Is American Policy toward China Due for a ‘Reckoning’?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In a February 13 Foreign Affairs essay, former diplomats Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner argue that United States policy toward China, in administrations of both parties, has relied in the past on a mistaken confidence in America’s ability to “mold China to the United States’ liking.” They call for a new U.S. approach to China, one which faces the degree to which China’s actions have diverged from U.S. expectations, discards the notion that economic liberalization would lead China to political openness, and acknowledges China’s failure to acquiesce to an American-led security order. Is Campell and Ratner’s characterization of the shortcomings in the U.S. approach persuasive? What should a newly clear-eyed U.S. policy entail? —The Editors


Ely Ratner and Kurt Campbell have sounded a clarion call to rethink the assumptions that have driven America’s China policy for last 40 years. America’s longstanding policy has been to engage, integrate, and bind China into the existing liberal order. In “The China Reckoning,” they ask whether we have reached the outer limits of that policy.

Their answer is yes. Partially, this is due to China itself. China is very big and very old, and the course of events in China are often determined by its own internal dynamics. As the great China historian Jonathan Spence wrote, “China had her own policies, and the proven power with which to advance them.” But no matter the benefits that it has generated, U.S. policy has not produced the China, the region, or the international system American policymakers had hoped for. What has emerged is a richer, more powerful, more repressive China that is expanding its political influence around the world and attempting to impose a regional version of what has been the Chinese domestic contract; stability, growth, and acquiescence.

These are not earth-shaking pronouncements, but rather reflections of reality. If there’s an emerging consensus that it’s high time for an overhaul of America’s China policy, there’s less agreement on what that might be. In that spirit, I’d like to comment on two particular points critical to any new policy discussion.

First, Campbell and Ratner call for engaging in a competitive strategy that is not necessarily, or even solely, confrontational. They also call for a shift in Washington’s efforts away from transforming China and towards focusing on the enduring strengths of America and its allies and partners. Those two are related and have practical implications in terms of U.S. and partner prioritization, timing, geography, and resource allocation.

Equally important is implementation: how to get this down from the 30,000 foot realm of strategy and into the arena of practical application. Both Campbell and Ratner have extensive experience at the highest level of American statecraft and have written on the necessary bureaucratic and political elements required of such a multifaceted strategy. If the debate has shifted from why a new approach is needed, the next line of effort needs to focus on what that new approach should be, and how it will be put into effect.

Elements of a new approach are now discernible, but a comprehensive strategy has not yet formed. Such an approach is not without risk, but ultimately far less risky than submitting to a China-dominated Asia-Pacific in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes, and China becomes further emboldened.

A clear-eyed policy would entail a multilateral and sustained endeavor to apply counter-pressure against Beijing’s efforts to create its own sphere of influence. Such a strategy of counter-pressure is more likely to stabilize the region, helping to provide the continued basis for the sustained economic growth that has transformed the entire region.

Two senior Asia officials who served in the Obama administration, my good friends Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner (who is also my Council on Foreign Relations colleague), that U.S. strategy toward China has been a miserable failure, filled with one misguided effort to change China after another. In their assessment, nothing the United States has done to influence Beijing’s behavior has worked—not sticks, not carrots, not soybeans, nothing.

It is easy to see where they are coming from. China is not a thriving liberal democracy and reliable partner for the United States. Instead, it is an increasingly authoritarian, economically and militarily powerful country bent on pushing the United States out of Asia and shaping international norms to suit its own purposes (which are mostly, but not completely, at cross-purposes with those of the United States). It is also seeking to establish itself as a peer competitor militarily and in the development of advanced technology. The current situation is disappointing to say the least; massively concerning to say the most.

But, does the fact that China is not developing the way we want mean that we have failed? Only if we believe that 1) we had the power to determine how China would turn out; 2) we can’t point to any success in the current situation; and 3) we believe that this is the end of the road for China’s political and economic evolution.

Let’s start with point one. We were never in a position to control the political and economic outcomes of China. We are not in a position to control the outcomes in any country. Just take a quick look at Cuba or even Thailand and the Philippines—our nominal treaty allies. When we try to effect wholesale change, say for example in Iraq, things often deteriorate rapidly. What we can do is to structure opportunities and constraints, but ultimately the political decision-makers in sovereign countries decide their own path forward.

Point two: China is not all bad all the time. We have had, and can continue to have, a positive impact. With pressure from the United States, China stepped up to the plate to do more than it originally had planned on climate change, Ebola, and sanctions on North Korea. Since the mid-1990s, partnerships between Chinese and American NGOs—and U.S. and Chinese government actors—have produced significant and important changes in Chinese laws and behavior in areas such as the environment, the economy, and broader social policy.

Point three—and perhaps the most important—political change is a long game, and the game is not over. There are many people in China—including senior officials, billionaire entrepreneurs, well-known cultural figures, and civil society activists—who are not enamored of Xi Jinping’s more repressive political turn. Chinese leaders change over time and bring their own political inclinations. Does anyone remember Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang? Could we imagine a different China emerging over the past five years with a different Chinese leader at the helm, for example, Li Keqiang or Wang Yang? We have only to look at our own political system over the past 50 years to understand the importance of the impact of individual leaders in shaping domestic and foreign policy. This is not naiveté—it is comparative politics 101.

