The single most important question for the future of US-China relations

In my previous post, I explained the clear consensus among policymakers that past US-China policy has failed.  But what should we do instead?

In my opinion, the United States’ future actions should revolve around the answer to a single question:

Realistically, which American interests are most critical and achievable?

The underlying assumption of this phrasing is that some American interests may seem critical, but realistically the chances of success are so low that it is unproductive to pursue them.  As the Rolling Stones put it: “You can’t always get what you want.” 

If we fail to take a new approach to US-China relations, the alternative could be disastrous.

As Christopher Layne, Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M, wrote in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs:  “Over the past few years, multiple observers… have suggested that the United States and China might be, like the United Kingdom and Germany in 1914, ‘sleepwalking’ into war.”  Similarly, Andrew Bacevich, President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in the Boston Globe that “allowing US-China relations to devolve into a new Cold War will revive the danger of war on an apocalyptic scale.”

To implement a more selective approach to diplomacy, the US needs to start by re-assessing not just its most critical interests, but also which tactics are most likely to work with China, and which ones won’t.   Government decision makers need time to build consensus over what is most critical and what will work.  Their analysis should be shaped by three major considerations. 

1. The US must recognize and accept China’s growing power.

In a previous post, I explained why I believe that China will someday become the most powerful superpower in the world.  It may take 10 years or 50 years, but it’s coming. 

Whether you agree with my conclusion or not, there’s no denying that China is currently the number two superpower.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner described the implications of China’s rise: “The starting point for a better approach [to foreign relations] is a new degree of humility about the United States’ ability to change China. Neither seeking to isolate and weaken it nor trying to transform it for the better should be the lodestar of US strategy in Asia. Washington should instead focus more on its own power and behavior, and the power and behavior of its allies and partners.”

To put this approach another way, before taking action anywhere in the world, US policy makers should first ask two simple questions:

1. How likely is it to work? 

Based on our experience in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other actions, it is reasonable to be skeptical about military intervention.

2. Can we afford it?

The US National Debt is now approximately $27 trillion, or nearly 100% of GDP.  Given that Congress is considering several multi-trillion proposals to prop up the economy, this debt can only be expected to rise.  How much debt is too much?  Someday, the US may find out the hard way, but that’s another story.

This philosophy is closely aligned with the work of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank.  Major funding came last year from two political philanthropists who have rarely agreed on anything before:  right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and left wing billionaire George Soros contributed $500 million each.

The Quincy Institute’s core message was described by Deputy Director Stephen Wertheim in a recent interview with the Washington Post.  “US foreign policy should derive from a searching analysis of the interests of the American people. If US interests truly do warrant the significant projection of military power, then policymakers should act accordingly. The trouble is that now… armed dominance has become an end unto itself… to protect [our number one] position in the world.”

With a new more selective approach, according to Fareed Zakaria “The challenge for the United States, and the West at large, will be to define a tolerable range for China’s growing influence and accommodate it—so as to have credibility when Beijing’s actions cross the line.”

Then Vice President Joe Biden welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping on a US visit in 2015.

2. The US should work closely with China to maximize benefits in areas of common interest.  

Isolationism is not an option in today’s global economy.   As Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan explained in an article entitled “Competition without catastrophe”: “Global problems that are difficult enough to solve even when the United States and China work together will be impossible to solve if they fail to do so—climate change foremost among them, given that the United States and China are the two biggest polluters.”

The most important international treaty in this area was of course the 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by almost 200 countries, with a goal of holding warming well below 3.6°F (2°C).

As I explained in my post on Climate change and China, the US signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, then announced in 2017 that we would withdraw as soon as possible, which turned out to be November 4, 2020, the day after the presidential election.  Bloomberg News reported last week that President-Elect Biden has “said he would apply to rejoin on his first day as president and then ‘lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.’”

The whole world is waiting to see how the US approach to climate change will play out in the coming months and years.  Hopefully, it can be accomplished in a more consistent way so businesses can plan and “don’t have this snap back and forth every time a new administration comes to town,” Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute said last week.

