What U.S. Policy Gets Wrong About China

A 'values-based' strategy won't work with Beijing.

As they look over the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. policy makers have much to be proud of and much to worry about. On the one hand, the U.S.-centered “San Francisco system” put into place in the wake of the Second World War has been a great success, fostering economic and institutional growth across the region, dispelling the last legacies of European colonialism in the region and encouraging a neoliberal approach to institution-building. While enlightened elites and cultural attitudes certainly played their part, U.S. trade and security guarantees allowed many states to focus exclusively on economic growth with superb results.

But there are serious weaknesses in the values-based approach taken by American policy makers to the Asia-Pacific that should be considered. And though this piece does not argue against values-based policy—which is, after all a source of soft power—it does argue for a hardheaded examination of the consequences of U.S. values-based decisions.

The rebirth of Chinese power this century is inextricably linked with postwar U.S. policy making. Americans may look to the policy as both their greatest success and, paradoxically, their greatest failure. U.S. normalization with China eventually led to the liberalization of trade relations, and emboldened economic reformers like Deng Xiaoping, who wished to revitalize China’s feeble economy. The 1979 Carter-Deng Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations put China at the top table of the United Nations, replacing with a stroke Taipei’s control of that seat. Preferential U.S. treatment towards Beijing continued in 1980, with the return of China to Most Favored Nation status, made permanent in 2000, and ultimately led to China’s accession to the WTO in December 2000. Since then, Chinese growth has averaged 9 percent a year. It is now the largest trading nation in the world.

America’s China policy has been a remarkable success in raising China, and yet, it has been marked by a complete failure to truly understand that country or the indirect consequences of empowering it. Emboldened and strengthened by its capital gains, its technological prowess and its burgeoning defense capabilities, Beijing has begun to project its military power into the region, threatening regional stability and prosperity in the East China and South China Seas. Rather than respond in kind to a quarter-century American policy of inclusion, China appears to want to dispel U.S. power from the region, excluding Washington from the regional order. Utilizing a band of technologies, collectively called Anti-Access/Area Denial, Beijing openly targets U.S. defense capabilities and threatens sea lanes. Furthermore, sensing the potential for global hegemony, China seems to pursue various strategies to depose the dollar as the reserve global currency, possibly in favor of the renminbi.

So what can American policy makers learn from this? One answer is to reconsider the use by American policy makers of ideologically driven assumptions in the analysis process. For example, take the working assumption that the growth of middle classes leads to political liberalization. This is a seemingly tried and tested theory of international political economy, bolstered by various case studies. However, tested against the variable of a strong political elite determined to resist it, the assumption does not hold up. This is how generations of American politicians and policy makers came to believe that they should empower China economically. Did it work? Well, naturally there are arguments on both sides of the ledger. China is a freer place than it was in 1972, many Chinese citizens can travel outside the country and there is more of an exchange of ideas and capital between China and the rest of the world. However, the unintended consequences remain just as significant, with China rising as perhaps the key challenger to American regional and global interests. Knowing what we know now, this raises the question: Could we have approached China more cautiously?