Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

An Unsentimental China Policy

| February 18, 2021

The Case for Putting Vital Interests First

Fifty years ago this July, U.S. President Richard Nixon announced what would become his signature foreign policy achievement: the opening to China. The following February, in what the press called “the week that shook the world,” he flew to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong, the leader of communist China. So began a half century of U.S. engagement with Beijing. At the time, China was the most important ally of the Soviet Union and the tip of the spear advancing communist revolutions worldwide. But within the decade, U.S. President Jimmy Carter had normalized the relationship, recognizing the regime in Beijing as China’s sole legitimate government and abrogating the U.S. defense treaty with Taiwan. The rest is history: China helped the United States win the Cold War, and the thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations allowed Asia to emerge as the most economically dynamic region in the world.

Prior to the Trump administration, engagement with China was applauded as a rare bipartisan success in U.S. foreign policy, with both Democrats and Republicans agreeing that Washington could work with Beijing to advance American interests and values. Today, as China’s government has become more repressive at home and aggressive abroad, leaders in both parties have declared engagement a failure. As U.S. President Joe Biden’s senior Asia adviser, Kurt Campbell, and the president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2019, “The era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close.”

Yet it is worth remembering what engaging China was all about. For most of the past half century, efforts to improve ties with the country were not about transforming it. Starting with Nixon, the motives were decidedly unsentimental: to balance against the Soviet Union, to convince China to stop exporting revolution, and to help lift millions of people out of poverty. It was only after the Cold War that a desire to change China became a prominent objective of U.S. policy.

Today, as Biden and his team develop a new strategy to meet the defining international challenge of this generation, many are urging them to give up on engagement altogether. That would be a mistake. Instead, the administration should heed the central lesson of five decades of U.S. policy toward China: it works best when focusing realistically on geopolitical objectives essential to protect American interests, and worst when attempting to engage in political engineering to promote American values.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“An Unsentimental China Policy.” Foreign Affairs, February 18, 2021.