This publication is adapted from remarks given by Carnegie’s Michael D. Swaine on January 19, 2019, at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

These days, many observers are asking whether U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration’s shift toward viewing China in more hostile, zero-sum terms will fundamentally and negatively alter the long-term trajectory of U.S.-China relations, undermining or destroying the mutual benefits of engagement.

But this is a fundamentally one-sided way of looking at the problem. Both Beijing and Washington are contributing to the serious decline in U.S.-China relations under way today. Although, in my view, the Trump administration is easily the most significant source of this decline (and in the process is undermining many American interests), China under President Xi Jinping in many ways is exacerbating and facilitating Washington’s inept policies. Any true understanding of the relationship must accurately assess what is happening in both capitals. That is the only sensible starting point for figuring out how to put China and the United States onto a better path.

A Widespread Sea Change in U.S. Elite Views Toward China

The shifts in Trump’s policies toward China are in many areas extreme and exaggerated versions of what is nonetheless a fundamental, bipartisan shift in American elite views toward China. Instead of a pragmatic, cautiously optimistic belief in cooperative engagement and hedging, many elites in both parties seem to be embracing a more ideologically charged, deeply suspicious, and largely pessimistic belief that China has been cheating and bullying its way to dominance in Asia and beyond while the United States has been asleep at the switch.

Many factors have produced this changing state of affairs. As far as the United States is concerned, these factors include the emergence (since at least the 2007–2008 financial crisis) of deep anxiety about the continued strength of the American system and its dominant place in the world, the rise of a kind of hypernationalism that blames the country’s ills on immigrants and foreign nations, and the general fear that an increasingly strong, autocratic China must, by its nature, seek to undermine and weaken the United States and the rest of the West. In some ways, these anxieties reflect and tap into a long-standing, deep paranoia in American politics that is somewhat impervious to logic and facts. At the same time, this underlying shift should not be taken as an endorsement of the many crazily excessive beliefs and goals of the more extreme anti-China zealots in the Trump White House or parts of the Pentagon.

Michael D. Swaine
Swaine is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies.
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These mounting suspicions about China are shared to varying degrees by U.S. politicians of all stripes, many scholars, probably a considerable share of businesspeople, and others in the policy community in Washington. Interestingly, the American public at large do not seem to have fully accepted this view yet. For instance, an October 2018 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported, “The public does not see China’s rise as a threat: only four in ten (39%) say that the development of China as a world power is a critical threat to US vital interests.” In my view, this helps explain why individuals like Vice President Mike Pence have been making speeches designed to scare ordinary Americans.

But plenty of knowledgeable people with decades of China-related experience, while justifiably concerned about many Chinese actions, are not sold on the Trump administration’s extremist, zero-sum approach to Beijing. Such individuals in Washington and elsewhere deplore the trade war and Trump’s obsession with trade deficits, oppose the ridiculous goal of decoupling the Chinese economy from the U.S. economy and other Western markets, and disagree with the idea that Beijing desires to overthrow the entire global order and replace it with an ill-defined, so-called revisionist world order. In addition, many such China hands reject the simplistic notion that China is pursuing debt-trap diplomacy around the world, and they see the clear McCarthy-like dangers of efforts to root out all vestiges of Chinese influence in the United States, both real and imagined. This suggests that it would be possible to form a more pragmatic, sane, approach centered on problem solving—an approach that could enhance American competitiveness while leveraging and cooperating with China more effectively where needed. Such a change would almost certainly need to take place under different U.S. leadership.

China’s Worrisome Behavior

But, beyond the United States, it is important to recognize the many ways that China has facilitated and reinforced the negative shift in U.S. views. Many observers believe that Chinese leaders made a fundamental shift in their strategy at the time of the global financial crisis of 2008, with the aim of taking advantage of a supposedly weakening United States by undermining its position in Asia (and the world) and eventually pushing Washington out of the region. Indeed, some American scholars, such as Rush Doshi, claim that they can confirm that such a fundamental shift has taken place based on a close read of Chinese internal and public documents.

I don’t share this viewpoint. But I do believe that Beijing has become more assertive on sovereignty issues, more willing to use economic and other forms of coercion against other states, more repressive toward and controlling of Chinese people (and ethnic minorities) at home and abroad, more restrictive toward foreign companies in China, and more aggressive in its practice of various forms of espionage, especially in the cyber realm. The Chinese Communist Party has greatly enhanced party discipline and ideological intrusiveness, all the while denying any change in its supposed pursuit of win-win outcomes for all.

There are many reasons for this more aggressive pattern of Chinese behavior, including the government’s growing need to strengthen domestic control over the disruptive consequences of rapid social change, party leaders’ fears induced by the collapse of communist and autocratic states in Europe and the Middle East (some with Western involvement), a pressing need to avoid the middle income trap by acquiring advanced technologies and business practices by any means necessary, and growing unrest in parts of China with significant populations of ethnic minorities. But whatever the origins, these Chinese actions have given extremists in the United States the opportunity they need to advocate a Cold War–like approach and sledgehammer tactics for dealing with China.

