The country poses a serious challenge, but what’s required is serious diplomacy not threats and tweetstorms.By Susan Thornton
July 7, 2019, 6:00 PM EDT
The two countries are intertwined.
Susan Thornton is a Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale University Law School. She was formerly U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
The chorus of U.S. complaints about China has grown familiar and deafening: “China has cheated on trade, stolen our intellectual property and sold us cheap goods.” “China aims to kick us out of the Pacific, undermine our alliances and displace the U.S. as the globe’s preeminent power.” “China breaks international conventions and incarcerates its ethnic minority populations. It aims to export a dystopian model of authoritarian capitalism, weaken our values and undermine democracies everywhere.”
China’s rise does pose serious challenges to the U.S. and the global order, which need to be addressed. And many of these complaints are longstanding, so naturally it feels good to hit back.
Yet, even during the most hair-trigger days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union wasn’t treated to such mindless, almost juvenile hostility from the U.S. government. Cabinet officials rant caustically about Chinese efforts to build infrastructure in other countries. The head of the FBI names China a “whole-of-society threat” and a high-ranking State Department official asserts that the U.S. is involved in a “clash of civilizations” because China is “not Caucasian.” U.S. air and naval missions close to Chinese territory spur a daily, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, while U.S. officials assert publicly that the U.S. and China are already engaged in a “cyber war.”
Even if these dark narratives about China were wholly accurate, trash-talking and veiled threats are no substitute for serious diplomacy in meeting the China challenge. And, in fact, that challenge is less scary and more complicated than critics believe.
The notion that China seeks to displace the U.S. or overthrow the international system, for instance, is greatly exaggerated. In large part, it is based on the outpourings of a vocal minority: Chinese nationalists who preach autarky, generals who advocate militarism, CEOs who favor protectionism. China’s evolution on many of these questions will depend substantially on future events, importantly including U.S. actions.
What China wants is continued stability and continued economic prosperity and growth, the key elements of its “China Dream.” If China sees that U.S. global leadership is conducive to its continued progress, even as the U.S. and its allies continue to counter any aggression in the region, China’s thinking is likely to evolve in one direction. If it believes that the U.S. is using the international system to block its Dream, it will respond accordingly.
China’s participation in the global economy has benefited U.S. and global economic growth and development, although unevenly and with abuses that can be curbed through traditional negotiations rather than tariff wars. American economic prosperity depends on the continuing reform of a global trading system that has generated unparalleled wealth and technological progress over the last 30 years. China is a major partner in this project, wants to see it succeed and isn’t unwilling to make changes to ensure the system’s continuation.
The Chinese leadership’s determination to maintain one-party, top-down state control through repression is more concerning. The U.S. and the international community must make clear that China, as a major player, will be held to international norms and standards of responsible governance. At the same time, we should not exaggerate the extent to which China’s is a model that is attractive or even viable for export. Indeed, Beijing’s reliance on repression should be seen as a major vulnerability that will have to be addressed if China is to continue to make progress. The government will eventually pay a cost internally if it doesn’t reduce its span of control.
Many of those who once favored engagement are dismayed by the fact that this hasn’t happened yet. With varying degrees of reluctance, they’ve thus signed onto the idea that only a harder line will get China’s attention. But try to think of it from the other side. The Chinese are a proud people with a long history, and the accusations, provocations, threats and disrespect being directed their way are having a predictable effect. What kind of shining example does America set by actively seeking to thwart the progress of one-fifth of humanity?
The alternative isn’t to sit back passively. It is clearly in the interest of all countries, but especially of the U.S. as the global leader, to try to shape China’s future to converge more with our own. This will require hands-on management of the relationship rather than tweetstorms. We need to pursue engagement aimed at shaping Chinese behavior, while shoring up a policy of balancing and deterrence that has worked well for 40 years and shows few signs of being seriously challenged by China in the near-term.
The U.S. must band together with partners, double down on coaxing China into the global community and strengthen international structures against new pressures. It’s called diplomacy and the U.S. used to be darn good at it.
Adapted from a longer essay in the Foreign Service