The Big Ideas

'An Unsentimental China Policy'
'An Unsentimental China Policy'
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February 18, 2021
BIG IDEA | National Security Advisor '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 Chinese people out of poverty.’
'Judged by its own standards, U.S. engagement with China succeeded.'
'It was only after the Cold War that a desire to change China became a prominent objective of U.S. policy.’
BIG IDEA | ‘The Biden 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.’

‘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.’
  • ‘Judged by its own standards, U.S. engagement with China succeeded.’

‘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.’

‘Looking at this record of U.S. presidents’ dealings with China, the Biden administration should find four lessons instructive.’

  1. ‘First, when pursuing geopolitical objectives, engagement has succeeded more often than failed.’
  2. ‘Second, those who advocate regime change in China to promote democracy are as misguided as those who pushed wars in the Middle East in pursuit of the same objective.’
  3. ‘Third, policies of openness and integration have been engines of economic growth for the world, and they will remain essential for a successful future.’
  4. ‘Finally, as happens often in history, success in addressing the grand challenge of one generation creates a new, more formidable challenge for those who follow.’
  5. ‘Engagement with China allowed the United States to prevail in the cardinal struggle of the twentieth century: the Cold War with the Soviet Union.’
  6. ‘It also left Washington in a long-term rivalry with what the Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew rightly called “the biggest player in the history of the world.” ’

My Take

'Engagement failed' is the mantra of those who promote a policy of the U.S. confronting China at every turn. This essay is a helpful corrective to demonstrate that engagement - on its own terms - didn't fail.

A better policy prescription would come from a study of President Reagan's management of relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War: Confront & Engage.

And if possible throw in a trusting relationship between the leaders of the two countries.