3. The US should avoid pursuing policies which will be difficult or impossible to enforce.

When I wrote in this blog about the one million Muslim Uyghurs who have been sent to Chinese prison camps over the last few years for “political re-education,” I wondered how the US might help.  The US government has been wondering too.

In extremely rare show of bipartisan agreement, the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020,” passed 413-1 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate.  It was signed into law by the President in June.  It calls for investigations by the FBI, State Department, Director of National Intelligence and others to identify the individuals who are responsible for these human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China where most Uyghurs live. 

Possible sanctions against these individuals will include blocking their assets in the US and making them ineligible to come to the US.  They will also have to pay double to enter Shanghai’s Disneyland Park. 

Just kidding about the Disneyland part.  The point is that it is hard to put teeth into US punishments of Chinese citizens. 

But let’s step back for a moment.  Suppose the Chinese government passed a law announcing an investigation into civil rights abuses in the US.  Any individual found responsible would be unable to visit China.  How much do you think that law would change US behavior?  Not at all?  Good guess.  That’s also a good description on the amount of visible impact that the US law has had on China to date.

Of course, there is something to be said for objecting very publicly and strenuously to policies that violate human rights, even if our objections will have no obvious effect. Such objections can serve a moral and political purpose, and may even have a realpolitik impact.

But do you think it helped when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “The Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang… ranks as the stain of the century.”  I don’t. 

US diplomats need to find exactly the right line to walk as they try to promote change in China.  Name-calling like Pompeo’s just risks making things worse.  As Quincy Institute researchers Michael Swaine, Jessica Lee and Rachel Odell wrote recently, “Treating China as an enemy… makes Beijing less willing to compromise in disputes and endangers bilateral cooperation on the most urgent of shared challenges, including climate change, pandemic disease, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.”

Another complicating factor is the cultural gap between the US definition of human rights and China’s.  In a book on the East-West culture gap (p. 44), Gish Jen wrote that “The Mainland Chinese government… believes that… it is the people’s collective right to a livelihood that constitutes their ‘human rights’… [China argues that] when it arrests dissidents or suppresses public protests… it is protecting human rights against self-centered individuals.”

If the two countries cannot even agree on how to define human rights, how could they ever expect to agree on how to enforce them?

The current US response to the Uyghur problem reminds me of the old saying:  You can’t teach a pig to whistle.  It doesn’t work and it annoys the pig.

If the US adopts the approach described in this post, the most obvious place to start is, as Julian Gewirtz has written to work closely with China “to head off foreseeable disasters, such as the looming risk of cyberwar and the prospect of a conflict in the contested South China Sea. In these most volatile and dangerous areas, [the US and China] should negotiate redlines and effective mechanisms for crisis management and de-escalation.”

2 thoughts on “The single most important question for the future of US-China relations

  1. Looks like yours truly is one of those “multiple observers.” Here is a clip from my blog on the philosophical movement “Accelerationism” from a couple of years ago:
    An historical example of capitalism in autocratic societies is provided by the German and Austro-Hungarian empires of the half century leading up to WWI: it was in this world that the link was made between basic scientific research (notably at universities) and industrial development that continues to be a critical source of new technologies (the internet is an example). In this period, the modern chemical and pharmaceutical industries were created (Bayer aspirin and all that); the automobile was pioneered by Karl Benz’ internal combustion engine and steam power was challenged by Rudolf Diesel’s compression-ignition engine. Add the mathematics (Cantor and new infinities, Riemann and new geometries), physics (Hertz and radio waves, Planck and quantum mechanics, Einstein and relativity), the early Nobel prizes in medicine garnered by Koch and Ehrlich (two heroes of Paul De Kruif’s classic book Microbe Hunters), the triumphant music (Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler). Certainly this was a golden age for progress, an example of how capitalism and technology can thrive in autocratic societies.
    Starkly, we are now in a situation reminiscent of the first quarter of the 20th Century – two branches of capitalism in conflict, the one led by liberal democracies, the other by autocratic states (this time China and Singapore instead of Germany and Austria). For the Accelerationists, the question is which model of capitalism is better positioned to further the acceleration; for them and the rest of us, the question is how to avoid a replay of the Guns of August 1914, all the pieces being ominously in place.


  2. Pingback: Avoiding a US-China war | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

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