Engagement With China Was Always a Long Shot

Foreign Policy, 12.05.2022
Aaron L. Friedberg, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Beijing’s Leninist regime is fundamentally resistant to change.

As the Cold War drew to a close, the United States and the other liberal democracies opened their doors to China in the belief that, by doing so, they would cause its system to converge more closely with their own. As anticipated, access to the markets, resources, technology, educational systems, and managerial know-how of the advanced industrial nations helped China grow richer, faster than would otherwise have been possible. But trade and societal interaction did not yield the broader benefits for which the democracies had hoped. Instead of a liberal and cooperative partner, China has become an increasingly wealthy and powerful competitor, repressive at home and aggressive abroad.

From the start, China’s leaders believed that they were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the democratic world, led by the United States. As viewed from Beijing, offers of engagement were merely a clever Western stratagem designed to weaken China by exposing its people to dangerous liberal ideas and unleashing societal forces that would lead eventually to irresistible pressures for political change. At the same time as they sought to subvert its system from within, American strategists were seen as aiming to contain China, preventing it from regaining its rightful place in Asia by encircling it with allies and forward-based military forces.

Faced with what they regarded as a deadly, double-edged threat, China’s leaders worked diligently to devise and implement a counterstrategy of their own. Highly flexible and adaptive in their choice of means, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategists have nevertheless been remarkably constant in their objectives. For over 30 years now they have found ways to exploit the opportunities afforded by engagement: expanding China’s economy; building up its scientific, technological, and military capabilities; and enhancing their influence in Western countries, while at the same time maintaining and even reinforcing the party’s grip on Chinese society. As their strength and self-confidence have grown, China’s rulers have begun to move from a largely defensive posture in world affairs to an assertive and even aggressive external stance. Albeit belatedly, in the last several years this shift has sparked concern and the beginnings of a more forceful response from the West.

Contrary to how it has sometimes been described in retrospect, the policy of engagement was not an obvious and self-evident mistake whose ultimate failure was predictable from the very start. Despite the lack of promising precedents, it was not entirely fanciful to have imagined in the early 1990s that, with sufficient patience and the proper inducements, even a hardened Leninist regime could be lured and coaxed into liberalizing.

Engagement was a gamble rather than a blunder, but the odds were always extremely long. A more accurate appreciation of the character of the CCP regime might have instilled a greater sense of realism about the chances for success and a heightened sensitivity to early indications of failure. U.S. and other Western policymakers cannot fairly be faulted for placing their original bet. Where they erred was in doubling down on it repeatedly and not hedging adequately against the possibility that the wager might not pay off, despite mounting evidence that this was, in fact, what was happening.

Once put in place, engagement was sustained by the convergence of several mutually reinforcing factors, all of which tended to grow stronger with the passage of time. The most consequential of these was undoubtedly the influence of business, the combined weight of the many companies, industry associations, and individuals who either benefited from trade and investment with China or hoped to do so. Business interests, in turn, were crucial in shaping the attitudes of political elites. In the United States, as the outcomes of the major trade policy battles of the 1990s made plain, the influence of the human rights groups, labor unions, and older industries wary of economic engagement was far outweighed by the combined clout of the agricultural producers, higher-tech industries, and financial sector firms that supported it. Aside from periodic expressions of concern and occasional performative gestures, most governors, mayors, senators, and members of Congress had very little incentive to challenge existing policies and strong reasons to support them.

The views of professional politicians reflected and were reinforced by the climate of opinion in most democratic societies. Starting in the 1980s, engagement accumulated a widening circle of vocal supporters that grew to include business executives, economists, journalists, university administrators, academics, think tank analysts, and former government officials. These individuals were motivated by differing mixtures of material self-interest (including the prospect of investment, employment, access, and professional advancement), combined in many cases with a sincere belief that engagement would hasten desirable changes in China and improve the prospects for world peace. The advocates of engagement were vigorous and sometimes vicious in its defense, often deploying what the journalist James Mann has described as “the Lexicon of Dismissal” to try to discredit critics and skeptics by labeling them as “anti-Chinese” or “China bashers” in the grips of a “Cold War mentality.”

Within the U.S. government, engagement, like other major policies, acquired considerable bureaucratic momentum; once set in motion, it was sustained in part by inertia. While they were certainly aware of problems in the relationship, most diplomats and officials responsible for trade and finance were adherents to the conventional wisdom and supporters of the status quo. With the passage of time, widening pockets of dissent and concern emerged in parts of the intelligence community and the military. Well into the 21st century, however, even many national security professionals continued to mouth familiar bromides about the danger of “treating China as an enemy.” In any event, major changes in policy could not come from the bottom up. Significant shifts in direction would have required intervention by top decision-makers convinced of the need for change and willing to invest the time, attention, and political capital necessary to bring it about.