What to do now? Campbell and Ratner suggest two guiding principles for U.S. policy moving forward: first, humility in considering how much we can change China; and second, strengthening U.S. fundamentals at home in order to project a strong, competitive policy abroad. I couldn’t agree more. But we have other tools as well. Let’s think of this new China under Xi Jinping as presenting not only new challenges but also new opportunities. We can leverage Xi Jinping’s ambition to pressure him to do more to respond to global challenges or to uphold the principles of globalization that he claims to champion. Adopting reciprocity, we can fight back against Chinese protectionism with our own brand of protectionism. And, of course, old tools are still important. We should deepen our outreach to like-minded allies and partners. I visited Vietnam in January and was struck by the enthusiasm for partnership with the United States—not only through growing security cooperation but also capacity-building, such as helping Vietnamese farmers diversify their agricultural exports away from a reliance on China (in this case, a partnership project between the U.S-led Asia Foundation, on whose board I sit, and the Australian government). Campbell and Ratner are concerned about China’s chipping away at the U.S. system of alliances and partnerships. However, we have the tools to ensure that doesn’t happen, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use them.

An effective response to China will require the mobilization of all the U.S. inherent strengths, as well as the adoption of new tools. We may be back on our heels now, but Americans love an underdog. So let’s dig in and get to work.

A version of this post appears on Asia Unbound on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.” That statement in former President Barak Obama’s remarks to the Australian parliament in November 2011, to lay out his case for a ‘pivot,’ rang loud enough for some concerned Southeast Asian observers—privately, of course—to express a sense of exasperation when conferring with us Chinese scholars.

After all, if there is one achievement in which contemporary China can take legitimate pride, poverty reduction is it. Imports from other countries—including raw materials from poor and developing economies—function as a means of poverty reduction more broadly. Yes, there is a whole host of issues, environmental and human rights along the way, but isn’t that a component of the global chain of production in the first place? What was the United States demanding China’s trading partners to choose between?

The level of continuity—both in philosophizing and policy designs— between the Trump Administration’s China strategy and that of the Obama Administration is extremely high. Some observers erroneously point to the withdrawal from the Tran-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an indicator of major difference. The TPP, not submitted to Congress for ratification, was facing serious domestic obstacles anyway. Along the way, the degree of a China factor therein is very much a subject for academic guess work.

On the China side, President Xi is quoted having observed during his first meeting with President Trump that, “We have a thousand reasons to get China-U.S. relations right and not one reason to spoil the relationship.”

It is not that Americans and Chinese across the board disagree with the wording itself. Real differences exist over who the “we” are, who is doing the “spoiling,” and what is “right.” Well, this is not the first time such differences exist and it sure won’t be the last time either.

No matter how the debate went on the U.S. side, since the re-normalization of diplomatic ties with Washington, China has benefited from having a stable relationship. There can be no question about that.

Now, has China short changed the United States in the process? With the U.S. so firmly committed to keeping Taiwan a separate entity from the mainland, it would be politically suicidal for any Chinese leadership to publicly express gratitude to the United States. When leadership in Beijing emerges through multi-party, competitive and free elections, will the Taiwan issue logically go the American way? Well, some political science textbooks say so. But neither Beijing nor Washington is taking any chance.

Other than the Taiwan issue, it is truly hard for anyone in China to truly justify pursuing a policy towards the U.S.—bilaterally, regionally, or globally—that is confrontational by nature.

China has benefited from being open to influence—designed or not —from the United States. This is an unspoken yet powerful fact, accepted by millions of Chinese, those in the leadership included. There are facets in that influence that China does not accept or will take time to accept. But the notion of China working to upstage the United States is just too fanciful to be taken seriously.

There certainly is an element of competition, which in turn is a useful means against complacency. As a matter of fact, I see the ongoing discussion among American security elites about U.S. policy towards China as a living example of a society that has a long history against complacency. There are useful things for China to learn from such a trait in American civilization.

Not only are we not changing China, but China is changing us. Anne-Marie Brady’s remarkable report, “Magic Weapons: Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping,” describes Chinese influence activities in New Zealand. “Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe,” by scholars at two Berlin-based research institutes, describes Chinese influence activities in Europe. And we are becoming aware of similar uses of soft power and money power to influence politics and opinion in the United States.

This doesn't mean that China has a whole alternative model for the world order (on this I agree with Oliver Stuenkel in his recent book Post-Western World). But in making the world safe, as it were, for itself, China will extend its access and its way of doing things—a club of wealthy authoritarian power-holders, a world of flexible understandings rather than law, a world of what Perry Link famously called ‘the anaconda in the chandelier’.

China isn’t the only force building that world. We are building parts of it ourselves with more and more influence of money in politics, more and more data harvesting, more and more surveillance. It will not be the most terrible kind of world, not the kind of world we would have lived in if Hitler or Stalin had been victorious. But it will still be a much changed world, and one perhaps especially uncomfortable for us liberal intellectuals.

China may change eventually. But I agree with Campbell and Ratner that it’s not going to change on our schedule, and if it changes in ways that we wish, it will do so only partly. Therefore the first step of a good China policy, as they say, lies at home. We must recover our strength and recommit to our values—a mission for changing ourselves that, at this moment, looks even harder than the failed mission of changing China. But that is the mission. And then we have to create the world in which we would like to live, and make it attractive for China to join. The Trans Pacific Partnership was a good step in that direction. From a China policy point of view it was an act of folly for the Trump Administration to have started its term in office by throwing that tool away.

The U.S. indeed started engagement with the objective to change China. As former President Richard Nixon stated in in his 1967 Foreign Affairsarticle, “The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change.” As for the rational to change China, Nixon wrote that “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.” The engagement policy was thus based on the premises that the U.S. and China would find growing value and a convergence of interests as China became modernized, giving rise to a middle class and bringing about some form of political liberalization, if not democratization. In addition, rising as a benefactor of the U.S.-led international order, Beijing would see its interests best served by being a “responsible stakeholder” in the order.

