A New Normal for U.S. China Policy?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In recent months, the U.S. government has ended both the Fulbright program and Peace Corps in China. Tit for tat journalist visa retaliations have resulted in bureau relocations. Donald Trump’s recent attempt to ban WeChat has panicked countless Americans who depend on it as their sole means of communicating with friends and family in China. More nebulous, but perhaps more insidious, the slide of American democracy has proved a powerful propaganda tool for anyone espousing the value of a powerful, one-party system. And as diplomatic ties fray between China and the U.S., both may continue to lose a crucial means of communication and understanding.

In China and across the world, then, many are watching as perhaps the most consequential U.S. election nears. After four years of Trump’s trade wars, withdrawal from international bodies, and xenophobic immigration policies, the United States has hit an apex of isolationism. Even if a new government steps in, however, it’s not altogether clear the U.S. could or would regain its footing on the international stage. The vacuum left by a diminished Washington is being filled by Beijing.

Where does that leave ordinary Chinese and American citizens? Is there any way for these channels of communication to be salvaged? And, if not, what will be lost in the coming years? —Abby Seiff

Correction Note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that President Trump attempted to ban WhatsApp. He has attempted to ban WeChat.


Forty-eight years after Nixon’s historic trip to China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at the Nixon library in July, declaring U.S. engagement with China to be a “dismal failure.” The worsening trade war, the ban on WeChat and TikTok, the expulsion of journalists, and acts to sanction Chinese officials may be just the start. More conflicts and tougher policies are on the way. Is decoupling between the U.S. and China desirable and possible?

Even after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, many in the West still assumed that China would grow more free and open and become a democracy—as long as the world encouraged and allowed China to engage in the international legal system and the World Trade Organization. However, this has proven part of the “China fantasy,” as journalist James Mann argued 13 years ago. Business opportunism at the expense of human rights and democracy heavily contributed to the rise of an anti-democratic China.

For the past three decades, China has made amazing achievements, not only in economic and social development, but also in the fields of law, education, communication, and civil society. The limited permission of liberal ideas since the 1980s was consistent with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) adoption of a “socialist market economy.” The logic and force of (state-)capitalism has profoundly impacted Chinese society, culture, and even politics. It is undeniable that engaging China has created some positive consequences, when compared to the lawless and penurious Mao Zedong era.

But unprincipled engagement with an autocratic regime is simply appeasement. China and the rest of the world now rely on each other not only for economic reasons, but geopolitical ones. Western businesses prioritized profits from the amazingly huge Chinese market over human rights concerns, and Western democracies, in turn, have long been reluctant to push for a democratization of China.

The policy of the U.S. toward China is based on the seemingly permanent rule of the CCP. Western companies make so much profit from China that they don’t want to endanger their cash cow. In the context of China’s democracy, the West’s appeasement and opportunism might be more problematic than regime change. But change is coming on the international arena as more and more countries grapple with China’s threat to the liberal International order and have begun to be tougher on China.

It is interesting and ridiculous, meanwhile, how many Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy intellectuals are supportive of President Donald Trump mainly because of his apparently tough policy toward China. But Trump’s China policy is not based on universal values at all. He has no interest in human rights or democratization in China. On the contrary, he has repeatedly praised Xi Jinping (and other dictators). Trump reportedly told Xi to keep building concentration camps in Xinjiang, labeled the Hong Kong democracy movement “riots,” and refused to give a statement on Tiananmen. Domestically, Trump has jeopardized the American constitution and its democracy in various ways, by belittling independent media, refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, instigating racism and xenophobia, and more. These acts are priceless gifts to dictatorships.

In my opinion, decoupling with China is neither desirable nor possible. A healthy U.S.-China relationship must be based on America’s firm stance on human rights and liberal democracy. When Nixon claimed “the world cannot be safe until China changes,” he was not wrong. But engagement in the name of appeasement has led to dangerous changes in China. And if America’s constitutional democracy is substantially impaired, that might be the most horrible thing for the international free order in the foreseeable future.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many explanations were offered: For Cold Warriors, it was a triumph of a Reaganite confrontation that forced an economically weak USSR to spend beyond its means on military hardware; for democrats, it demonstrated that autocracies inevitably fall; for supporters of the Helsinki process, it showed the strength of human interaction and the power of ideas to eat away at the soft tissue of the dictatorship.

Whichever explanation you favor, the list illuminates the limits of the Cold War analogy in the current U.S.-China confrontation: a strategic confrontation, yes, but with a China that is much stronger, more integrated in the global economy, and more resilient than the USSR. This has happened not least because its leaders, Xi Jinping included, drew lessons from the Soviet experience in order to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party would not suffer the same fate.

The weakness of the Trump approach in this profound competition between economic systems and governing philosophies is its disregard of public opinion in China or, for that matter, in the wider world. Containing Chinese global influence, if that is the Trump objective, will require more than threats, tariffs, and sanctions. It will require the U.S. to regain its power of attraction both for citizens of hostile states and those of its traditional allies. On both counts, the Trump administration is faring poorly. The most recent Pew survey showed us that while China’s reputation in the world’s more advanced democracies took a terrible hammering in 2020, so too did that of the U.S.

