The Japan Forum on International Relations

January 29,2019

The End of US Engagement Policy for China

The Summit Meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was held on December 1, 2018, in Buenos Aires. The much-anticipated result was a ‘truce’ which postponed the further confrontation of the two countries for 90 days by suspending increase in tariff by the US on Chinese products scheduled in January 2019. This, however, does not change the forecast of the prolonging US-China tensions, as the bilateral disputes are spread not only within the trade deficit negotiation, but also among wider, various areas including politics and security, that all are moving towards head-on confrontation. It would be misleading if this US-China tension was recognized as ‘trade war’ based only on the superficial phenomena which started by President Trump with imposing the multiple tariff. It is highly questionable if President Trump accurately understands the seriousness of the US-China confrontation, judging from his speeches at the UN General Assembly in September, or at the US-China Summit this time. Perhaps, President Trump is trying to earn a significant result from the leadership of China in a short-term diplomatic deal, so that he can appeal that to his supporters for the next presidential election for 2020.

Meanwhile, there is a consistency in tough perception against China seen among Trump administration, from the National Security Strategy (NSS) published in December 2017, and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) published in January 2018, which stated China and Russia as ‘strategic competitors,’ to Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at Hudson Institute on October 4. Their tougher stance show that the US’ China policy has made a major shift from the post-Cold War ‘engagement’ to ‘strategic competition.’ This change comes from the disappointment no matter how much the US had waited, China was not politically liberated nor democratized after the end of Cold War. Marking its 40th anniversary in 2018 since Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening,” Xi Jinping government established much authoritative control internally, and trying to expand its interests in the South China Sea regardless of the international law and order, making China an extraordinary power. Domestically, they’re campaigning for a tight anti-corruption measures, tightening the party control and kicking out the rivals, but completing the campaign seems unlikely under the one party system that relies on itself from the head to toe.

The disappointment and sense of urgency against China are shared among the security team of Trump administration, as well as the bipartisan members of the Congress, business community, and major think-tanks. The administration’s economic team are categorized based on the comments regarding the tariff measures against China; Larry Kudlow, Director of National Economic Council (NEC) and Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, are seen as “doves,” and Peter Navarro, Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, as well as Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are seen as “hawks,” but the real, comprehensive China policy appears in NSS.

A notable example of bipartisan counter-China attitude is observed on “The China Reckoning,” a paper written by two of the former Obama administration’s diplomatic/security staff, Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, which appeared on March/April 2018 issue of the Foreign Affairs Magazine. In that paper, the two argue that “the gap between the US’ expectation and the reality China is posing is expanding,” by pointing out how China has been declining the foreign interference in cases of its domestic human rights conditions, in order to protect its one party control, or having shown little care of international order in the South China Sea, thus the authors evaluate highly of Trump administration’s efforts that their “first National Security Strategy took a step in the right direction.” This hints the hard-line bipartisan China policy will continue even if Democratic Party takes over the administration.

The US’ China policy was positioned in 1972 by Nixon & Kissinger’s diplomacy during Cold War era, as the shift from the bipolar world to the multipolar one, which was inherited to Ford, Carter, then to Reagan administrations. During George H. W. Bush’s administration, who recently passed away, the relations with China had strained due to Tianmen Square protests in 1989 at the timing right before the Cold War was coming to an end. At the later half of the first Clinton administration that followed, the ‘engagement policy’ was installed, demonstrating its willingness to engage China into the international community ever since. China joined the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1991, and Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1992. Meanwhile, Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security signed in 1996 underlined the ‘engagement policy’ as a common China policy of Japan and the US, which aimed China to be included in the international community, with the mixture of cooperation and hedging, so that it would be transformed to acquire wider political liberty and democracy within the country. As a part of such strategy, Clinton administration supported China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and it earned the membership during the following George W. Bush administration in 2001.

The ‘engagement policy’ has dramatically shifted to the ‘strategic competition’ today. Although NSS defines both China and Russia as ‘strategic competitors,’ Russia is “China’s junior partner” according to Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University. Russia is a ‘fake rival’ and it seems that the main target remains to be China. The concept of ‘strategic competition,’ however, has not been clarified, and it leaves many questions. First, there is no clear definition of its goal. Is it the democratization of China? Nonetheless, foreign power cannot enforce China to democratize its polity, because that is what China should decide. And how much does the world expect China to improve their human rights conditions and religious freedom (oppression against underground Christian churches, Islamic Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, etc.)?

Second, it is yet to be clear whether the negotiation will be on a new rules on what kind, or what would be the common framework. The violation of intellectual properties, forcible acquirement or request of handing over advanced technology, cyber-attacks by China are common concern of the world, but how the rules will be constructed is unclear.

It is uncertain how sincerely Trump administration will be accountable for such concerns that the US allies have. The ‘strategic competition’ will be transformed from the narrow-sighted trade deficit dispute to the competition over the liberty and democracy. Which would be appealing to the emerging or developing countries, liberal and democratic order, or Chinese one-party dictatorship? The competition seems easy at a glance, but it would be difficult for the US, under President Trump, to maintain its lead without the cooperation from the likeminded Western allies. The key to win over this competition is for the US to restore the alliance. For Japan, it is necessary to carefully handle the improving Japan-China relations while balancing with the US’ ‘strategic competition.’

(This is the English translation of an article written by SASAJIMA Masahiko, Professor, Atomi University, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on December 10, 2018.)