Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

What Killed US-China Engagement?

| Jan. 04, 2024

While former US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping each played important roles in ending Sino-American engagement, the death of the policy started with the 2008 global financial crisis. That is when Chinese elites concluded that America was in decline, and that China need no longer bide its time.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping met with US President Joe Biden last fall, some interpreted it as a return to engagement. In fact, it heralded only a minor détente, not a major change in policy.

The United States' engagement with the People's Republic of China began with Richard Nixon in 1972 and was expanded by Bill Clinton. Since then, critics have described US policy as naive, owing to its failure to understand the Communist Party of China's long-term objectives. Underpinning the policy was the prediction, from modernization theory, that economic growth would propel China down the same liberalizing path as other Confucian societies like South Korea and Taiwan. Xi, however, has made China more closed and autocratic.

Still, America's engagement policy always had a realistic dimension. While Nixon wanted to engage China to balance the Soviet threat, Clinton made sure that engagement accompanied a reaffirmation of the US-Japan security treaty for the post–Cold War era. Those who accuse Clinton of naivete ignore that this hedge came first, and that the US-Japan alliance remains a robust and fundamental element of the balance of power in Asia today.

To be sure, there was some artlessness, such as when Clinton dismissed China's efforts to control the internet by joking that it would be like "trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." In fact, China's "Great Firewall" of state censorship has worked quite well. Similarly, there is now broad agreement that China should have been punished more for its failure to comply with World Trade Organization rules, especially considering that it owes its WTO accession to the US.

Nonetheless, there were signs that China's rapid economic growth was producing some liberalization, if not democratization. Many experts argued that Chinese citizens were enjoying greater personal freedom than at any time in China's history. Before taking office, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Asia coordinator Kurt Campbell — the Biden administration's two leading officials on Asian policy — noted that "the basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy." On balance, they were correct about the inability to force fundamental changes in China. But that doesn't mean no changes occurred....

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For Academic Citation:

Nye, Joseph S. Jr."What Killed US-China Engagement?" Project Syndicate, January 4, 2024.