There is No Such Thing as a One-Size-Fits-All China Policy | Opinion

The United States likes to think of itself as being at the center of the universe, a country whose leadership is indispensable to keeping the world churning on the right axis. But inside the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., U.S. officials are increasingly concerned China will soon displace the U.S. as the world's paramount power. The entire U.S. national security apparatus, which was enmeshed in the quicksand of the Middle East for so long, is now well on its way to re-focusing resources and personnel on the China challenge.

Focusing, however, is not the same as hyperventilating. Focusing is a realistic, responsible attempt by an established power to monitor the activity of a rising competitor. Hyperventilating is a form of desperation which can lead to misplaced spending, overly-reactive policy choices and tunnel-vision, where other emerging threats or opportunities pass by without as much as a glance.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is flirting with the latter path. U.S. officials wake up in the morning thinking about China and fall asleep at the end of the day with nightmares about Chinese President Xi Jinping conquering the world as if global statecraft was a game of Risk. China's military development and the growth in its defense budget, a predictable byproduct of a 12-fold increase in the Chinese economy since the turn of the century, is treated as a near-Sputnik moment that leaves U.S. defenses worse off. U.S. defense circles now assume a full-born Chinese invasion of Taiwan will occur sometime this decade—and that any war over the self-ruled island will probably end on China's terms.

China is impacting the domestic debate in the U.S. as well. Many initiatives nowadays are discussed within the context of how it will improve Washington's capacity to compete with Beijing economically and strategically. President Joe Biden, for instance, is selling his $1.2 trillion infrastructure law as a big win against China. "We're about to turn things around in a big way," Biden said this week as he sold the package to the American public. "Because of this law, next year will be the first year in 20 years that American infrastructure investment will grow faster than China's." If there is one subject matter that unifies a normally divided Beltway, it's the need to get tough on Beijing across the board.

Tough, however, is not necessarily smart—and not all China policy options flouting around the ether should be treated as equally brilliant.

Investing in science, research and development in order to maintain Washington's technological edge is a cause worth pursuing. Seeking to diversify America's supply chains, both to provide U.S. manufacturers with more flexibility and to lessen dependence on China for critical supplies, is a common-sense approach other entities like the European Union are also working toward. However, a full-throated decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, which at a combined $35.6 trillion make up 42 percent of the world's total wealth, would cement the international community into rigid blocs and result in biting turbulence in global financial markets.

Jinping with Biden
Chinese President Xi Jinping with then-Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People on Dec. 4, 2013, in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Re-organizing a segment of the U.S. intelligence community and creating a China Mission Center, as CIA Director William Burns has done, is a low-cost way to increase Washington's understanding of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) composition, internal debates and policy trajectory. Yet using this information and reflexively reacting to CPP decisions without an honest assessment of the costs and benefits of a particular course of action can potentially backfire and limit whatever opportunity exists for a constructive working relationship between Washington and Beijing.

Reiterating U.S. opposition to the forced reunification of Taiwan remains appropriate. But providing Taiwan with an explicit U.S. security guarantee, or officially recognizing the island as an independent country is a bridge too far and would likely instigate the very scenario U.S. officials should be striving to avoid: a direct military confrontation between the world's two largest economies (who also happen to have nuclear weapons).

U.S. officials should continue to encourage its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to take ownership of their own security, bolstering the region's ability to check China from becoming a Eurasian hegemon. Countries like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines should be given the chance to purchase U.S. weapons, like coastal radar, air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine reconnaissance assets, to complicate the prospects of a Chinese assault. But stiffening the spines of China's neighbors doesn't translate into the U.S. throwing in the towel on dialogue, stopping results-oriented summits like the one that occurred this week between Biden and Xi, or giving up on the kinds of small-ball diplomacy that can lead to mutually acceptable agreements (regardless of how small those agreements are).

In short: a one-size-fits-all policy toward China is inadequate to the challenge Beijing presents. On issues like the South China Sea and human rights, China will remain a fierce competitor (if not an outright antagonist). On others, such as trade and the environment, the Asian giant could prove to be a semi-cooperative partner. The U.S. must develop a policy that accounts for all of these different scenarios, no matter how one-dimensional the China debate is at home.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.