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Let’s tone down the rhetoric on China and try genuine dialogue

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Very few issues appeal to a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Congress. One that seems highly successful is the effort to compete with China.  

At the outset of summer the Senate passed a $250 billion “Innovation and Competition” bill with a strong (68-32) bipartisan majority. Now a major $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill moves toward final passage with equally impressive bipartisan support in the Senate (69-30).

Both these bills provide for unmet needs and are compelling on those grounds alone. However, underlying the politics of both is the competitiveness challenge posed by a rising Peoples’ Republic of China. As President Biden has posed it, this is a struggle between democracy and autocracy.

This surge of bipartisanship depends to a degree on a growing animosity toward China that seems to be mutating into the stuff of Cold Wars. The downside is that the rhetoric is ratcheting up popular nationalist reactions in both countries that may close off diplomatic options.

There are dangerous implications if dialogue between the world’s two most powerful nations is inhibited by domestic politics. Territorial claims by China in the South China Sea could lead to naval conflict. China is fast developing a nuclear arsenal. A peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue may no longer be viable. 

China has been an ally in the effort to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran and can be helpful in Afghanistan. And the U.S. and China have common interests in countering transnational threats like the COVID pandemic and climate change.

As President Biden told President Xi in their first phone conversation, no American president can ignore gross human rights violations. The shuttering of democracy in Hong Kong and the violent crackdown against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province are first-order violations that the U.S. and the civilized world cannot ignore.

The Biden administration has proceeded to “compete” by working with allies to impact Chinese behavior. Western nations joined together recently to admonish China for allowing the hacking of Microsoft systems. Biden and other Western leaders have urged China to respect the international “rules-based system.”

China rails against this critique and warns against interfering in its internal affairs. Yet there can be little doubt that actions by the Xi government are damaging its image abroad. These actions have led to an historically negative view of China according to a poll of 14 nations by the Pew Research Center. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is riding the bipartisanship this foreign policy issue engenders all the way  to the bank. With innovation and infrastructure resources already approved in the Senate, the next step is a massive improvement in America’s social safety net and additional support for the budgets of the State Department and USAID. 

Given these budgetary and political benefits, how then do we bring a more constructive balance into the relationship? Does the nationalist reaction in China enable Xi ‘s Communist Party to pursue policies that might otherwise be controversial with an increasingly sophisticated constituency?

Despite current evidence to the contrary, China’s long term interests lie in constructive engagement in the international system. It remains to be seen whether Xi’s authoritarianism will prevail in a China whose population is growing more cosmopolitan as each year goes by.

Servicing China’s growing population will require GDP growth rates in the 7 to 10 percent range. To maintain that performance, China will have to engage the markets in the developed world. It cannot on its own feed and clothe a society at the level it has become accustomed. 

My own dealings with China have been in a less contentious realm. As Chair of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2011, I visited the country as part of a series of meetings under the rubric of a DAC-China study group that explored differing approaches to development work.

China at the time insisted that it was a developing country, engaged in providing aid to “South-South Partners.” Its officials showed no interest in joining the traditional donors of the DAC, but the then Premier, Wen Jiabao, commissioned a white paper that adopted many of the DAC aid effectiveness principles. Dialogue produced progress.

In contrast, President Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is most often portrayed as a geopolitical strategy to entrap countries in unsustainable debt to China. That may have been its intention, but if so, it has failed miserably. According to a Chatham House study, the initiative is beset with corruption, debilitating commercial competition, loan defaults and investment that is only minimally flowing to the “six corridors” originally designated as priority.

A dispassionate analysis of Chinese national security interests would consider its historic vulnerabilities. The Mongols successfully invaded China in the 13th Century from the west. Chinese ports were  exploited by the British navy in the early 20th Century and the country was later attacked and occupied from the sea by the Japanese. These vulnerabilities still live in the minds of Chinese geo strategic planners.

Any diplomatic attempt to engage in a useful dialogue should take this history into consideration. Still, it can be plausibly argued that China’s current approaches are undermining its broader security interests. That will require patience, tough bargaining and the imposition of costs, but perhaps over time China will come to appreciate that engagement and cooperation is a better way to achieve its national security objectives.

As China tries to repair its image it will have to weigh the risks of alienating societies it needs to maintain its own economic and political standing. However, if anti-Chinese rhetoric in the U.S. continues to produce a nationalist reaction, this rationale could be lost in the din. There are too many examples of nations cutting off their nose to spite their face and China is capable of that. 

Bipartisan cooperation in the U.S. is paying off now, but there are limits if the cost is a new Cold War and a threat to world peace. As the Biden administration continues to strengthen its domestic base and builds consensus among democratic allies, there will soon come a time to lower the rhetorical pitch and begin to engage in a constructive U.S.-China dialogue.

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD during the Obama administration and was undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.

Tags biden administration China–United States relations Federal government of the United States Joe Biden Joe Biden Political status of Taiwan Presidency of Joe Biden United States Agency for International Development Xi Jinping

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