Leadership requires willing followers, and the soft power attraction of the U.S. has been a key complement to its hard power, underpinning its capacity to sustain a leadership position. China’s economic success may be a good story, but its domestic politics are not. Trump’s remarkable achievements have included showcasing to the world a United States riven by violence, racism, and partisan aggression, fostering hostility to the migrants on whose efforts, ambitions, and hopes U.S. success was built, and promoting the fear that any Chinese citizen in the U.S. could be a spy.

China has certainly contributed to the current tensions, but mimicking illiberal Chinese behavior by blocking interactions between citizens and cutting cultural and educational ties allows Chinese propagandists to make unfavorable comparisons: Would you not prefer, their message goes, a government that can protect the health of its citizens, that offers generous aid to poorer countries, that favors dialogue and cultural exchange, and that does not renege on its treaties? That used to be a description of the United States.

The future of the U.S.-China relationship is as uncertain as it is consequential. U.S.-China ties have changed markedly under Trump, as “strategic competition” emerged—indeed, erupted—as the defining frame for relations. Washington then embraced pushback against China at seemingly every opportunity. With the pending presidential election, many are asking if the relationship will, or can, return to some semblance of stability and comity.

The uncomfortable reality is that the U.S.-China relationship has entered a new normal of persistent and consistent tensions. While the tone and some priorities might change under a new president, going forward relations will be marked by enduring tensions, occasional crises, and maybe occasional cooperation as well. There are four reasons for this.

First, elites in both the United States and China have effectively adopted a new paradigm for thinking about U.S.-China ties. Both sides have shifted from a paradigm of “balancing cooperation and competition” to one of “balancing competition and confrontation.”

This shift in thinking, often implicit, reflects the expansion, intensification, and diversification of the arenas of U.S.-China competition. On the classic issues of regional security and economic access, competition has only deepened as Xi has pursed more assertive behaviors abroad and more statist ones at home. Competition on issues of technology and ideology are also now central to the relationship, with some in Washington and Beijing framing this as a “systemic competition” between governance models and systems.

Second, there are new politics in both countries driving this paradigm shift. In the United States, a majority of elites and the public now view China as a long-term threat. There is bipartisan support in Congress for a more confrontational approach, with some members weaponizing the China issue for political gain. The U.S. business community is broadly frustrated with China and unwilling to publicly defend it, as are the U.S. media and many civil society groups who used to be engaged in China before Xi pushed many of them out. In China, nationalist voices critical of myriad aspects of U.S. policy are on the rise, with “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” being the latest, and most caustic, manifestation of this.

Third, there are new dynamics at the heart of U.S.-China interactions. Both Washington and Beijing are now pursuing more openly competitive policies and, sometimes, confrontational ones. There is greater tolerance for risk and friction in relations, with some voices actively seeking friction as a means of probing and testing the other. This dynamic is accentuated by the collapse of a cooperative agenda. President Trump has rejected cooperating with China on shared global challenges.

Finally, the U.S.-China relationship is generating new global impacts, which reinforce the drift toward bilateral confrontation. The tensions in U.S.-China relations are producing ripple effects on issues, in institutions, and in regions all over the world. Countries are increasingly feeling squeezed between Washington and Beijing, some of them choosing sides (such as over 5G) and most trying to avoid such an outcome. The global footprint of U.S.-China tensions—and the dislocations it will generate—is one of the newest and perhaps most impactful trends in international politics.

The sharpening adversarial antagonism between the United States and China has been well-documented. The ripple effects of deteriorating relations on ordinary American citizens has attracted less attention.

The impacts have been real and tangible, though. Inbound investment into the United States from China has fallen off a cliff. Business travel and tourism from China has declined, even before the pandemic caused borders to close. The trade war has taken a heavy toll on American farmers, business owners, and workers, leading to a spike in farm foreclosures, the loss of 300,000 jobs, rising taxes for everyone in the form of tariffs, and the diversion of nearly U.S.$30 billion in taxpayer dollars to bail out the agricultural sector. The number of Chinese students enrolling in American schools, and the full tuition expenses they pay, have been declining.

Each of these developments on their own would be troubling. Viewed collectively, they represent a challenge to America’s dynamism and its own self-image as an open society.

Proponents of this hardening approach justifiably point to Beijing’s own behavior as the spur for many of the decisions to cut off connections between the United States and China. As a former American diplomat who served in China and traveled regularly to Xinjiang, I need no persuasion that Beijing does not adequately respect the rights of its citizens or treat American companies, citizens, or diplomats fairly. I also have a heavy heart for the two Canadian citizens being held in China.

But I fear America has lost sight of its north star in its efforts to confront challenges posed by China’s egregious behavior. Under the banner of reciprocity, the United States appears to have begun emulating Chinese practices, whether on treatment of journalists, closure of consulates, shuttering of the Fulbright program and the Peace Corps in China, and shakedowns of corporations. None of these actions have come anywhere close to compelling China to change from a closed to an open society. America has lost more than it has gained in the process.

The last time the United States confronted a major geostrategic challenge, it was endowed with policymakers that could resist the allure of nativism to see clearly where America’s long-term interests lie. As one example, in his famous “Long Telegram” from Embassy Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War, George Kennan wrote, “We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Kennan had the wisdom to recognize that American ideals and interests are not advanced by mirroring Soviet behavior, however justified it might have felt in the moment. I remain confident that over time, American policymakers will reach similar judgments about the sources of America’s strength and the advantages of remaining an open and generous society that attracts the best people and ideas to its shores.