The premises that guided the engagement, however, were called into question after China used its newfound economic power to challenge U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific, and China projected power at the expense of its smaller neighbors. China also began to openly challenge the Western liberal model of modernization after the 2009 global financial meltdown. Although the engagement policy has been essential for China’s rise, a richer and more powerful China rejected Western values and challenged U.S. interests. China continues to nurture its fantasies with the attempt to restore its ancient glory with the China Dream of Grand National Rejuvenation, to cherish its hates by constantly dredging up of the century of humiliation, and to threaten its weaker neighbors. As a result, many American analysts and officials have concluded that the policy has failed to accomplish its objectives, leading the call to get tougher on China and even return to Cold War-style containment. At the end of the first year of the Donald Trump presidency, the U.S. declared China a revisionist power and strategic competitor. Someone even declared that the U.S.-China relationship had entered a so-called “post-engagement” era.

Indeed, engagement has not brought about a Sino-U.S. merger based on common values. China has not changed to suit America’s image and to serve U.S. interests. But the engagement has benefited both China and the U.S. When the engagement started in the late 1970s, the U.S. was in the grips of wrenching stagflation and the Chinese economy was in shambles following the Cultural Revolution. Both countries needed new recipes for revival and growth and turned to each other in a marriage of convenience. China provided cheap goods that enabled income-constrained American consumers to make ends meet. The U.S. provided the market that underpinned China’s export-led growth, bringing China out of isolation and growing from a poverty-stricken country into the world’s second-largest economy. As the living standards of Chinese people improved rapidly, many enjoyed the best quality of life ever recorded in the country’s history. The pace of China’s transformation over the past 40 years is unprecedented. The engagement morphed into a deeper relationship over years.

Containment is not a viable alternative. Although the U.S. successfully carried out containment against the Soviet Union through minimal interaction during the Cold War, the U.S.-China relationship has become much more complicated. The weak economy of the Soviet Union did not affect the global economy. As the second largest economy, China is a principal trading partner of most countries, including the U.S. Trade between the U.S. and China was more $600 billion in 2017, while American trade with the former Soviet Union was only about $4 billion at its peak. A trade war would damage not only the Chinese economy but also the American economy immensely. The U.S. containment would trigger a strong Chinese reaction and provoke a security dilemma. American containment would prove Chinese hawks correct all along. These interactions vindicated the hawks of both sides, reinforced the visions of the other’s aggressiveness. Washington has not been able to force Beijing to back down on most of issues in dispute. If China did not meekly back down, the U.S. and China would come to confront each other in a volatile and zero-sum environment, deepening the security dilemma and making war more likely, although neither side has the intention of starting a war between two nuclear powers.

U.S. engagement is to influence and induce China to change in a direction that serves the interests of both China and the U.S. It should not simply to make China more like America or to preserve U.S. hegemony. Frankly acknowledging the serious differences that could lead to friction and require astute management, the U.S. has to compete and manage the competition while looking for a basis for cooperation. To compete with China, the U.S. has to set its own house in order first. A divided America with no shared vision about its global role among its people would find itself at odds with its international obligations.

But China cannot underestimate the resilience of America. As former Vice President Joe Biden told the Chinese delegation at the 2015 Strategic and Economic Dialogue, “We welcome fair and healthy competition. Quite frankly, you’ve awakened us. We got a little slow. We were a little too comfortable in the last part of the 20th century. It awakened the competitive spirit that’s stamped into the DNA of every American, naturalized as well as native-born. And a lot of them are Chinese.”

Engagement includes a hedge strategy to balance best-case scenarios and worst-case planning. This hedge strategy is fundamentally different from containment with its draining and ultimately unachievable goal of maintaining U.S. hegemony. The goals of America’s engagement toward China should not be changed. The U.S. still wants a prosperous and liberal China that acts as a responsible stakeholder in the world and as a good neighbor in Asia. While some in the U.S. have found flaws in the engagement and called for containment, the alternative may bring not only uncertainty but also disastrous results.

Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner argue in Foreign Affairs, “The United States has always had an outsize sense of its ability to determine China’s course.” Their thoughtful article gives voice to a sentiment that gradually has taken on greater urgency in U.S. policy circles of late: somehow, we got the China relationship wrong. The precise explanation of why—hubris, misguided beliefs about the international system, or just a fundamental misread of Chinese intentions—is ultimately less important than the resulting question: what now?

For many experts, the answer seems to be a fundamental re-think of the U.S. approach toward China. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which clearly labels China as a “strategic competitor,” suggests that such an internal realignment is underway. The challenge, however, as Campbell and Ratner suggest, will be for the United States to learn how to be more competitive without being confrontational. Achieving this delicate recalibration will be difficult, but not impossible. In particular, U.S. policymakers should keep three principles in mind.

First, avoid the trap of stark dichotomies. A reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship may be necessary, but far too often U.S. policy swings between stark extremes that fail to adequately capture the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship. It’s far too simplistic to paint every Chinese action as malign. Moreover, this approach avoids the difficult and more nuanced debate that needs to occur about how the United States and China should approach each other in the interstitial spaces where competition is most likely. A thoughtful debate will require greater precision about how the United States defines our interests, where our competitive advantages lie, and the degree of friction we’re willing, or unwilling, to tolerate in our relationship with China.

Second, and related, U.S. policymakers should avoid the tendency to place the U.S.-China relationship at the center of our regional strategy, rather than to make our regional strategy the centerpiece of how we approach China. Ultimately, our goal is not a stable U.S.-China relationship; it’s a stable and prosperous Asia. The greatest fear for U.S. allies is that a China-centric strategy will result in the sort of transactional tradeoffs that leave them twisting in the wind in places like North Korea or the South China Sea. The only way to get the China relationship right is to appropriately situate it within a broader regional strategy that is centered on the alliances, institutions, and principles that support U.S. interests.

And finally, Campbell and Ratner wisely note that the United States should ultimately focus more on “its own power and behavior.” U.S. strategy, toward China and the broader Asian region, will only be as successful as our ability to connect our ends to a set of coherent ways and means. Our greatest shortcoming in Asia over the past two decades has not been our inability to think strategically; it has been our inability to deliver. Continued U.S. distraction in the Middle East, domestic political chaos, and lack of an affirmative economic engagement strategy do as much to imperil our influence in the region as anything else. If the Trump administration is serious about recalibrating the China relationship, we will need to also get our broader house in order.

