It has been four years since Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner—now senior Biden administration officials responsible for policy toward China—published a seminal article arguing that Washington’s post-Cold War “engagement” with Beijing had failed because it was based on unrealistic expectations about democratizing China and flawed assessments of Beijing’s intentions and ambitions. China specialists have debated this proposition ever since. A new book by Princeton University scholar Aaron Friedberg, Getting China Wrong, expands upon the theme, with mixed results.
Friedberg’s central argument is that engagement failed because Washington “underestimated the resilience, resourcefulness, and ruthlessness of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], misjudged the depths of its resolve to retain domestic political power, and failed to recognize the extent and seriousness of its revisionist international ambitions.” Even today, he asserts, the United States and its allies still lack “a clearly articulated and widely shared assessment of the nature and severity of the challenge” from China, the “root cause” of which is “the nature of China’s CCP regime.”
He is mostly correct on the scope (at least) of the challenge that China poses to the United States. As Friedberg explains, Chinese leaders seek to “reestablish their country as the dominant state in eastern Eurasia” and “eventually to challenge [the United States’] position as the world’s richest, strongest, most technologically advanced, and most influential nation in the world.” Beijing is also “working hard to control, neutralize, or bypass institutions that Washington established and once dominated, and to subvert or supplant American-endorsed, liberal definitions of human rights” and other ideas that the CCP views as threatening to its authority, legitimacy, and control.
Friedberg is also correct in highlighting the widespread error of attributing these Chinese objectives primarily or exclusively to CCP leader Xi Jinping and his tenure. They clearly had earlier origins. As Friedberg notes, Xi has been bolder and more explicit in his pursuit of China’s strategic ambitions than his predecessors, but he “does not represent a break from the past. To the contrary, he is following in the footsteps of his forebears”—and with the support of his Politburo colleagues—with “the same objectives” of reaffirming the CCP’s primacy and maximizing China’s wealth and power and influence.
But this analysis requires several caveats. Notwithstanding the breadth and depth of the Chinese challenge to the United States, there are limits to Beijing’s global ambitions. Indeed, Friedberg is somewhat equivocal or at least inconsistent in his characterization of China’s end game. He varyingly observes that Beijing seeks to “displace the US as the preponderant global power”; to develop “capabilities and influence equivalent, and eventually superior to, those of the US”; or to become “the predominant power globally, or at least with an extended sphere of influence [emphasis added].” So, which is it? The core question is whether Beijing seeks exclusive world domination, as is asserted in another new book by China scholar Ian Easton, The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy. But neither Friedberg nor Easton offers persuasive evidence that Beijing’s goal is global hegemony. For his part, Easton relies heavily on Chinese military textbooks whose authoritativeness as evidence of CCP leadership thinking is at best debatable. Friedberg, in citing statements from Xi that indicate Beijing’s ambitions, quotes references to China becoming “a global leader in terms of national strength and international influence.” In none of these cases, however, did Xi clearly declare that China sought or needed to be “the” sole global leader.
It is certainly true, as Friedberg notes, that “whatever their Western counterparts may profess to believe, China’s rulers are convinced they are locked in a zero-sum struggle” with the United States. But many of their Western counterparts profess to believe in precisely the same kind of winner-take-all struggle, and Friedberg himself apparently agrees. What he overlooks is the extent to which Beijing’s perceptions of a zero-sum contest mirror rhetoric and behavior from the United States, in a classic security dilemma. The possible impact of U.S. actions is also relevant to Friedberg’s analysis of Xi’s centrality to China’s strategic behavior. As noted above, Friedberg correctly observes that Xi largely inherited Beijing’s objectives from his predecessors, even if he has “pursue[d] them more forcefully.” What he overlooks here is the extent to which China’s greater assertiveness over the past decade has been a product not just of Xi’s leadership but of policies and actions by the United States and other countries over the same time period, to which Beijing felt the need to respond firmly.
