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Should We Engage China?

12 March 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

I’ve heard many people over the past few weeks question whether we should continue engaging with China as we have–or, even more starkly, whether we should engage with China at all.

The argument goes something like this: Engagement was supposed to produce a different kind of China than we’re seeing today, one that shares U.S. interests. Because the Chinese government is behaving increasingly aggressively against the “status quo” and has been moving backwards on political and economic reforms, engagement has failed and we need another policy.

I understand the frustration underlying this kind of argument; I, too, am deeply troubled by recent trends in China. But we should question the assumptions and reasoning above. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The idea that the U.S. and China don’t share interests is often a red herring. The U.S. and China both suffer because of climate change, are major energy consumers, are concerned about Islamic extremism, do not want to see a nuclear Iran, and so on. The problem often lies not in interests but in how we pursue those interests and how we rank them: for example, even though both countries have close relations with Pakistan and see Pakistani stability as an important interest, they have different threat assessments, as Evan Feigenbaum wrote today.
  2. If we’re afraid China has been turning away from the free market, we should be afraid that we are, too. The U.S. government provided some $700bn to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Companies from AIG to General Motors owe their continued existence to the U.S. government. And because U.S. cotton subsidies give American producers an unfair edge, the United States is about to face nearly $600bn a year in tariffs from Brazil, authorized by the World Trade Organization. The United States and China are both in need of corrective action here, to restore the proper role of the market and reduce government economic interference.
  3. Whether or not China is a “status quo” power is the wrong metric. One could argue that the United States isn’t a status quo power, either: in the past ten years, the U.S. overturned two governments with direct military intervention and has busily (often with the best of intentions) sanctioned other countries and asked foreign leaders to change policies or give up power. The Chinese, meanwhile, have preferred generally to step back, watch, and make money. We should be talking instead about the specific policy areas where we want China to do things it isn’t yet willing to do–where working solutions depend on a full Chinese buy-in.
  4. Stopping engagement with China will not produce Chinese policies that better serve U.S. interests. Is China more likely to support sanctions on Iran, take a harder line on North Korea, or accept binding carbon emissions reductions if we stop speaking with the Chinese on these issues? None of these issues can be resolved without Chinese support, so the goal is to gain Beijing’s policy support for U.S. approaches. If we don’t engage, the range of reasonable U.S. actions to “punish” China for not doing what we want it to do about, say, Iran, is very limited, and unlikely to convince Beijing. There simply isn’t an alternative policy that can produce the changes we want to see.

There’s more, particularly on the democracy factor, that I’ll address in a future post.

But for now, what do readers think?

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5 Comments »

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    You list a bunch of good insights, Dan. And whether or not we should engage “more or less” with China falls under the general category of evaluating effective foreign policy — most is fair game for debate.

    However, the idea that we should stop engaging altogether is a ridiculous position at this juncture in time. I’m not sure if we should even really take it seriously. I say this because scant numbers of people would make this argument in public, and if they do, then they probably don’t control US foreign policy in any significant way. Hence, their lack of agency becomes an even stronger reason to ignore their argument’s illogical merits (or logical demerits).

  • Daniel Michaeli (author) said:

    What I hear with increasing frequency, though this is usually not articulated, is “engagement isn’t working, so we should stop trying to talk China into doing what we want it to do and get tough.” But no one can articulate what “getting tough” would mean, because of the tension in point #4 above. Some say the only solution to U.S.-China tensions is political change in China.

    For example, Liz Economy (whose China analysis is usually taken seriously) wrote a couple months ago: “So is there any way to avoid yet another train wreck in U.S.-China relations? Secretary Clinton’s speech [on Internet freedom] pretty much says it all: our leverage boils down to the Chinese people themselves insisting on change because they recognize the value of freedom and transparency and the Chinese leaders yielding to the wishes of the people. That might take a while.”

    I’m less pessimistic–I think we’ve achieved a lot with China over the years even under its current political system, and we’ll be able to continue working together even if it isn’t easy to do so.

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    Based on what you’ve said, I think we’re in accord here. Not only is the assessment Economy and yourself apt, but I also agree that, if we take a decade ago as a comparison point (much less 20 or 30 years ago), engagement has unquestionably shaped Chinese foreign policy and, to a lesser but not negligible degree, domestic politics.

  • Paul said:

    On the question on whether or not to engage with China, the answer is clear. We must continue to engage the Chinese on a wide range of issues that affect our relationship. But it would be to the benefit of the United States if we were able to break “China” into various topic areas. At the present time, US-China military relations are clearly not as far along as other areas. China’s banking system is not nearly as open to international capital flows as one might believe. Chinese banks are more like government-run public utilities used solely for the benefit of SOEs. And China’s energy generating sector is becoming more closed than ever, with debilitating consequences on carbon emissions, environmental pollution, and public health.

    CFR writers like Economy and Levi have done a good job highlighting these trouble areas. Michaeli would do well to read up on their work.

  • vokoyo said:

    China claim to the Diaoyu Islands is based on the “discovery” of unclaimed territory and derives from a range of Chinese governmental contacts and references going back to 1372.

    Japan claim is also based on the “discovery” of supposedly unclaimed territory, despite the fact that official Japanese documents, several of which were unearthed by Taiwan scholar Han-yi Shaw, demonstrate that the Japanese government was well aware of China historic claim when it began to take an interest in the islets in 1885.

    During the subsequent decade, contrary to the assertions now made by Japan, its officials not only failed to complete surveys of the islets necessary to confirm their alleged unclaimed status, but also recognised that the matter “would need to involve negotiations with Qing China”.

    To avoid China suspicion, Japan chose to conceal its intention to occupy the islets “until a more appropriate time”. That time came in January 1895, when Japan by then on its way to defeating China in their 1894 war, adopted a Cabinet decision that the islets were Japanese territory. Yet even that Cabinet decision was not made public until after the second world war.

    Moreover, if the US were to become an impartial mediator, it would have to note that Japan claim to sovereignty over the islets is based on a distorted version of late 19th century history that does not pass the international smell test.

    It is time for Japan to reassess its views on the international law of the sea. Those of its views that are plainly irresponsible only discredit others that deserve serious consideration.

    Perhaps most insulting to the world community is its claim that the rock called Okinotorishima that constitutes Japan southernmost “land”, a reef system with land at high tide no larger than a king-sized bed, is entitled to an EEZ and continental shelf.