China seems to have been a disruptor of global patterns of authority since, at the latest, its 1964 nuclear test which was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It was active in luring Nixon to Beijing, it adjusted with admirable opportunism to the lowering of international tariffs in the 1980s and 1990s, it is aggressively filling current holes in global development of green technologies, artificial intelligence, and medicine.

Whether the issue is technology transfer or the South China Sea, whether the decade in question is the 1960s or the 2020s, the real question is how and why American policy experts ever conceived the idea that China was being managed, molded, guided, or otherwise coached by the U.S.A.—and how these advisors managed to convince so many American economic and political leaders for so long. The current fashion in some quarters for seeing a secular change in China’s position from acolyte to rival is produced by the long-standing American delusion that China has only recently become capable of determining its own fate, let alone being a significant force in the shaping of global lines of power and wealth. It is like people who think that the Cold War ended in 1989, when history shows it was over by the late 1970s at the latest.

By similar logic, China is newly influential, independent, and a threat because of those two qualities. China has been independent since its break with the Soviet Union in 1960 (although American references to a “Soviet bloc” continued for decades), and its influence has been wide since the Bandung conference in 1955 and Zhou Enlai’s subsequent diplomacy in Africa. Where China once talked of the Non-Aligned Nations (having edged out Nehru’s India for leadership), it now talks Belt and Road (which has among its other designs the encirclement of India on land and sea). It is still building an investment and strategic frontier in Africa. Things have scaled up—sometimes, as in the 1980s and 1990s, very dramatically—but the basic goals and strategies are not profoundly different, nor is the consistent determination to break its own path, regardless of the advice or warnings of the the U.S., Russia, the U.K. or Japan. Yet, we are all still here, and if the U.S. were determined to hold its own despite the enlargement of China’s sphere of influence, it could certainly do so. Balancing power is stabilizing. Abandoning power is destabilizing.

What has changed is the United States, and China seems surprised —along with the rest of us— that it has happened. The U.S. is now losing its purchase on international lines of economic and strategic interest, through nothing but sheer neglect and mismanagement. China has unexpected opportunities to advance its campaigns much more quickly, and it is doing so with the same vigor as it has for decades. Since America apparently has no serious interest in continuing its own role as global leader, at least it can be flattered that China’s Belt and Road is designed to mimic and eventually subsume the functions of the World Bank, the I.M.F., and the W.T.O.—to China, these were the American Belt and Road of the past five decades. Since the U.S. no longer shows interest in shouldering the weight of global leadership, China is happy—and ready—to step in.

The United States has had a transformative impact on China since the era of Engagement began in the late 1970s. While the Chinese people themselves deserve the credit for China’s progress, it should be acknowledged that every major component of China’s modernization—ideational and technical—has bought, borrowed, or stolen something from the United States. No major nation has ever had as profound an influence on another over such a short period in peacetime.

Engagement succeeded not because it forced Western beliefs, styles, or practices on China, but because Chinese were eager to set aside assumptions, study American institutional and cultural modes, and adapt them to their own purposes. The engine of Engagement was China’s desire to change, not America’s hopes of changing China. So hip, hip for American soft power, and hooray for China’s astounding humility, energy, and adaptability.

Engagement has been successful, not sufficient. It is now fashionable to declare that Engagement failed because the Chinese have not become “more like us,” but no serious proponent of Engagement ever thought it would turn the Chinese into Yankee Doodles. The argument for Engagement was that it served U.S. interests better than attempting to isolate China would have. The American view should be that we don’t want the Chinese to be like us, but to be fully themselves, which cannot happen until they are freely themselves.

Engagement was never a policy lever that the United States could pull with calculated force at a specific time to achieve a certain outcome in China. It was only a catalyst. By ensuring that American values, culture, and expertise were available to China through Engagement, we have broadened Chinese sovereign choices and sometimes inspired change in China that we couldn’t have engineered or imagined. Evolving Chinese attitudes toward environmental protection, education, women’s rights, and safety standards—to name a very few—catalyzed in part by the United States, have made China a more humane place for one fifth of humankind. The process is ongoing.

Change remains the macro-narrative of modern China and China’s character as a mature power is undetermined. Engagement should therefore remain a keynote of American China policy, even in the repressive, aggressive era of Xi Jinping. Americans who work with the People’s Republic of China are constantly told that only the Chinese can set China’s direction, and this is broadly true, but Chinese leaders must make their decisions in light of external factors that can’t be willed away. The power and cultural appeal of American civilization is one of these. To close the book on Engagement would surrender that power. It is frustrating that the U.S. can’t control the outcomes of Engagement, but remember that the Chinese Communist Party can’t control them either.

Still, Engagement is a tactic, not a strategy. The Trump administration’s recognition that this relationship is more competitive than cooperative, and that the stakes are high, is overdue and welcome. One of the challenges of this rivalrous era will be to continue to engage with China while countering its illiberal influence on global practices and within individual countries, including our own. Our goal must be to defend the interests of the U.S., its allies, and multilateral regimes from the threatening aspects of China’s comprehensive national power, without ourselves becoming a national security state.

That will demand that America display Chinese levels of humility, energy, and adaptability. Here’s hoping.

Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner have written one of those milestone pieces that both captures a change in the zeitgeist and possibly marks the end of an era of a certain kind of policy prescription. By giving voice to a feeling that has been creeping up on many of us in the U.S.-China community, they remind us that all dreams, if they do not become real, die. The dream they address in their article is for a Sino-U.S. convergence that grew out of a hopeful, but naïve, belief that Hegelian teleology—a belief (in reductionist form) that history has a positive direction in which all nations are irresistibly swept and that this current is driven by a determinism that leads inescapably towards greater openness and democracy. Such a teleology was in the DNA of many of us in stealth form and allowed us to imagine that because it was at work in the world, almost like the force of gravity, it would eventually sweep all before it, even the People’s Republic of China. It became a key driver for our ability to adopt a policy of “engagement” toward a country that had such a different set of values and political system.

Central to this faith was the idea that history had a direction, that liberal democracies (and such appurtenances as free markets, academic freedom, elections, a freedom of the press, etc.) put us “on the right side of history,” as President Clinton famously proclaimed to Chinese Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin in 1998. In obverse, it presupposed that authoritarian governments were not on the right side of history, and that if the liberal democracies only “engaged” these governments in more educational exchanges, robust trade partnerships, fulsome cultural exchanges, and active diplomacy, they would ineluctably become . . . well, more like us.

In defense of such Hegelian dreamers, it should be said that despite their many millennia of authoritarian statecraft, modern Chinese leaders have given historical cause for such a positivist faith in their progress. Such hopes began in the early 20th century with Sun Yat-sen, a Western-educated, English-speaking, doctor and avatar of “republicanism” who became “president of China” after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Although he only held office for a meager two-plus months, he excited Western hopes about China’s ultimate political future by limning a roadmap calling for a long-term process that would begin with “military rule,” junzheng (军政), advance to “political tutelage,” xunzheng (训政),and then finally culminate in “constitutionalism,” xianzheng (宪政). The idea that underlay much of American policy was that if China was “engaged,” helped, and shown patience, in time it would ultimately molt out of its traditional autocratic ways to move toward the rule of law and constitutionalism.

After an interregnum of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist rule (who also adopted Sun’s phased roadmap), China skidded off into a period of Maoism where the notion of democracy as an end goal was not completely abandoned, but hijacked and turned into a mutant “people’s democracy” with distinctly authoritarian Chinese characteristics.

Nonetheless, when Mao died and Deng Xiaoping miraculously managed to reinstall himself as supreme leader to declare a bold new era of “reform and opening up to the outside world” gaige kaifang (改革开放) not a few Chinese students, intellectuals, and officials in the 1980s began to actively lobby for a more open, enlightened, and democratic form of Chinese governance. In doing so, they created real grounds for hoping that, bit by bit, China could make a transition away from Maoism and towards a more open and democratic model at home, while becoming a “responsible stakeholder” abroad.

Despite the drubbing this dream took during and after the Beijing Massacre in 1989, it nonetheless was kept alive by the likes of the Brent Scowcofts and Henry Kissingers of the world, who, as Campbell and Ratner note, shared Joseph Nye’s observation: “If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing an enemy in the future. If we treated China as a friend, we could not guarantee friendship, but we kept open the possibility of more benign futures.”

It was a fair wager.

But now, as Campbell and Ratner are reminding us, late returns quite conclusively suggest that Xi Jinping has repudiated our Hegelian idealism. By proclaiming a new statist authoritarian “China option,” zhonggou fang’an (中国 方案) at the 19th Party Congress, he seems to be saying that there is no such thing as a common teleology (the provenance of Karl Marx’s Hegelian determinism notwithstanding!) and that far from being in process of slow evolution toward a future that will see China become more consonant with liberal and free market values, China has arrived at the end of its own version of history and has its own model and own teleology.

“What you see is what we are going to get,” Xi Jinping now seems to be saying, “and compared to the messy democracies around the world led by buffoons like Donald Trump in the U.S. and ineffectual leaders like Theresa May in the U.K. (the two former paragons of democratic governance), the Chinese option looks pretty impressive!

Xi’s China Dream is also a reminder that decades of Marxists-Leninist-Maoist revolution is not something that a society can just walk away from one day when a so-called reformer arrives on the scene proclaiming a new policy of glasnost or “reform and opening up.” Such revolutionary experiences are tectonic and profound, not only in the moment, but for decades thereafter. The poison they release in a country’s system not only has no quick antidote but a long half-life. Thus it keeps re-expressing itself, exactly as it now is the big leader kultur of Xi Jinping.

With this sorry state of affairs in mind, I read Campbell and Ratner’s article and ended up feeling much as I imagine they must have writing it: namely, a sense of wistful sadness at being forced by reality to recognize that our dream of systemic convergence with China—shared by Republicans and Democrats alike—has been largely torpedoed by Xi’s nouvelle authoritarianism, muscular nationalism, crypto-fascism, hegemonic Leninism . . . call it what you will. Like the authors, I, too, have spent my life seeking to find ways to make the twain between the U.S. and China meet, I too ignored evidence of China’s stubborn resistance to change too long, but I now feel we are at a watershed moment.

In short, the dream of “engagement” that doubtless had roots in the missionary dream of the 19th and early 20th centuries of both “Christianizing” and “civilizing” China was a fevered one that deserved to be put on the ash heap of history. Now, I think honesty compels us to at least examine whether or not that latter-day dream of democratizing China and finding some grand convergence, or at least peaceful co-existence, has succeeded. Those of us who believed in, espoused, and worked for that dream need to do some self-reflection. And we are perhaps entitled to feel naïve, if not duped, even to a moment of mourning.

I read the Campbell/Ratner piece as an indirect self-criticism or a self-confession, to put it in Chinese Communist Party parlance. It is an attempt to honestly assess what has worked and what has not in U.S.-China relations, and they conclude that our efforts to engage and integrate China into the world largely created by us in a way that is not threatening to us have not been very successful.

