America’s China policy has taken a fateful turn in the last three years. Recent escalations in mutual hostility ominously recall the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s when the U.S. and the Soviet Union saw little room for compromise and cooperation. Indeed, this unfolding geopolitical conflict (euphemistically labeled “strategic competition” in Washington) has taken on all the trappings of a new cold war that will likely include a full-fledged arms race, comprehensive economic decoupling, and the formation of rival blocs.
While the US-China cold war has intensified with frightening speed, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this year, many important questions remain unanswered. Topping the list is America’s ultimate objective.
The answer to this question depends on the perspectives of American policy-makers.
Three perspectives – pragmatic, realist, and ideological — inform American thinking about China.
American pragmatists embrace a more confrontational policy to seek specific change in Chinese conduct. They believe that the deterioration of U.S.-China relations is caused by Beijing’s policies, and that American interests are best served by making China change or reverse these policies. For example, in confronting Chinese aggression in the South China Sea since 2014, the pragmatists’ approach would be a combination of diplomacy and pressure aimed to coax China into freezing its activities. Compartmentalizing bilateral disputes cuts a big problem into manageable pieces, making it easier to resolve individual conflicts despite mutual distrust and hostility. The U.S.-Soviet cooperation on arms control was a classic example.
Pragmatists in the Trump administration include Steve Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary and director of the National Economic Council respectively. Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, shares many of their views.
While the pragmatists focus on policies, the realists focus on power. From their perspective, Beijing has adopted more aggressive policies in recent years because it has grown more powerful. A successful strategy aimed at changing Chinese policy must start with measures to undercut Chinese power. Chinese leaders would be forced to modify their conduct only when they lack the requisite material means to stay the course. This perspective is reflected in the stalemated trade war. Realists saw little upside in a negotiated outcome resolving specific trade disputes. Instead, they hoped to use the trade war to achieve a comprehensive economic decoupling with China to contain its power.
Most of the influential realists in Washington are in the Pentagon, and they include Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense. Compared with the pragmatists, they have a more sweeping but less achievable objective. Realist reasoning sounds compelling in the abstract, but thwarting China’s rise as a peer power is far more difficult to achieve in reality. To be sure, cutting off Chinese goods from American markets and choking off the flow of American technology to China can deal a heavy blow to the Chinese economy. But since total Chinese exports to the U.S. amount to 4 percent of its GDP, unilateral American decoupling with no support from its allies will not be sufficient to stifle Chinese growth. The most important determinant of the growth of Chinese power is the efficiency of its $14-trillion economy. If China responds to American decoupling not with retreat to communism and self-isolation, but with more pro-market reforms and opening to the non-American capitalist economies, the realist strategy of containing Chinese power will likely fail. Ironically, this strategy will come to fruition only with the help of Chinese hardliners who take the bait and cut China off from the rest of the world. A policy whose success depends on the missteps of your adversary does not seem to be promising one.
And then there are China’s ideological foes: American politicians who see the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the fundamental cause of the “China Problem” and seek nothing short of regime change. Their reasoning is equally compelling: since the CCP’s anti-democratic ideology drives its policy, only its removal from power can change Chinese behavior and eliminate the country as a threat to the U.S
The ideologues are prominent in both parties in Congress: they include hawkish Republican senators like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, but also Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House. Crucially, they include Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State and a potential presidential candidate in 2024.
While their objective of regime change is even more ambitious than the containment of Chinese power, it is also less achievable. Short of direct military intervention, outsiders have few means of replacing a hostile foreign regime. Since a war with China that is likely to escalate to a nuclear exchange is unthinkable, advocates of regime change have to count on domestic forces in China to topple the CCP.
There are three well-known problems of regime change sought by external actors, including the US, the most powerful state in the world. First, even impoverished dictatorships, such as Myanmar’s junta and the Kim dynasty in North Korea, can hang on for a long time if their rulers retain the loyalty of the military. Second, in well-organized states, such as China and the former Soviet Union, regime change happens only when the ruling elites split – a variable beyond the control of external actors. Third, progress in achieving regime change is impossible to measure. There is no way of measuring whether such a policy is working.
President Trump himself combines the instincts of a realist and a pragmatist, but the overall thrust of his China policy is more hawkish than that implies. At the moment the realist and ideological perspectives dominate because their advocates occupy most of the key positions in the administration. These two perspectives also complement each other well. Realists see Chinese power in the hands of a (nominally) communist dictatorship as particularly dangerous, while the new anti-communist cold warriors are convinced that the surest way of containing Chinese power is by getting rid of the CCP. As a result, pragmatists have little influence beyond modest compromises that serve President Donald Trump’s immediate interest in re-election, such as the Phase I trade agreement with China that temporarily suspended the trade war.
If Trump wins re-election, his administration will continue to pursue the two maximalist goals – containing Chinese power and seeking regime change. This will turn the U.S.-China cold war into an open-ended conflict.
Should Joe Biden defeat Trump, a rebalancing of the three objectives is likely to occur. While the U.S. will continue to pursue a long-term strategy of containing Chinese power and promoting democracy in China, a Democratic administration seeking to change Chinese policy would also be willing to seek cooperation and make the necessary compromises.
For the rest of the world, a more supple China policy that strikes the right balance between pragmatism, realism, and idealism would be a welcome improvement on the status quo. It has a more achievable objective and reduces risk. Without such a balance we will continue sleep-walking into a new cold war, with devastating consequences.
All photographs Getty Images
Professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of China’s Crony Capitalism