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A New Direction for US China Policy

This series has so far been critical of China’s aggressive actions, both geopolitically and geoeconomically. However, China has done much good for which it should be lauded. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has continually promoted Former premier Wen Jiabao’s peaceful rise by refusing strong-arm tactics against Taiwan, not attacking any other South China Sea territory claimed by neighboring states, and remains aloof from foreign intervention since the Chinese-Vietnamese War in 1979. China is now the largest trade and investment partner of nearly every country in Asia and is a major provider of economic aid to developing nations. Each of these realities obviously serves to further China’s ambitions, but self-interested action can be a net positive for every party involved. The United States should build its China policy upon these positive foundations.

Image Courtesy of, © 2017

The first pillar of the United States’ China policy should expand defense relations with Beijing. Admiral Wu Shengli, Commander of China’s Navy, visited the United States and toured various military installations and ships in 2013. In 2014, China participated in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the largest naval exercise in the world including over 20 nations, at the invitation of the United States. In 2016, top US Naval Admiral John Richardson visited China to discuss developments in the South China Sea and tour Chinese defense capabilities. China was again invited to RIMPAC 2018, to which the Chinese Navy agreed. These activities foster goodwill, must continue, and should attempt expansion. Open dialogue and an increased level of transparency diffuse tensions and permit additional leverage in times of crisis.

In 2013, the USS Cowpens was trailing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier, Liaoning. The USS Cowpens was not committing any aggressive or illegal maneuvers, naval craft often trail other nations’ ships. However, the USS Cowpens was quickly assailed by a PLAN Amphibious Dock Ship. After the USS Cowpens made evasive maneuvers and aggressive words were traded between ship commanders, both ships parted. Imagine a more intense escalation where shots exchanged and a combative imbroglio ensued. Diplomats and the associated bureaucracy would take some time in deescalating the situation. Military peers may be the most effective tools at decreasing future tensions between the PLAN and US Navy.

The economic relations pillar should mirror the openness and partnership of the military pillar. China has taken strides towards integrating with the global economy but since 2007 has pursued increasingly zero-sum, mercantilist trade policies that damage US economic interests. A few of these include continued cyberespionage, global market-altering subsidies to Chinese firms, and nonstop intellectual property right infringements. However, candid diplomacy and geoeconomic action can correct some issues and bolster US-Chinese trade relations. For example, as long as China continues to massively subsidize certain sectors, Washington should selectively target and cordon off portions of the US economy from Chinese investment. Given the size of US markets, this is a non-aggressive policy that China will strive to remove to continue investment growth. By contrast, an embargo on subsidized Chinese sectors will damage the US economy more than impact Beijing’s pocketbook. A carrot and stick solution targeting Chinese investment is a better strategy. With the United Kingdom expressing interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), President Trump could enter negotiations aside the US’s longtime partner expressing interests of reentry if his initial concerns were assuaged. The TPP remains the most effective soft power tool the United States can use to engage the Asian community in the face of an economically dominant China. More so, an increasingly engaged United States in East Asia gives Washington considerable leverage over China. A final policy prescription is to negotiate a US-China policy for cyberspace. With China’s rising digital protectionism, inhibition of the free flow of data, and assaults on various US cyber capabilities, the United States should unify various industries impacted by the clandestine cyber actions to enact economic leverage over China. US policy has been insufficient at halting cyber infractions. Targeting the pocketbook is the most effective, non-aggressive mean of coercing Beijing.

Human rights occupy the third pillar of an improved US-China policy. A portion of 1980’s US policy towards China believed political liberalization would be the natural progression of economic growth. Similar patterns were observed in many other developed states. Many assumed China would follow the same trajectory. However, with events such as Tiananmen Square and the many jailed political dissidents such as the late Liu Xiaobo, China has not embraced democratic principles. And the United States should not attempt to coerce such evolution. The CCP published a 70% public approval rating a few years ago to ward off talks of Xi Jinping’s domestic popularity. Although China is not known for publishing reliable statistics, if approval ratings are anywhere close to 70%, any coercive, pro-democracy action the United States takes against Beijing would be met with vehement disapproval across much of China. If internal Chinese events elude to liberalization, the United States should promote such activities. The United States fails at maintaining a consistent human rights campaign in China, and instituting regularity would support liberalizing forces in a non-interventionist manner.

Militarily, economically, and politically, China should be seen as a potential partner, not a foe. As Jeffrey Bader at the Brookings Institute notes, “If [the United States] conspires to make China an enemy, then every problem [the US] deals with, including Iran, North Korea, climate change, and global terrorism, will become orders of magnitude more difficult to manage.” China is a rising great power. To treat it otherwise will only hamper US power around the world with potentially disastrous repercussions. It is a powerful member of the international community—increased engagement is key.

This article is the first in a series exploring the shifting power structure between the current U.S. dominated global order and China’s Rise.

First Article in Series: China’s Rise, America’s Fall

Second Article in Series: China’s Rising Power


David Stoffey

David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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