Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

Delusions of strong-arming China into compliance are dangerous

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun8,2024

What is the endgame of U.S. policy toward China? Can the U.S. avoid a war with China? Much of the debate about how U.S. policy should cope with an ambitious, reemergent China, turns on those questions.  

In what seems at once both a job application and a declaration of war, two prominent China critics — former Trump Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger and just retired chair of House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) — offer an answer in a new essay in Foreign Affairs: If the U.S. is tough enough, it can make China go away via regime change.  

Their approach to victory is a zero-sum, take-no-prisoners confrontation. The U.S. must end normal trade status and decouple. Spend up to 6 percent of GDP on defense — around $2 trillion for a nation with a $34 trillion debt. An unconstrained conventional and nuclear arms race would ensue. 

As if current U.S.-China volatility were not enough, we need “greater friction,” and to adopt “rhetoric and policies” that are “uncomfortably confrontational.” 

You get the picture. 

In a bit of nostalgia posing as strategy, the authors seek to replicate the Cold War against a one-dimensional USSR. They deride the U.S.-USSR détente as a failure and propose a course of maximum economic and military pressure on China. The problem with this failure of imagination is that our issue with China is a qualitatively different predicament.  

China is an $18 trillion economy with which the U.S. is deeply interdependent, one of the world’s largest trading powers, its largest creditor, a leading technology power and a mature nuclear weapons state.

As we have seen in the current trade and tech war, Beijing is willing and able to engage in tit-for-tat retaliation. The trajectory of such an approach would likely be an economically destabilizing race to the bottom and a fair probability of military conflict with a chance of nuclear escalation. 

In the Pottinger-Gallagher vision, squeezing Beijing into acquiescence would produce “Chinese people — from ruling elites to everyday citizens” who “would find inspiration to explore new models of development and governance.” 

Of course, we could always get lucky. Few tears would be shed if China were rid of the CCP. But there is scant evidence that the 98 million-member party is going away any time soon, or that the U.S. has the agency to make it happen. Magical thinking is not a sound basis for policy. U.S. efforts at regime change have rarely ended well.  

Foreign policy is often a choice between bad and worse options. 

In a 2019 Foreign Affairs essay two architects of the administration’s China policy, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, foreshadowed current policy. They argued that the error of the previous engagement policy was to assume the U.S. could produce “change in China’s economic and political system.” 

“Washington risks making a similar mistake today, by assuming that competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed — this time forcing capitulation or even collapse,” they wrote. 

Instead, Sullivan and Campbell proposed the U.S. eschew a zero-sum end state and seek “a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.” 

Reality check — that’s pretty much what Biden’s China policy is trying to do. 

Pottinger and Gallagher concede that retaining Trump tariffs, blocking access to high-end technology, qualitatively strengthening U.S. alliances and expanding a network of regional security arrangements made China a “bright spot” of Biden’s beleaguered foreign policy.  

In fact, the administration is already doing much of what they advocate. But in their view, Biden is too soft: He merely wants to manage a competitive coexistence with China and find a stable balance of power. 

The authors’ critique of Biden is accurate. The question is whether anyone has a better idea. Team Biden wouldn’t disagree with the Pottinger-Gallagher depiction of Beijing’s relentless ambition to upend the U.S. and create a Sino-centric world order.  

In a major policy speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken minced few words regarding China’s intentions and capabilities: “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.” 

But Blinken injected a dose of realism reflecting the administration’s approach: “China is also integral to the global economy and to our ability to solve challenges from climate to COVID. Put simply, the United States and China have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future.” 

Thus, President Biden’s frequent calls for “guardrails” to prevent tensions from spiraling into conflict and current diplomacy trying to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship. 

There may be no satisfying answer to the China question, the historic dilemma of how a leading power copes with a rising one. They often end in conflict. For the U.S., it is the centerpiece of a larger problem of how to adapt to an increasingly multipolar world and the rise of the rest, with wealth and power shifting from West to East.  

The current U.S.-China predicament is a complex accumulation of 50 years of interaction and interdependence. One result is a $575 billion trade relationship — even after derisking by both sides. China is the largest trading partner of most U.S. allies and partners and a key driver of global growth.  

A trend of mutual demonization and deepening distrust stalks efforts to stabilize the relationship, largely due to Beijing’s overreach and Washington’s overreaction. 

U.S. fears notwithstanding, there is a large gap between China’s ambitions and reality. Similarly, grasping the limits of U.S. power would be a big help in getting our China policy right. 

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Global Foresight and China programs. He previously served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs, as a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group. Follow him on X/Twitter @Rmanning4. 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Delusions of strong-arming China into compliance are dangerous”
  1. Delusions of strong-arming China into compliance are dangerous. It’s concerning how some individuals advocate for a zero-sum, take-no-prisoners confrontation approach, risking an unconstrained arms race and greater friction between the U.S. and China. The nostalgia for replicating the Cold War strategy against China overlooks the complex nature of the current geopolitical landscape.

  2. Deluding oneself into thinking that strong-arming China into compliance is a viable strategy is not only reckless but also myopic. The U.S. must navigate this complex relationship with caution and diplomacy to avoid catastrophic consequences down the road.

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