The US must engage with China — even when countering China

The US must engage with China — even when countering China
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A policy statement heard around the world is that U.S. engagement with China “has come to an end.” It suggests that the Biden administration is taking a hawkish approach toward China. That stance seemed clear as the U.S. worked the G7 and NATO communiqués to confront China with an “alliance of democracies.”

Yet, peeling the layers, one comes to the necessity for a much more complex U.S. approach to China. Rather than ending engagement, the U.S. should be thinking about engagement’s different dimensions. Indeed, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, who made the remark, implicitly addressed three necessary forms of engagement that have been lacking.

First, even when the United States aims to counter China, engagement remains essential. The U.S. will most effectively counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, along the border with India, and against allies’ economies, if the U.S. works closely with others. The Trump administration was notoriously unreliable and antagonistic towards allies. The United States and its allies will bolster their position in relation to China if they coordinate — an approach underscored at the recent G7 and NATO summits.

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Yet, even in high-conflict situations, diplomacy and bargaining with China also will be important. Trade and technology policies are rife with rivalry and competition. These policies can trigger harmful tit-for-tat escalations if they are not grounded in agreed rules and understandings. These risks become particularly salient when economic and financial crises strike. Third-party institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) can help parties manage their conflicts so that they are not mutually destructive. China will be indispensable in any U.S. effort to update and “reform” WTO rules.

Second, the United States needs to work with China to effectively address common global, existential challenges. Campbell mentioned three: climate change, global pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. A signal success of the Obama administration was getting China to make commitments for the first time on emissions, which gave rise to the Paris Agreement. The U.S. also worked with China to stem Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It needs to do the same regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. 

Even in these areas of mutual concern, competition and rivalry are present. Yet such competition also can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes, such as to provide vaccines globally and to develop green technologies.

Third, Campbell stressed the critical importance of bipartisan engagement within the U.S. As politics in America degrades, the U.S. position against China weakens — and China knows this. The U.S. domestic inability to cooperate bolsters Chinese claims that the U.S. is declining and China is rising because China’s authoritarian model is superior to U.S. democracy. Unfortunately, bipartisan engagement to productively respond to China’s challenge — from the building of infrastructure, the support of science and education, and the defense of democracy — might be the most difficult to achieve. But it is critical.

There are additional reasons why engagement with China matters that Campbell did not mention. In particular, China is not monolithic, just as the U.S. is not monolithic. China has become more aggressive under President Xi Jinping, but different factions in China remain. A purely hawkish relationship with China has served to empower neo-Maoist, nationalist forces within China. When asked what is the greatest challenge that officials face regarding the WTO, a high-level Chinese diplomat told me it is managing “Chinese nationalism.” Under Xi, nationalist forces have been unleashed. When the next crisis hits, they will not be easy to rein in.

China’s economic and geopolitical rise has changed the strategic environment globally. Engagement, not disengagement, becomes critical — with allies, with China, and with each other at home.

Gregory Shaffer is Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming book, “Emerging Powers in the World Trading System: The Past and Future of International Economic Law.”