Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

The Evolution of America's China Strategy

| Nov. 02, 2022

In its new national security strategy, US President Joe Biden's administration recognizes that Russia and China each present a different kind of challenge. Whereas Russia "poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system … [with] its brutal war of aggression," China is the only competitor to the US "with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective." The Pentagon thus refers to China as its "pacing challenge."

Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to  and to promote his ideological and nationalist objectives, it is worth reviewing the evolution of America's China strategy. Some critics see the situation today as proof that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were naive to pursue a strategy of engagement, including granting China membership in the World Trade Organization. But while there was certainly excessive optimism about China two decades ago, it wasn't necessarily naive.

After the Cold War, the US, Japan, and China were the three major powers in East Asia, and elementary realism suggested that the US ought to revive its alliance with Japan, rather than discounting it as an outdated relic of the post–World War II era. Long before China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Clinton administration had reaffirmed the US-Japan alliance, which remains the bedrock of Biden's strategy.

Clinton and Bush realized that Cold War–style containment of China would be impossible, because other countries, attracted to the huge Chinese market, would not have gone along with it. So, the US instead sought to create an environment in which China's rising power would also reshape its behavior. Continuing Clinton's policy, the Bush administration tried to coax China to contribute to global public goods and institutions by acting as what then–Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick called "a responsible stakeholder." The policy was to "engage, but hedge." While augmenting a policy of balancing power with engagement obviously did not guarantee Chinese friendship, it did keep alive possible scenarios other than full hostility....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“The Evolution of America's China Strategy.” Project Syndicate, November 2, 2022.