The United States and China’s lengthy track record of constructive engagement is disintegrating at an alarming rate, requiring a major correction by both sides. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s occasional talk of his “truly great” connection with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Xi’s constant references to “win-win” outcomes all round, recent policies and actions — especially on the U.S. side — have created an enormously destructive dynamic in the relationship.
In the case of the United States, this dynamic is most clearly driven by excessively critical, often hostile, authoritative U.S. strategy documents such as the recently issued National Security and National Defense Strategies, similar statements by senior U.S. officials, and U.S. economic policy shifts — including grossly ill-conceived tariffs — that all envision Beijing as a “revisionist” power that threatens all Americans hold dear.
American journalists reinforce this dim view of U.S.-Chinese relations. Almost daily, pundits unveil new aspects of China’s perfidy, ranging from Chinese attempts to undermine intellectual freedom at U.S. universities to China’s sinister debt traps designed to ensnare and control developing countries.
This steady drumbeat of criticism assumes that every Chinese gain comes at American expense, and that past U.S. policymakers and experts have long overlooked the hostility of the Chinese regime. These critics conclude that any cooperation with China must take a back seat to the imperative of pushing back against the growing threat through all means possible. This hyperbole often reaches stratospheric heights, as Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote last December:
Washington is waking up to the huge scope and scale of Chinese Communist Party influence operations inside the United States, which permeate American institutions of all kinds. China’s overriding goal is, at the least, to defend its authoritarian system from attack and at most to export it to the world at America’s expense.
Such language would be less popular if Beijing did not also add fuel to the fire. While endlessly asserting that China poses no threat to anyone, Beijing takes actions that sometimes suggest otherwise. China is unjustly increasing constraints on foreign corporations operating there, continuing commercial theft directed against Western countries, growing its domestic political and ideological controls while increasing anti-foreigner propaganda, and becoming more assertive in its maritime neighborhood.
These actions are certainly troubling and in many cases require more effective counter-policies. However they do not come close to justifying the calls for a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-China policy, the heated rhetoric, and the sledgehammer-like, zero-sum U.S. policies we now see.
Never mind that in many cases the facts don’t support such categorical and one-sided conclusions. For example, engagement was never intended to turn China into a democracy, as many now assert. It originated from a strategic imperative to join with Beijing to balance against the former Soviet Union, to end China’s revolutionary impulses, to make its society more open to outside influence, and, of course, to serve Western business interests. We forget what China was until the 1970s and early 1980s: a largely closed, hostile power with a desire to spread its Maoist, Stalinist model to others. Engagement has largely succeeded in all of these areas. Despite recent setbacks, China remains vastly more open, globalized, and tolerant today than it was prior to engagement, no question.
Another hugely distorted notion is the now all-too-common assumption that China seeks to eject the United States from Asia and subjugate the region. In fact, no conclusive evidence exists of such Chinese goals. Those who assert it base their arguments either on wild extrapolations from individual actions (such as the extension of Chinese influence in the South China Sea), statements by decidedly not authoritative Chinese observers, or problematic realist-based assumptions about the supposedly open-ended power maximization behavior of large nations. Beijing might eventually adopt such disastrous goals if the Sino-U.S. relationship deteriorates sufficiently, but to assume they already exist is reckless and irresponsible.
Similarly, the notion that Beijing is committed to overturning the global order invokes an exceedingly narrow and questionable democracy-centered definition of that order and thus grossly distorts the scope of the Chinese criticisms. Actually, Beijing supports many elements of the existing order, including some that the current U.S. administration rejects or undermines, such as the fight against climate change and the value of multilateral economic agreements. On the latter point, despite some significant protectionist measures (e.g., in telecommunications and financial services), policies calling for increased party controls in economic sectors, and a resurgent stress on state-owned enterprises, China’s economic growth remains driven primarily by private companies and a largely open trading system. Although the World Trade Organization system certainly needs reforming, Beijing has largely complied with the letter, if not always the spirit, of that regime.