Finally, I don’t read them as being “anti-China,” but as being compelled by realism to express their disappointment at what is left of the dream of engagement. It is also perhaps a lament, that they wasted so much time trying to make “the relationship” work, even after the evidence had become preponderant that Xi had his own idea of teleology that has nothing to do with ours, and his own sense of where he wanted to take China. In this, the two authors have articulated not only their own views, but a sentiment growing among many other colleagues in the China profession.

But, it is important to remember that China never has bought into Westerns dreams. What Xi’s “China Dream” declares, among other things, is that even in the world of dreaming, he would like to break the West’s monopoly. Only time will tell whether he is a sage or a fool. In the meanwhile, even without our old policy of Hegelian “engagement,” we still must find ways to engage China.

A final thought: I fully suspect that if and when China’s democratic tradition—which is historically not inconsequential—ever resurfaces, Campbell and Ratner will be just as vulnerable to its wiles as they were last time. And I would probably be right behind them! Why? Because however successful Xi’s China Dream proves to be in practice, my dream will still have a large quotient of democracy in it—regardless of how durable the American democratic experiment under Donald J. Trump’s reckless tutelage proves to be.

The problem of exaggerated expectations is not a new one for China policy. We only need to recall FDR’s insistence that the Republic of China (R.O.C.) be accorded permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. I wonder how much more complicated People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) participation in the U.N. might have become if it had not been able to step into the R.O.C.’s Security Council shoes.

I think the hopes that motivated the U.S. effort to initiate a new China policy in the late ’60s and ’70s were more varied and complex than often recognized. There was realpolitik as well as wishful thinking. Have we given enough weight, for example, to the importance of obtaining P.R.C. support to counter the Soviet Union and to ease us out of Vietnam? Many China watchers had broader considerations than those in mind when advocating change, but I don’t recall many of my own colleagues saying that we would create China in our own image. I think, for example, of the memorandum that our Harvard-MIT group submitted to Nixon and Kissinger under the awning of the Kennedy Institute of Politics in November 1968 after many discussions. I also want to excavate my 1971 and 1976 Foreign Affairs articles to see the extent to which convergence was a stated goal. We plainly thought that rapprochement would improve international relations as well as the lives of the Chinese people.

We should not underestimate the extent to which the new policy did effect positive change, certainly in the lives of the Chinese people. Anyone who worked in China in the ’70s and even the ’80s can attest to the enormous progress in social and economic conditions that gradually resulted from the Open Policy. And, after a hiatus of several years following June 4, the renewed and wider engagement proved to be successful in many respects, including education and communication, and many Chinese elites today reflect the enormous progress that has been made, which is why Xi Jinping has to fight so hard against “Western values” and to repress and punish free expression.

We should keep in mind that Xi will eventually pass from the scene, at which time we can expect a reaction against his harsh rule. Many in China today are very unhappy about both the domestic oppression and many aspects of Xi’s foreign policy. The P.R.C.’s response to the Philippine arbitration was extremely controversial within expert circles, just as is the imminent enactment of the new “Supervisory Commission” system of arbitrary detention that will confirm what I call “The Inquisition with Chinese characteristics.”

I favor the measures suggested by so many of the commentators in this discussion to reinvigorate American policy in diplomatic, economic, and military terms and to revive our society. But in doing so we should not foster the misimpression that the P.R.C. will remain frozen in the Xi Jinping mold. I still like Joseph Nye’s admonition to “keep open the possibility of more benign outcomes.” Indeed, we need to do more to stimulate such possibilities by enhancing our competitiveness without, as the phrase goes, being confrontational. Given the situation in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait, this will not be easy.

The most striking feature of the Foreign Affairs piece is not its cold case enquiry into who and what “lost China,” it’s how little it has to say about what to do next: “Neither seeking to isolate and weaken it nor trying to transform it for the better should be the lodestar of U.S. strategy in Asia.” Then what?

History moves on. At the sunset of the Mao era, China might have moved away from dictatorship. Both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang clearly pronounced themselves for democracy after they lost. Xi Zhongxun may even have been close to them. Wan Li, chairman of the NPC, had to be detained in Shanghai in June 1989 to prevent its standing committee from outlawing the martial law decree. Latter-day Communist leaders unwinding or trying to unwind Leninism are not unknown—Gorbachev and Dubcek come to mind. Even in the final years of the Hu-Wen era, there were still last gasps from some latter-day liberalizers.

In this sense, the first decades of engagement with China—from de Gaulle and Nixon to Carter-Brezinsky, including Japan’s economic overtures—were mostly right and fruitful. It is the refusal to acknowledge the defeat of the reformers and liberalizers, and the hope that the same results could be achieved gradually by technocratic reformers—typically, a Zhu Rongji who has really accomplished the restoration of the Party-state through economics—that have led China policy into quicksand.

The Foreign Affairs article gingerly treads around the reasons why the idea of a gradual convergence, which had become a myth, was nonetheless kept alive. Engagement became about conflict avoidance—as has always also been the case over North Korea’s nuclear program. Keeping the peace is respectable, but this conflict avoidance has made it predictable in many circumstances. It is facilitating China’s policy of winning wars without firing a single shot.

Powerful business and consulting interests saw the profits looming in Deng’s version of a Chinese NEP. Containment became a dirty word—a “remnant of Cold war mentality.”

All along, there has been an under-estimation of what a state capitalist model could achieve, endowed with the timeless concession of developing economy status: to this day, it remains striking that there was no provision or criteria to review this status in the future, and in Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech it is literally the first article in the doxa—that China remains “the world’s largest developing economy.” From this asymmetry proceeds China’s ability to have one foot inside the world system and one foot outside, with its door closed wherever convenient.

And so indeed, what to do next ? Well, if hands are tied and China cannot be “isolated” on issues of international law or on strongly shared interests among allies, that precludes anything but an engagement policy. And if “transforming China”—read, more modestly, induce policies suited to global integration and shared interests—is also out, then we are left with 19th century deal-making in a multipolar world. That happens to be exactly China’s preference, if only because its political system ensures that it has a stronger hand in those games than democracies.