The central issue of whether Washington “got China wrong” is more complicated to parse. Friedberg no doubt is correct that many policymakers and scholars were buoyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the notion that communism would eventually collapse in China as well, and they either advocated policies aimed at advancing that goal or justified policies on the grounds that they could advance that goal. He is also correct that U.S. commercial interests played a central and often self-serving role in promoting those ideas. Moreover, Friedberg notes that academic studies at the time appeared to provide a “sound empirical footing” for the theory that economic engagement with China would lead in turn to market reforms and political liberalization there.
But that is not the same as asserting that U.S. policymakers pursued engagement solely for that purpose, or with that metric for success. In fact, post-Cold War U.S. presidents—no less than Richard Nixon a generation earlier—pursued engagement with China for a variety of geostrategic reasons that usually had more to do with influencing Beijing’s international behavior than with its domestic governance, and they often did so with success.
Perhaps more importantly, Friedberg overstates the extent to which U.S. policymakers failed to recognize the nature of the CCP regime and its internal and external ambitions. He criticizes Washington’s “inability or unwillingness to grasp ... the CCP’s unwavering determination to maintain its unbreakable hold on power and its tireless creativity and brutal skill in doing so,” and he asserts that U.S. policymakers “systematically underestimated” the regime’s “mix of insecurity, ambition, and opportunism.” He adds that Washington was “reluctant to acknowledge the fact that China was working to displace the United States as the preponderant power in Asia,” and failed to realize that the CCP “never had any intention of proceeding down the path towards full economic liberalization.”
But having worked within the U.S. Intelligence Community on East Asian issues for virtually all of the relevant period Friedberg is addressing, I do not recall a time when these aspects of the CCP regime were not well understood by the U.S. Government. Indeed, Friedberg himself observes that the “Tiananmen [Square crackdown in 1989] made it impossible for American policymakers and the American people to ignore the CCP regime’s ugly, repressive face,” and that “it is difficult to escape the conclusion that any chance of China evolving gradually into a Western-style liberal democracy died at Tiananmen.” Accordingly, and in my experience, Washington subsequently was under no illusions about the character of the CCP.
Friedberg avers that after Tiananmen “portions of the US military and intelligence communities” started to pay more attention to troublesome aspects of the regime, but “at the highest political level ... officials remained intensely focused on engagement” and regarded Beijing’s long-term intentions as “unformed and therefore susceptible to shaping, for better or worse, by the actions of others.” There is much to unpack here. But in Washington’s approach to China, engagement was never exclusive of greater attention to Beijing’s problematic behavior and ambitions both domestically and abroad, and indeed such attention expanded within the U.S. government in tandem with the persistence of engagement in pursuit of U.S. strategic objectives. Moreover, although Beijing’s long-term intentions were never judged to be wholly “unformed,” they have in fact always been “susceptible to shaping.” The bottom line is that the limits (to date) on the success of engagement were not primarily the result of ignorance or denial of the nature of the CCP and its strategic intentions. They were more likely the result of inherent limits on the United States’ ability to influence China, and perhaps of trends in the United States itself—especially in the wake of the global financial crisis—that further eroded relative U.S. influence, while giving Beijing the opportunity and the incentive to push back harder against Washington’s strategy and to score points against it.
Friedberg frequently overlooks the symmetry between his characterization of Beijing and Washington’s own approach to the bilateral relationship. For example, he observes that “rather than consider the possibility that Beijing’s own actions might have been at least partly responsible for triggering a spiral of escalating tensions, Chinese analysts and officials placed the blame squarely on the US.” U.S. officials, however, routinely deflect the possibility that American actions have played a role in fueling tensions. Similarly, Friedberg notes that the CCP “is quick to interpret every action of the United States and its allies as proof of hostile intent and justification for its own aggressive policies.” But Washington is similarly inclined to interpret Chinese actions as proof of hostile intent and as necessitating strong U.S. pushback. He observes that “Beijing believes that rivalry with the West is inescapable and the stakes are existential.” But Washington appears to have embraced the same view of U.S.-China “strategic competition.” Finally, Friedberg judges that Chinese leaders have “tied themselves into the dangerous knot of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” overlooking or denying the possibility that U.S. leaders risk doing the same thing. Indeed, he appears to deride scholar Joseph Nye’s famous remark that “if you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy.”