What the most extreme among these journalists and officials are providing is an arresting narrative that will no doubt increase defense outlays, sell papers, strike a contrast with the allegedly “failed” China policies of previous administrations, and distract Americans from the many domestic problems they face, such as huge budget deficits, income inequality, and collapsing infrastructure.
This excessively belligerent perspective on China departs greatly from the pragmatism of the “reform and opening” era of U.S.-China relations that began in the 1970s. Based far more in reality, both then and now, than the current one-dimensional stance, this view recognized the need to balance necessary efforts at problem-solving cooperation with Beijing in handling common concerns with prudent hedging and bounded competition. Such a two-pronged approach has now been rejected — at least for Asia — in favor of a zero-sum Indo-Pacific strategy that is thus far mostly an empty slogan calling for a supposed alliance of democratic Asian nations against China.
So what accounts for the emergence in the United States of the new normal of China demonization? Aside from the narrow bureaucratic and political interests noted above, the most significant factor derives from a deep-rooted “paranoid style” evident within the U.S. political mindset, to borrow a phrase from a seminal 1964 article by historian Richard Hofstadter. This disposition, characterized by a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” to quote Hofstadter, is stoked by Trump, who blames outsiders for almost all of America’s ills. Although Trump claims to have a wonderful relationship with Xi and predicts a “great” bilateral relationship in the future, in fact, his cynical manipulation of America’s insecurities finds a logical target for his subordinates, if not always for himself, in Xi’s China.
More importantly, within the Trump-defined political context, these hostile words and actions completely overshadow the obvious and pressing need for continued cooperation between Washington and Beijing in addressing common problems and concerns, including climate change, weapon of mass destruction proliferation, pandemics, the state of the global economic system, and stability in Asia. These imperatives are rarely if ever even mentioned by Washington now.
The intersection of Chinese assertiveness and both U.S. and Chinese insecurity is creating an unprecedented challenge that cannot be met by denial and demonization. If Washington continues to focus on containing and undermining Beijing on virtually all fronts, it will simply further isolate itself — as it is doing with its allies on trade issues — and divert attention and resources away from handing its many other problems. On the other hand, if Beijing pursues actions that target U.S. interests in the region and beyond, it will simply further fuel Washington’s insecurity and paranoia, possibly courting conflict with the United States while alienating both diplomatic and trading partners.
At this critical moment, both nations need to reverse the downward spiral in relations by creating positive momentum through substantive (and not merely rhetorical) assurances and compromises on key issues, without, however, undermining vital national interests. This difficult task is virtually impossible over the near to medium term under the current U.S. and Chinese governments, but it will nevertheless remain an imperative if we are to avoid serious crises or even clashes in the future. It requires, first, a fact-based matching of goals with resources over time, a differentiation between vital and secondary interests, and a clear-eyed recognition that neither country will dominate either Asia or the world at large. Power is now diffusing across the globe as interdependence deepens and resources are strained. This demands efforts to balance and cooperate rather than exclude and weaken.
Second, Washington must recognize that despite Xi’s now-dominant position, the Chinese government is not a monolithic entity and motivating it requires creating positive incentives for supporters of greater reform, openness, and accommodation within the system. Such individuals exist in many sectors, and their influence could grow if the Xi regime’s more repressive policies create serious social and economic unrest. But the current demonization of Beijing’s motives and behavior will simply weaken their position by helping those in China who play to the specter of the “foreign threat” to justify their own hostile policies.
Similarly, Beijing will get nowhere with U.S. officials if it continues to mouth platitudes about win-win outcomes and stoke domestic fears of foreign infiltration instead of recognizing that its growing strengths create insecurities that can only be addressed through the offering of substantive political, economic, and security assurances — backed by meaningful actions — to outsiders, especially in Asia. Such changes are not impossible, but both sides need to stop the posturing and get down to the business of creating a stable relationship from which both can benefit.