Who Benefits From Confrontation With China?

The Editorial Board

America’s increasingly confrontational posture toward China is a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy that warrants greater scrutiny and debate.

For most of the past half-century, the United States sought to reshape China through economic and diplomatic engagement — or, in the case of the Trump administration, through economic and diplomatic disengagement. The Biden administration, by contrast, has shelved the idea that China can be changed in favor of the hope that it can be checked.

The White House has moved to limit economic ties with China, to limit China’s access to technology with military applications, to pull back from international institutions where the United States has long sought to engage China and to strengthen ties with China’s neighbors. In recent months, the United States has restricted semiconductor exports to China, and this week it moved ahead with plans to help Australia obtain nuclear submarines. The administration also is seeking to impose new restrictions on American investments in certain Chinese companies. In treating China as a growing threat to American interests, it is acting with broad support, including from leading Republicans, much of the military and foreign policy establishments, and a growing portion of the business community.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided the clearest articulation of the administration’s China policy in a speech last May at George Washington University. Dismissing engagement as a policy failure, Mr. Blinken said the United States had tried with little success to persuade or compel China to abide by American rules or the rules of international institutions. He described China as increasingly determined to impose its priorities on other nations. “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,” he said. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”

It is true that engagement with China has yielded less than its proponents hoped and prophesied. China’s embrace of capitalism has not proved to be a first step toward the liberalization of its society or political system. Indeed, China’s brand of state-sponsored capitalism has damaged the health of liberal democracy elsewhere. The United States rightly continues to press China’s leadership on issues where serious differences remain, including its repression of Uyghur Muslims and its disregard for intellectual property rights.

China also is demonstrating a greater willingness to engage in worrying provocations, mounting military displays in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and sailing a balloon over the United States. U.S. officials say China is considering military aid for Russia, a move that would deliberately escalate tensions with the United States in an arena where China has little to gain.

Yet the relationship between the United States and China, for all its problems, continues to deliver substantial economic benefits to the residents of both countries and to the rest of the world. Moreover, because the two nations are tied together by millions of normal and peaceful interactions every day, there is a substantial incentive to maintain those ties and a basis for working together on shared problems like climate change.

Americans’ interests are best served by emphasizing competition with China while minimizing confrontation. Glib invocations of the Cold War are misguided. It doesn’t take more than a glance to appreciate that this relationship is very different. Rather than try to trip the competition, America should focus on figuring out how to run faster, for example through increased investments in education and basic scientific research.

Chinese actions and rhetoric also need to be kept in perspective. By the standards of superpowers, China remains a homebody. Its foreign engagements, especially outside its immediate surroundings, remain primarily economic. China has been playing a much more active role in international affairs in recent years — a new agreement facilitated by China to re-establish relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the latest example — but China continues to show strikingly little interest in persuading other nations to adopt its social and political values.

(Source: The New York Times).