The Regional Fallout of a U.S.-China Rivalry

The ugly dynamic of growing suspicion and worst-case assumptions is increasing the likelihood of future U.S.-China political or military crises in Asia, crises that could in turn eventually propel the two sides into a Cold War or worse. The deepening suspicion and hostility in the relationship is occurring during, and (in part) as a result of, a shifting balance of power in Asia within the First Island Chain. This negative turn also reflects a general failure to resolve several contentious issues in the region, including the Korean Peninsula; Taiwan; maritime disputes; and military-related intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities.

I believe that China’s continued growth in military and economic power and influence in Asia, and the resulting relative decline in U.S. maritime predominance, will eventually create an unstable rough parity between China and U.S./allied states within the First Island Chain along China’s maritime periphery (within approximately 1,500 kilometers of the country’s coast). This could cause China to overestimate its leverage and ability to advance its interests on contentious and provocative issues such as Taiwan and maritime sovereignty disputes. At the same time, it could also cause the United States and Japan to overreact to such behavior, partly to disabuse China and others of the notion that the United States is losing its dominant position.

Without adequate communication and a clear sense of each other’s red lines, and without reassuring understandings on limits and intentions, such miscalculations could easily escalate into tests of relative resolve, with neither side willing to make accommodations to reach a middle ground. Although Beijing and Washington could perhaps avoid letting such a crisis devolve into actual military conflict, even a major nonviolent confrontation could severely, and perhaps irreparably, damage U.S.-China relations well beyond anything seen thus far, producing untold shocks to the global economy and both regional and global security.

Under present conditions, the issue of Taiwan is particularly concerning. Given the current and worsening U.S. trend toward a zero-sum strategic competition with Beijing in virtually all areas, it is quite possible that anti-China zealots in or around the U.S. government could successfully argue that Washington should start regarding Taiwan as a strategic asset that it should deny China.

These sentiments are already found among defense analysts in the United States and Japan. Needless to say, if such views became policy, the U.S. One China policy would collapse, along with the original basis for normalized relations with Beijing. The result could be a military conflict. I am certainly not predicting such an outcome. But I am less confident today than I was a few years ago that it can be avoided.

How to Salvage Constructive U.S.-China Ties

What should policymakers do about this troubling state of affairs?

First, serious, influential individuals in both countries (and not just experts on U.S.-China relations) need to speak out more forcefully. They need to call for an end to reckless rhetoric, soothing propagandistic utterances about win-win outcomes, and mild, half measures for dealing with the serious sources of discontent and suspicion in the relationship.

For its part, in the near term, China needs to focus like a laser on dealing with the sources of Western businesses’ discontent and cyber espionage, while indicating a clear willingness, through actions and not just words, to involve Western capitals and business interests in Chinese economic enterprises such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Such actions, along with the efforts of U.S. state and local officials to strengthen close economic ties with China, could contribute greatly to reestablishing the U.S. business community as a major pillar of the U.S.-China relationship.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress should hold hearings on the future strategic balance in Asia and its implications for U.S. policy. This exercise should involve a full assessment of how medium- and long-term changes in the military, economic, political/diplomatic, and soft-power resources that the United States, China, and other Asian states possess will likely affect regional stability, especially in terms of changing levels of risk tolerance and regional threat perceptions. The point of this assessment would be to confirm and define more clearly the power shift occurring in Asia and to determine the most feasible and effective policy options.

In my view, this should lead the two countries to accept the need for a stable (and real) balance in Asia and a defusing of the most likely sources of conflict through mutual accommodation, alongside genuine efforts to integrate the region economically. Such a mentality should take the place of what currently appear to be U.S. efforts to deepen strategic competition through a largely futile attempt to stay well ahead of China in the region while isolating Beijing economically.

In addition, policy experts and politicians need to provide support for a nonpartisan examination of additional mechanisms and processes that could help facilitate more effective U.S.-China crisis management. Track I and Track II discussions have produced some notable successes in this area in recent years. But such exchanges have often focused too narrowly on the prevention or successful handling of purely military incidents or accidents, especially on the Track I side. These undertakings largely ignore or omit the larger (and arguably more relevant) civilian and civil-military political and structural decisionmaking contexts within which each nation’s military operates. This larger context would be as critical a factor in determining the evolution and outcome of a serious U.S.-China crisis as would purely military-to-military interactions.

A first step in this direction should be the formation of a senior-level U.S.-China civil-military dialogue on crisis avoidance and crisis management, using input from relevant Track II activities. But, for such a dialogue to occur, both sides must internalize the reality that, under current conditions, a serious political-military crisis between the United States and China could escalate to a major military conflagration. Given this stark fact, each side must recognize that the other is not necessarily interested in provoking or manipulating a crisis to achieve a decisive advantage in the relationship, and both sides should acknowledge that any effort to do so would likely result in disaster. That recognition is essential on both sides for the initial good faith effort required to engage in a frank discussion about crisis mismanagement.

A more stable Asia, much less a more stable U.S.-China relationship, will not develop overnight. This transformation can only take place over a period of years, under the direction of experienced diplomats, business leaders, and military officers who possess a strong sense of the high stakes involved and a clear understanding of the dangers of allowing the corrosive status quo to continue. The result will not be a return to the relationship’s past model, but rather a set of interactions that is more competitive, more equally balanced, and yet (in many ways) still cooperative and mutually beneficial.