote that ‘the basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy.’ A more realistic goal, they concluded, is to seek ‘a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to US interests and values’.

On balance, the Biden team is correct about being unable to force fundamental changes in China. In the first decade of this century, China was still moving towards greater openness, moderation and pluralisation. ‘When Mr. Xi took over in 2012, China was changing fast’, notes The Economist. ‘The middle class was growing, private firms were booming, and citizens were connecting on social media. A different leader might have seen these as opportunities. Mr. Xi saw only threats.’

Even if Xi was the predictable product of a Leninist party system, there remains a question about timing. Modernisation theory—and South Korea’s and Taiwan’s real-world experiences—suggests that when per capita annual income approaches US$10,000, a middle class will emerge, and autocracy becomes harder to maintain, compared to the poor peasant society that came before. But how long does this process take? While Marx argued that it took time, Lenin was more impatient and believed that historical developments could be accelerated by a vanguard exercising control over society. Despite Xi’s talk of Marxism-Leninism, it’s clearly Lenin who is prevailing over Marx in today’s China.

Did the engagement strategy’s mistake lie in expecting meaningful change within two decades, rather than half a century or more? It’s worth remembering that Xi is only the fifth leader of the People’s Republic of China. And as the China expert Orville Schell argues, it is ‘patronizing to assume that Chinese citizens will prove content to gain wealth and power alone without those aspects of life that other societies commonly consider fundamental to being human’.

Unfortunately, policymakers are always under time pressure and must formulate strategic objectives for the here and now. Biden has properly done that. The question for the years ahead is whether he can implement his policies in ways that do not foreclose the possibility of more benign future scenarios, even while recognising that they are distant.