China in Focus #22: Whither Engagement?

January 2, 2019 | 9:59 am
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

Chinese Astronaut Yang Liwei discusses international cooperation in space exploration at the 2018 Galaxy Forum in Beijing.

US China policy is changing. One well-informed observer put it this way in a recent conversation on Twitter: “There’s currently a great deal of consensus in the US for not just more competition with, but also separation from, China.” 

Another claimed this “growing anti-China sentiment” has been “building for years” and is now being shaped into a “whole of society response” based on a “deep antipathy towards China” that “will probably be impossible to change.” The president of a leading US think tank recently argued America’s supposed new “China fixation” can and should be harnessed “to rally elected leaders around a program of American strength and renewal.”

Cultivating enmity towards others is a lousy way to try to renew oneself. Raising the specter of foreign enemies to create domestic unity is a recipe for war.  Attempting to separate the people of the United States from a fifth of humanity is a fool’s errand in this era of climate change, technological interdependence and the accelerating integration of human societies, economies and cultures.

The concept of globalization was not conceived as a policy option but as a description. One cannot be for or against it any more than one can be for or against describing the color of the sky as blue. No matter what our respective governments do, Chinese ideas and actions will affect American lives and vice versa. They cannot be walled-off and contained. They can only be engaged.

How to engage China is the appropriate question for US policy makers, who should keep in mind that China is more than its government, and that its government is more than the small number of leaders who occupy its highest offices.

By any measure, since the United States recognized that government and normalized relations with its multitudinous subjects, the United States has affected Chinese society and culture to a far greater degree than China has affected American society and culture. Indeed, one can interpret the Sisyphean efforts of China’s senior leadership to mediate the relationship by attempting to restrict access to ubiquitous information as an indicator of the direction and magnitude of Chinese social and cultural change.

It is hard to see how US policies that encourage widespread general antipathy towards China by punishing its entrepreneurs, harassing its scientists and doubting the good intentions of its citizens with the express aim of driving a wedge between the two countries benefits anyone except, perhaps, the few senior Chinese leaders who would also prefer to put a little more distance between the two societies and cultures.

It is equally hard to understand why US pundits and policy-makers appear to be in awe of the supposed power of Chinese leaders who seem to be terrified of their own subjects. The cacophony of US voices raising alarm about the rise of China may want to consider the possibility that the upper echelon of the Chinese Communist Party spends so much effort trying to project strength because it understands the inherent weakness of any government responsible for meeting the needs and managing the expectations of 1.4 billion people. That may be why China’s new National Security Commission is more focused on what is happening inside China’s borders than beyond them.

The described US consensus for greater separation is based on the highly questionable assumption that engagement failed. That assumption is based on an unadvisedly narrow benchmark.

The decisions on China policy US elites made in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were premised on the hope, if not the expectation, that China’s communist government would either change its ways or fail. US corporate elites agreed to onerous Chinese impositions in exchange for access to Chinese markets, including demands to transfer technology, because they assumed those impositions would be short-lived. US political elites went along with their corporate patrons because they assumed China’s communist government would either become more open or collapse. The Chinese Communist Party not only survived engagement with its ideology and practices intact, it presided over decades of increasing prosperity.

Ripping apart the social, economic and cultural relationships that bind Chinese and Americans together won’t make us less interdependent. The world is too small for 1.4 billion producers and consumers to go about their business without impacting the lives of everyone else on the planet, including Americans.

China’s new CRISPR babies is an example worth contemplating. Would it be better or worse to have a relationship so fraught with fear and mistrust that our scientists, philosophers and policy-makers cannot talk constructively about the consequences of how advanced technologies like this are employed?

Moreover, there’s no guarantee separation will accomplish what engagement did not. Promoting American hostility towards China, much less making it the political cornerstone of American unity and renewal, is unlikely to produce a more open Chinese regime.

US elite hopes to fundamentally change China’s government may be unrealized.  But the US government has managed to engage it for the last forty years and the enormous space that created for everyone who is not in government to engage each other has benefited both societies and economies. This interaction has contributed to making East Asia one of the most peaceful and productive regions in the world. That’s a much better benchmark for measuring success or failure.



About the author

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Gregory Kulacki collects information and conducts analysis on security problems in East Asia. He uses that information and analysis to facilitate constructive dialogue between scientists, scholars and legislators from the United States, China, Japan and South Korea who seek solutions to security problems that do not depend on the use or threat to use nuclear weapons.