Should We Engage China?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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