Campbell and Ratner argue that U.S. policy toward China has failed because it was based on consistently faulty assumptions regarding China’s willingness to liberalize, limit its military and other capacities, and be integrated into the global order, and because Beijing is seeking to use its growing power to undermine and challenge the U.S. and its allies. Due to these fundamental misperceptions, as well as U.S. distractions elsewhere, their argument goes, Washington has entirely failed to grasp the true nature of the threat China poses today and must rethink its entire approach. They also indicate that any such undertaking must involve building up America’s own capacity and being more realistic about how much the U.S. can change China.

I agree with the authors’ call, often repeated by others over many years, for the U.S. to get its own house in order and to avoid approaching China as a missionary. For me, that is a given. But Campbell and Ratner want much more than this. Their often strained depiction of disappointment after disappointment in the U.S. policy of engagement toward Beijing appears designed not only to motivate greater self-strengthening efforts, but more importantly to redefine the U.S.-China relationship as a deeply competitive and even adversarial interaction that by implication dismisses any committed search for greater cooperation and compromise as futile and self-defeating.

This viewpoint derives from a fundamental misreading of the purpose and consequence of U.S. policy toward China over the past forty plus years. Putting aside the questionable summaries provided of U.S. views during the Marshall Mission and the Korean War, the opening to China under President Nixon was in fact not motivated primarily by the desire to mold China into a more open society, as Campbell and Ratner contend, although some doubtless held that view.

Under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, the U.S. sought primarily to take advantage of the existing rift between Moscow and Beijing to constrain Soviet influence and end China’s support for all manner of disruptive activities overseas, from WMD proliferation to efforts to undermine U.S. friends and allies. As Beijing moved forward in its reform effort, U.S. policy also sought to integrate China into the global community by assisting in bringing it into a wide variety of international regimes and structures, from the World Bank and the IMF to the Nonproliferation Treaty and the WTO. And of course engagement with China was also intended to benefit the U.S. economy and society, by giving American companies, NGOs, scholars, and other groups extensive access to the Chinese market and Chinese society.

In all of these areas, U.S. policy largely succeeded, albeit not always to the degree and in the manner desired. While U.S.-backed reform and growth have opened the Chinese economy and society, prompted an explosion of commercial, scholarly, cultural, and tourist contacts with the outside, and reaped substantial profits for Western and Asian businesses, they have not made China into a liberal democracy or a model of free trade. So yes, it is a mixed record, but certainly not one of futility and virtually unqualified failure, as Campbell and Ratner argue. And so one cannot conclude that U.S. policy needs a basic reset in a significantly more adversarial, zero-sum direction, as they imply.

In fact, their approach would constitute a recipe for ever more intense levels of Sino-U.S. rivalry and contention. And in this struggle, how is a more adversarial United States supposed to avoid isolating itself, given the fact that many countries in Asia and elsewhere are deeply committed to cooperating with China as part of an increasingly interdependent world? Moreover, even if Washington finally gets its act together and significantly strengthens its hand, it will still need to build a greater level of trust and cooperation with Beijing in order to address the growing array of fundamental challenges confronting both countries and the world. This will prove impossible if Washington approaches China with the deep level of suspicion that lies at the heart of the Campbell/Ratner approach.

None of this means that the U.S. should ignore Beijing’s growing foreign economic and diplomatic assertiveness, its efforts to reduce Washington’s longstanding military predominance in Asia, and its growing control over domestic thought and behavior. Washington must more effectively address such challenges by increasing its capacity not only to deter, pressure, and shape Beijing but also to reassure it, in part through the creation of a broad set of Sino-U.S./allied understandings in Asia and elsewhere. This undertaking, centered on but not limited to the creation of a stable balance of power in the Western Pacific, will require not just greater resolve but also some degree of mutual accommodation, based on an agreed-upon prioritization of U.S. interests and a much clearer recognition of relative U.S. (and Chinese) strengths and weaknesses going forward. It will not, however, require the type of confrontational “reckoning” advocated by Campbell and Ratner.

My former colleagues fault the Obama Administration (in which they each played a key leadership role on China policy) and its predecessors for retaining confidence for too long in a set of policies that, in their view, have conclusively failed to achieve their objectives. They opine that: “Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community have remained deeply invested in expectations about China—about its approach to economics, domestic politics, security, and global order—even as evidence against them has accumulated.”

Campbell and Ratner have given us a welcome and needed invitation to reassess our approach to China. They are right to point out that even the purposeful effort to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy under President Obama did not result in a shift of resources and bureaucratic design that fully reflects the importance of China and the rest of Asia in a smart U.S. foreign policy for the 21st century. (Africa, too, is under-resourced—Nigeria will be the third most populous country in the world, surpassing the U.S., by 2050.) In fact, China is so important to the future of U.S. security and prosperity that we should be constantly assessing our approach—in that respect one can hardly disagree with Campbell and Ratner—and we must welcome their call for humility against a backdrop of a number of predictions that failed to come true.

