The U.S. Should Add a Little Humility to its China Policy | Opinion

There was a time, in what today seems like a strange era in a totally different galaxy, when the United States and China were thought to be destined for great things.

Preparing to become the first U.S. president in a decade to visit China, Bill Clinton defended his policy of "constructive engagement," in which Washington and Beijing speak frankly about their differences while developing their economic relationship.

"Seeking to isolate China is clearly unworkable," Clinton told reporters in June 1998. "Over time, I believe China's leaders must accept freedom's progress, because China can only reach its full potential if its people are free to reach theirs."

Clinton's successor, President George W. Bush, continued this policy for much of his tenure. During his own trip to Beijing in 2002, Bush praised the People's Republic of China for its rapid-paced modernization and productivity while marveling at the improvement of the U.S.-China relationship overall. In Bush's words, "China is on a rising path, and America welcomes the emergence of a strong and peaceful and prosperous China."

Looking back at those remarks, today's crop of U.S. policymakers cringe at the naiveté. U.S.-China relations in 2021 are in the toilet. The starry-eyed hope and optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s is now replaced with a near universal concern in Washington, D.C., about potential Chinese hegemony in Asia. U.S. warships and carriers frequently traverse the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to disabuse Beijing of the notion it can turn the waters of the Pacific into its own personal lake.

Lawmakers across the ideological divide, from Senators Bernie Sanders to Marco Rubio, are either vociferous critics of China for the nation's intellectual property theft and cyberattacks on U.S. institutions or are active proponents of boosting the U.S. military presence in Asia. A feeling of inevitable confrontation between Washington and Beijing, the world's two largest economies, is palpable in the Beltway.

Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, requested an additional $27 billion over five years to outfit his command with air defense systems, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and the construction of new, smaller U.S. bases in the region. Sanctions on Chinese officials, once a rarity and considered off-limits for only the most serious infringements, are now commonplace. Lawmakers are competing against one another for the mantle of "China hawk," with a variety of bills floating around and others soon to be introduced. Congress may be stuck on just about everything else, but it can at least coalesce when it comes to the China issue.

The American public is increasingly agitated and concerned about China's behavior as well. A new Pew Research Center survey published this month found that 89 percent of Americans believe China is a competitor or an enemy and 55 percent would support limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans have a "cold" feeling toward China, up 21 percentage points since 2018.

A Chinese woman adjusts a Chinese flag near U.S. flags before the start of a meeting between China and the U.S. in Beijing on July 10, 2014. NG HAN GUAN/AFP via Getty Images

In short, being tough on the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly portrayed as a barometer of who is right and who is wrong. The U.S. foreign policy establishment is now effectively treating China as it treated the Soviet Union for over four decades: as an overriding, existential danger to American power that seeks to rewrite the rules as they've existed since World War II.

Yet hidden underneath all the urgency are two vital questions that haven't been sufficiently examined. First, does the United States possess the power to contain China? And second, is Cold War-style containment the optimal policy?

The answer to both questions hinges in large part on whether Washington can bring along its allies and partners for the ride. This is easier said than done.

U.S. officials have a tendency to assume allies in Europe or Asia will robotically follow Washington's tune like an orchestra follows a conductor. But even allies have their own interests, priorities and prerogatives. The European Union may finally be opening their eyes to a list of bad Chinese behavior, but this is also the same European Union that struck a large investment deal with Beijing despite concerns emanating from President Joe Biden's national security team. China is now the EU's largest trading partner, with total trade amounting to about $700 billion in 2020. Whether the U.S. likes it or not, Europe's policy toward Beijing will always keep this commerce in mind.

America's allies in East Asia aren't especially thrilled with the us-or-them mentality either. There is no doubt countries like Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are concerned about Beijing's territorial claims. But none of them would dream of allowing the U.S. to dictate their policy toward China, an economic behemoth that has proven more than willing on multiple occasions to exploit its status as the region's number-one trading partner to register disapproval. Just ask South Korea; when Seoul agreed to place a U.S. anti-missile defense system on its territory, the Chinese government responded by going on a scorched earth campaign against the South Korean-based Lotte Mart (90 stores in China were closed), prohibiting Chinese tours to South Korea and banning K-pop tours on Chinese soil.

The South Korean government may have kept the missile battery operational, but not without a substantial economic loss. The Hyundai Research Institute estimated that South Korea lost $7.5 billion in income in 2017 alone. Seoul has no intention of stirring the hornets' nest again.

On China, the U.S. needs to make a choice.

Does it attempt to drag allies into Washington's camp, further rankling the very strategic relationships the Biden administration is so committed to building? Or does it introduce a little humility into its China policy, where the interests of others are respected or at least tolerated?

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

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