A new era of relations with China requires a new diplomatic playbook
The punditocracy swung in the opposite direction last week on the China debate. Hands are wringing over the bipartisan consensus on a tougher stance on China. They’re asking, isn’t China right to object to an American policy of containment? Shouldn’t we be worried by the bellicose rhetoric coming from senior Chinese officials about the shifts in American policy towards China?
Being contrarian often brings attention, so I get it. Beyond that desire, there are legitimate concerns that China-bashing could create an atmosphere where compromise with our biggest geopolitical rival becomes politically untenable. But there is no reason why we can’t thread the needle of a new era of relations with China without putting us on a path toward conflict.
Stepping back, there is little doubt that a shift in policy has been needed when it comes to China. For decades the U.S. essentially enabled China’s supposedly “peaceful rise.” It supported China’s entry into global institutions like the World Trade Organization and encouraged U.S. businesses to enter the China market. Democratic and Republican administrations alike essentially looked the other way as China supercharged its economic growth by stealing intellectual property from Western businesses. Brazen hacks of American technological infrastructure were met with finger-wagging and empty rhetoric.
The thinking until quite recently was that China would liberalize as it developed, and we just had to be patient. With China so far behind economically and militarily it was seen as a worthwhile gamble.
Well, the West lost that bet.
China succeeded in the subtle economic warfare it has engaged in for the last few decades and is now the second-largest economy in the world, with a powerful military that could seriously challenge U.S. interests in the Pacific. As for dreams of Chinese liberalization, it has proved to be just that — a dream. China is more of an authoritarian state today than it was a few decades ago.
I was no fan of the Trump administration, to say the least, but one of the few things that it got right was a pivot on China policy. It might have been ham-fisted and inconsistent, but it was the turning point we needed. The Biden administration has done an admirable job in not playing politics with this issue and undermining this change just because it came from the former guy. Rather it has sharpened the pivot and made important changes to industrial and foreign policies to stand up to China’s rampant corporate espionage and saber rattling.
To imply that having a tougher policy towards China — one that better reflects U.S. interests and is a direct response to Chinese actions — is putting the country on a direct path toward war is a fallacy. We managed decades of such a policy with the Soviet Union and we were nowhere near as economically entangled with the Soviet Union as we are with China.
At the center of this policy change is the need for clear communication and deft diplomacy. We must continue to speak about our values, and how China’s cultural genocide in its western provinces, curtailments of freedom in Hong Kong, and menacing of Taiwan are anathema to better relations with the U.S. There must be direct and proportional responses to Chinese hacking activities and its continued theft of intellectual property.
Equally, we must make it worthwhile for China to find avenues to cooperate on issues like climate change and ensuring the stability of the global economy. We should publicly praise China when we receive such cooperation and look to build in those areas. Smart decisions need to be made about where to press China and when to practice restraint.
House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) recent decision not to visit Taiwan but to meet its president when she visits the U.S. is just such an example because it signals support for Taiwan but is less provocative then the Speaker visiting the island democracy that China considers a renegade province. Most importantly, U.S. diplomats need to be meeting with their Chinese counterparties, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken should look to reschedule the visit to China that was scuttled by the recent Chinese spy balloon fiasco.
The State Department possesses the talent and wherewithal to represent American interests, just as there are similar capabilities and dedication within the U.S. intelligence and military communities to keeping the country safe. The biggest wild card is U.S. domestic politics.
While the bipartisan stance on China is a good thing considering our divisive politics, grandstanding about threats to score political points can quickly spiral relations downward. This is being done in China to whip up nationalism and rally the country behind its one-party state. In the U.S., it is done for clicks online and views on partisan cable shows. To thread the needle of diplomacy in this new geopolitical era leaders in the U.S. and China need to speak to each other and not just domestic audiences to ensure competition doesn’t become conflagration.
Jeremy Hurewitz is a policy advisor on national security at The Joseph Rainey Center, a strategic advisor to Interfor International, and the founder of Sell Like a Spy.
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