I respect the authors’ expertise and their records of service. But I think they are too hard on themselves (and on the rest of us who played a role in China policy over the last few decades) and that leads them to be too ready to give up on the objectives that have motivated U.S. policy. Let me try to back up that assertion with four questions:

  1. What is the appropriate counterfactual? Campbell and Ratner’s thesis—that we have, even to the point of naiveté, mistakenly maintained a belief that we can significantly shape China’s political and economic development—is buttressed by the fact that the Chinese economy remains heavily managed and nationalist, its political system increasingly and frighteningly authoritarian, and its role in the international community often counterproductive and revisionist. There’s no denying that China is not the responsible, rights-respecting democracy with a well-regulated free and fair economy that we would like to see (and that we believe would hold long-term promise for people living in China). But Campbell and Ratner’s argument—that we have erred—assumes we would have achieved better outcomes if we’d pursued a different strategy. While I certainly believe that we have made mistakes (for example, our often tepid commitment to human rights in China) I am not as sure as Campbell and Ratner that the relevant counterfactual (the “what would have been”) is a superior one. Would a focused effort to contain China or to isolate it from the international system (or some other strategy) have produced a more responsible China with a more healthy internal political economy? I’m not sure how, but perhaps. However, we surely could imagine worse outcomes than our present reality, too. China has not engaged in hot conflict with its neighbors or with us. It has managed its own markets (heavy-handedly but reasonably effectively) amidst global turmoil. Many American companies have benefitted economically during China’s explosive growth. None of these was a given. So while Ratner and Campbell may be right that things could have been better, perhaps U.S. policy should be considered modestly successful at contributing to averting possible far worse outcomes.

  2. Why is February 2018 the end date? Campbell and Ratner declare defeat on almost half a century of U.S. foreign policy on China starting with Nixon and running through Obama. Certainly we should reflect on the assumptions that undergirded our policy approach—particularly those about the speed of China’s eventual opening up and political and economic evolution. But while certainly we can conclude that progress has not been linear (and regression has recently predominated), it may be too soon to declare failure.

    The same fundamental instabilities that gave us reason to believe that political and economic liberalization were ultimately likely still exist—the economy is still inefficient because of lack of rule of law, the political system is still brittle because of mounting authoritarianism. Campbell and Ratner are right to point out that the changes we have expected have not (all) materialized. But one could reasonably amend that point and say that they have not materialized yet. When I was a U.S. diplomat working on China in 2010-2013, on each trip I would endeavor to meet separately with diplomats from other countries concerned by human rights in China, with international journalists, and with Chinese human rights and rule of law advocates. I used to play a kind of parlor game: I would ask each group “will there be a year of dramatic political change in China? And if so, what year will it be?” And although the answers to the second question varied, the answer to the first question was invariably “yes.” While recent press attention has understandably focused on how the U.S. should respond to China’s rise, there’s plenty of reason to believe that in the years to come we will be asking ourselves how we can constructively support the peaceful and effective management of China’s internal challenges, and the adaptations that they precipitate.

  3. How hard have we pushed? Ratner and Campbell argue that “Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.” Setting aside the question of whether all U.S. China hands really believed the U.S. could “readily mold” China (I’m not sure they did), Campbell and Ratner’s thesis begs the question of how hard we have tried. Perhaps the best line in the piece is the gentle warning they issue to the Trump administration whose early actions “have put Washington at risk of adopting an approach that is confrontational without being competitive; Beijing, meanwhile, has managed to be increasingly competitive without being confrontational.” This strikes me as true. It’s worth thinking carefully about how we compete and confront China going forward. We often talk about the Chinese as seeking to avoid confrontation; but in working with others on the U.S.-China relationship, I found that it was often we, the Americans, who sought to avoid discord. The Chinese know that we have tried—sometimes obsessively—to preserve our relationship with them. They have witnessed their ability to moderate or even mute our engagement on human rights. They have used performed rage to get us to soften demands on trade or security issues. We are not the only ones. Our European friends have also been subjected to Chinese diplomacy-by-bullying (just ask the Norwegians who were given the freeze after Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Prize). If we have approached the relationship with an unwarranted concern for avoiding confrontation, and if the Chinese have deftly used our concern as an asset in negotiations, it’s worth considering whether or not our failures, such as they are, have been more tactical than strategic. Perhaps we had the right objectives, and the right analysis overall about the forces of history, but we actually haven’t been willing to push hard enough in effective ways to have as much impact as we would have liked. It seems clear to me that the U.S. should be prepared to (judiciously) both confront and compete with China in the years ahead (and maybe Campbell and Ratner would agree that this is part of their point). The U.S. has not always played our strong hand as well as we could—but the remedy doesn’t have to be that we should walk away from the game; we need to get smarter about how we play it.

  4. How do we avoid throwing out the strategic baby with the tactical bathwater? My biggest worry is with Campbell and Ratner’s conclusion that, given what they see as the near complete failure of U.S. policy to achieve its aspirational objectives with regard to China, we ought to lower our expectations. While their call for humility in our self-assessment is certainly warranted, I see no reason for us to be humble in our aspirations for China and the international system; quite the opposite, to turn away from those aspirations could be dangerous.

    They write: “Neither seeking to isolate and weaken [China] nor trying to transform it for the better should be the lodestar of U.S. strategy in Asia.” And they go on to argue: “Washington should instead focus more on its own power and behavior, and the power and behavior of its allies and partners. Basing policy on a more realistic set of assumptions about China would better advance U.S. interests and put the bilateral relationship on a more sustainable footing.” I agree there is little reason to seek to isolate or weaken China, and we must be realistic about our abilities to create progress in China, but Campbell and Ratner could be read as suggesting that we abandon the strategic objective of China’s eventual evolution into a responsible, rights-respecting state that is a constructive partner in the international system. This would be both premature and misguided. The language about the U.S. taking a “more realistic” view and focusing on our own power and behavior finds echoes in Secretary Mattis’ recent National Defense Strategy that announced a return to “great power competition” as a focus of our national defense. The United States and our partners have spent the more than seven decades since World War II working to build an international system that would avoid a renewed descent into the kind of “great power competition” that led to World War I. That project necessarily includes an effort to integrate China into the world system as it rises in a way that befits its status as a major power. Have we been successful, so far, at doing that as well as we might have wished a quarter century ago? No. Have we failed completely? I think not. Should we give up on that objective? Hell no. To do so would be to embrace a return to a more anarchic international politics in which competition inevitably leads to confrontation, and, if history is any guide, to violent confrontation at that.