According to polling, 60 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the People’s Republic, a record high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 2005. But Washington elites have made their case “clearer than truth.” The nature of the challenge from China is different from and far more complex than what the new alarmism portrays.
The United States should take the time to examine closely the assumptions behind the new China consensus. In broad terms, they are the following. First, engagement has failed because it did not “transform China’s internal development and external behavior,” as the former U.S. officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner wrote in these pages in 2018. Second, Beijing’s foreign policy is currently the most significant threat to U.S. interests and, by extension, to the rules-based international order that the United States created after 1945. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone much further, saying in a 2019 speech at the Hudson Institute that “the Chinese Communist party is a Marxist-Leninist party focused on struggle and international domination.” And third, a policy of active confrontation with China will better counter the threat than a continuation of the previous approach.
What the new consensus misses is that in the almost five decades since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to Beijing, U.S. policy toward China has never been purely one of engagement; it has been a combination of engagement and deterrence.
Today’s China is a remarkably responsible nation on the geopolitical and military front. It has not gone to war since 1979. It has not used lethal military force abroad since 1988. Nor has it funded or supported proxies or armed insurgents anywhere in the world since the early 1980s. That record of nonintervention is unique among the world’s great powers.
China has also gone from seeking to undermine the international system to spending large sums to bolster it. Beijing is now the second-largest funder of the United Nations and the UN peacekeeping program. It has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers, more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. Between 2000 and 2018, it supported 182 of 190 Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on nations deemed to have violated international rules or norms.
Of the BRICS group of large emerging markets (which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), China is consistently ranked as the most open and competitive economy. As for the effect of mercantilist Chinese policies on the U.S. economy, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has noted that “it cannot be argued seriously that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected U.S. growth by even 0.1 percent a year.”
A 2015 report by the financial services giant Credit Suisse provides a useful tally of nontariff barriers against foreign goods put in place by major countries between 1990 and 2013. With a total count of almost 450, the United States is in a league of its own. Next is India, then Russia. China comes in at number five, with one-third as many nontariff barriers imposed as the United States. The picture hasn’t changed much in the years since.
On the economic front, almost every charge leveled at China today was once leveled at Japan.
In a recent survey of such companies conducted by the U.S.-China Business Council, intellectual property protection ranked sixth on a list of pressing concerns, down from number two in 2014. These companies worry more about state funding for rival companies and delayed approval of licenses for their products. Why this shift from 2014? That year, China created its first specialized courts to handle intellectual property cases. In 2015, foreign plaintiffs brought 63 cases in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. The court ruled for the foreign firms in all 63.
As far as China’s political development is concerned, the verdict is unambiguous. China has not opened up its politics to the extent that many anticipated; it has in fact moved toward greater repression and control. .
So far, the West’s track record on adapting to China’s rise has been poor. Both the United States and Europe have, for example, been reluctant to cede any ground to China in the core institutions of global economic governance, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which remain Euro-American clubs.
China hardly qualifies as a mortal danger to this imperfect order. Compare its actions to those of Russia—a country that in many arenas simply acts as a spoiler, trying to disrupt the Western democratic world and its international objectives, often benefiting directly from instability because it raises oil prices (the Kremlin’s largest source of wealth). China plays no such role.
But China is not the Soviet Union, an unnatural empire that was built on brutal expansion and military domination. In China, the United States would be confronting a civilization, and a nation, with a strong sense of national unity and pride that has risen to take its place among the great powers of the world.
Add to this the large degree of interdependence between the United States and China. U.S. exports to China are up by 527 percent since 2001, and in 2018, China was the largest supplier of goods to the United States.
The United States is in competition with China—that is a fact and will remain so for much of this century. The issue is whether the United States should compete within a stable international framework, continuing to try to integrate China rather than attempting to isolate it at all costs.
China presents a new and large challenge. But if Washington can keep its cool and patiently continue to pursue a policy of engagement plus deterrence, forcing China to adjust while itself adjusting to make space for it, some scholar decades from now might write about the United States’ not-so-secret plan to expand the zone of peace, prosperity, openness, and decent governance across the globe—a marathon strategy that worked.