Mounting international crises may be causing elite practitioners and expert commentators to trim their established positions on China. Some are modifying or outright rejecting earlier views or even coming full circle to return to positions they had previously discarded.
Over the last decade, elite opinion came to recognize that engagement with China was a colossal foreign policy failure, and that the U.S. national interest required a clear-eyed approach to the motivations and goals of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing’s oppressive domestic policies and its increasing aggression abroad forced belated recognition of the danger. As one Asia scholar put it, “We didn’t get China wrong, we got [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping wrong.” Actually, they got both wrong.
Yet, while Xi and his objectionable behavior are still there, some officials and experts are reverting to earlier failed policies.
China’s intensifying threats and aggressive actions have prompted fresh fears that tensions could escalate to actual conflict. Since there is nothing the commentators can do to influence Chinese behavior, they lean on Washington to make more concessions to China, or at least to show greater understanding of China’s nonnegotiable positions.
At a the 8th China Global Think Tank Innovation Forum in Beijing, which explored the role of think tanks in international relations, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye dismissed the idea that the U.S. and China are engaged in a new Cold War.
He stressed the first of the Biden administration’s triad of ways to engage China: cooperation, competition and confrontation. Nye saw economic and social interdependence, now joined by “ecological interdependence,” as preventing the emergence of a new Cold War.
Nye did not acknowledge that Beijing has mastered the art of employing the economic and other linkages to its own advantage and to the West’s disadvantage. Even when China does not use outright exploitation and cheating, Western companies and governments are reluctant to jeopardize the benefits they receive from China by insisting on fair and equitable treatment.
But for many, interdependence has become dangerous entanglement. Hence, many Western countries are seeking to decouple – or, as the Europeans put it, to de-risk – from China.
At the same think tank conference, China specialist and former Defense Department official Michael Pillsbury made yet another U-turn in his position on China. For more than 30 years, Pillsbury prided himself on being labeled an unabashed “panda hugger” who blamed U.S. policies for tensions in the U.S.-China relationship.
In the last decade, however, as the national zeitgeist on China shifted dramatically, Pillsbury abandoned his soft-on-China approach and warned that Beijing was on a long-term quest to overcome the U.S. as the world’s hegemon. He enjoyed an informal working relationship with President Donald Trump, who labeled China “a threat to the world” and implemented policies reflecting that belief.
But Pillsbury now criticizes the Trump administration’s China policies, which the Biden administration has mostly continued.
At last month’s conference, Pillsbury decided again that “the situation is getting worse” and that Washington needs to change its approach to China, especially on the volatile issue of Taiwan.
He said that both Beijing and Washington have “crossed red lines.” However, while he had no specific criticism of China, he said he had “quite a long list” of U.S. transgressions and provocations, including congressional proposals to send weapons and ammunition to Taiwan.
Some in the Biden administration are also taking a more subtle approach with China as they seek to reduce tensions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken missed an opportunity to affirm an important public message to China when he met recently with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington. Wang said the relationship required both countries to “behave in a way that is consistent with the provisions of the three China-U.S. joint communiques, international law and basic norms of international relations, and consistent with the climate of the times.”
Blinken replied, “I agree with what the foreign minister said.” It would have been useful if he had supplemented Wang’s formula by mentioning that the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) also importantly governs U.S. policy on Taiwan.
The TRA states that any threat of force or coercion against Taiwan would be “a matter of grave concern” to the U.S., that America will “maintain the capacity” to defend Taiwan and even that U.S. recognition of China was contingent on Taiwan’s status being resolved peacefully.
Yet a third participant at the Beijing conference was the usually clear-eyed Oriana Skylar Mastro, who stirred much discussion with her recent article, “This Is What America Is Getting Wrong About China and Taiwan,” in which she attributed the rising danger of conflict over Taiwan to misunderstandings and mutual mistakes by Beijing and Washington. But she places most of the burden for rectification on the U.S.
Mastro proposes a range of American concessions and policy reversals, including “moving away from attempts to create international space for Taiwan and chastising Beijing when it pulls away Taipei’s diplomatic partners … discourag[ing] members of Congress from visiting Taiwan and threaten[ing] to veto provocative legislation.”
Instead, Biden should ask Xi to rescind the Anti-Secession Law and formally renounce the use of force against Taiwan. In return Biden should pledge that as long as the Communist Party rules China, the U.S. will oppose formal Taiwanese independence. But Biden must also make it clear that the U.S. will continue, and expand, all bilateral economic, diplomatic and military measures short of that, and will support all efforts to deepen Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and activities.
Washington should abandon the policy of strategic ambiguity first enunciated by Nye during the Clinton administration. Instead, Washington should declare that any use of force or coercion against Taiwan would bring direct U.S. military intervention and formal U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.