One final factor must be taken into account, even though its impact is difficult to assess. For decades, starting in the early 1970s, the CCP worked tirelessly to shape the perceptions and behavior of Western political, business, government, and intellectual elites. The methods employed varied widely, from flattery and financial contributions to bribery and blackmail, but the basic goals remained constant: to persuade those targeted that engagement was working; that it served their individual interests as well as those of whatever companies, institutions, or governments they happened to represent; and that, in any event, there was no acceptable alternative. Still, for all of the resources that the CCP devoted to achieving these ends, it must be said that, until very recently, the regime was pushing on an open door. Like all of the best influence and deception operations, this one succeeded because it reinforced the preferences and predilections of those at whom it was directed.

Like the proverbial person going bankrupt, support for engagement eroded gradually and then all (or, rather, not quite all) at once. While the process unfolded differently in other countries, in the case of the United States an accumulation of troubling evidence helped to peel back successive layers of a once-solid consensus. Already by the turn of the century, China’s military buildup was starting to raise serious doubts about its acceptance of the regional status quo. These concerns were amplified after 2008 by Beijing’s increasingly assertive prosecution of disputes with its maritime neighbors and again, after 2014, by President Xi Jinping’s island construction campaign. As for China’s anticipated political liberalization: Although some perceptive observers began to speculate about the sources of the CCP regime’s “resilience” as early as the start of the Hu Jintao era in the early 2000s, expectations of imminent, positive political change persisted for at least another decade, dissipating only after it became painfully apparent that Xi was the antithesis of a liberal reformer.

Even before Xi took office in 2013, mounting frustration over China’s state-enabled theft of intellectual property, limitations on access to its market, and systematic violation of both the letter and the spirit of its other World Trade Organization commitments had started to eat away at confidence that business as usual was really in the best interests of American companies. Especially following the 2015 publication of Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” report, dawning recognition of the intent behind its high-tech industrial policies caused this process to quicken, both in the United States and in Europe. The fraying of the business coalition that had sustained engagement for so long helped to change the tenor of the debate on China policy. By the closing years of Barack Obama’s second term as U.S. president in the mid-2010s both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were urging the White House to take a tougher line with Beijing on a range of issues.

Regardless of who was in charge, by the second decade of the 21st century, powerful trends were carrying China and the United States toward a more open and intense rivalry. Each in his own way, Xi and Obama’s successor Donald Trump helped accelerate these tendencies. Xi’s ramped-up domestic repression and bluntly combative approach to international affairs served to dispel any lingering doubts about the true character of the CCP regime and the nature of its intentions. Trump’s willingness to say and do things that his predecessors had not, including imposing tariffs and otherwise constricting economic engagement, reinforced Beijing’s long-held belief that the Americans were determined to hold China down. Although there is little evidence that Trump knew or cared about the details, he also empowered people in the lower levels of his administration to implement tougher policies on a range of issues, including controlling exports of some high-tech products, tightening restrictions on Chinese investments, calling attention to the CCP’s political influence operations, and pressuring allies to block Chinese companies from building their next-generation telecommunications networks.

The combination of Trump’s disdain for conventional wisdom and his combative impulses produced a sharper, more rapid shift in U.S. policy than might otherwise have occurred, and it accelerated the ongoing erosion of support for the old policy of engagement. Despite Trump’s polarizing effect on virtually every other issue, Republicans and Democrats were able to agree on the need for a change in U.S. China policy, and, for the first time, ambitious figures in both parties began to compete to see who could stake out the tougher stance.

Events also played a role. Revelations about China’s brutal mistreatment of its Uyghur minority and the very public final destruction of political freedoms in Hong Kong highlighted the fate of those who had the misfortune to fall under CCP rule. Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its unprecedented rhetorical and economic attacks on governments perceived as critical, as well as its refusal to cooperate in investigating the origins of the outbreak, resulted in dramatic swings in public opinion across the democratic world. Between 2019 and mid-2020, polls revealed a sharp, double-digit increase in negative perceptions of China in Europe and Asia, as well as the United States.

Future historians may conclude that the pandemic dealt a mortal blow to engagement. The policy is far from dead, however, and some of its longtime supporters are working hard to revive its reputation and give it new life. The COVID-19 crisis helped shatter the old strategic consensus, but, unlike previous galvanizing disasters such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the outbreak of the Korean War, it was not enough in itself to forge a new one. Whether a sufficient sense of urgency and the necessary unity of purpose can be achieved without a shock of comparable magnitude remains to be determined.

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