OMFIF | Tue, Jan 12, 2021
by Nathan Sheets
As recently as five years ago, there was a vigorous debate in Washington regarding US policy towards China. Today, that debate is over. The broad consensus — among both Republicans and Democrats — is that the US-China relationship is necessarily one of ‘strategic competition’. The US must lean against China’s rise using the broad range of tools at its disposal.
Some advocates of this view highlight the trajectory of China’s policies under President Xi Jinping — including the stunted progress in establishing a level playing field for foreign firms, China’s handling of foreign technologies and (more recently) the actions against Hong Kong. Others argue that previous efforts to bring China into the global system were fundamentally misdirected and that Xi’s actions are only the latest wake-up call.
The wind was blowing in this direction even before Donald Trump’s ascent to power, but he effectively tapped into the zeitgeist and gave it voice. Even so, Trump’s tactics failed to win broad support. His trade war, sanctions against Chinese technology companies and other restrictions have been criticised as hurting the US as much as China. The pain has been amplified by the unilateral nature of the actions.
The Biden administration is expected to pursue an alternative path. US concerns about Chinese actions are broadly shared by many other countries. The US has scope to work with its allies to press China to reform and open up. Broad-based diplomatic efforts could seize the moral high ground and intensify pressure on China.