Inherent in all this is the probability that the United States has in fact shaped China but has done so counterproductively. Friedberg notes correctly that “over the last three decades, Western policymakers have been compelled repeatedly to upgrade their assessments of Beijing’s aims.” But he does not address the extent to which Beijing’s aims may have evolved in response to U.S. policies and actions that were perceived by Chinese leaders as intended to constrain or even contain China. Friedberg correctly notes that the Trump administration “reinforced Beijing’s long-held belief that the Americans were determined to hold China down.” But it also crystallized the belief in Washington that China is determined to keep America down, and thus fueled U.S. policies that Beijing was bound to view as hostile.
This symmetry and its consequences are amply but probably unintentionally reflected in Friedberg’s policy prescriptions for what Washington should be doing to rectify the errors he attributes to engagement. He starts by rebuking what he calls the “lexicon of strategic paralysis”—the use of pejorative slogans to preempt policy changes by presuming that they would fail. Specifically, he criticizes those who warn against a “new Cold War” with China, “containment,” “decoupling,” or “regime change.” Friedberg’s policy recommendations would essentially promote all four.
He contends that an “all-out Cold War style ‘neo-containment policy’ designed to isolate China, stifle its growth, and prevent its rise” was not the only alternative to engagement. The United States and its allies, he suggests, could instead have used their leverage “more forcefully to try to compel Beijing to modify its domestic politics” and could have taken steps to slow the growth of China’s power and to impose constraints on its external behavior.” The substantive difference between these two characterizations is not clear. Similarly, he suggests that “containment” is not feasible, but asserts that the United States and its allies “are going to have to find ways to offset and neutralize China’s growing ability to impose its will upon them, whether through coercive threats, direct attack, or by gaining control over key chokepoints or portions of the global commons.” How is that not “containment”? On “decoupling,” Friedberg observes that Beijing is trying to reduce China’s economic dependence on other countries and increase their dependence on China, because the CCP “has always regarded economic policy as a tool for enhancing China’s power relative to the United States.” But Washington’s approach—and his recommendations—reflect the same goals and regard economic policy much the same way. Finally, on “regime change,” Friedberg recommends that Washington “increase the pressure that the CCP regime feels from within to address its own domestic failings by heightening awareness of them among its citizens.” This echoes statements by Trump administration officials that appeared to encourage the Chinese people to overthrow their government.
Friedberg outlines four lines of effort for U.S. policy: (a) mobilizing for a protracted U.S.-China rivalry; (b) “partial disengagement” in the economic realm; (c) intensified military preparations and diplomacy to deter Chinese coercion and aggression; and (d) “waging discursive struggle” to challenge Beijing’s ideological narratives. He emphasizes that the United States cannot afford to adopt a purely defensive posture: it must exploit China’s critical weaknesses, impose costs on its actions, slow the growth of Chinese power and influence, and dissuade Beijing from calculating that military force could achieve its goals. But Beijing is pursuing precisely the same four lines of effort against the United States: girding for a long-term struggle, selectively decoupling, building up its diplomatic and military leverage, and trumpeting the benefits of socialism and the supposed frailties of democracy. And China will be similarly determined to exploit U.S. weaknesses, impose costs on U.S. behavior, and persuade Washington that U.S. military actions against China would be disastrous. Friedberg suggests that “the greatest risk of miscalculation is likely to arise from an underestimation by China’s leaders of the capabilities and resolve” of the West. But the risk is no less great that Washington will underestimate China’s capabilities and resolve—and overestimate its own.
In the end, Friedberg insists that “the nature of China’s CCP regime” leaves “little prospect of a stable and mutually satisfactory accommodation,” and thus makes peaceful coexistence unlikely for the foreseeable future. “There is little overlap,” he asserts, “between what China’s rulers really want and what Washington and its allies can, or should be willing to, give.” But this is based on specious or invalid assumptions about “what China’s rulers really want.” As noted above, Friedberg says the United States lacks a “clearly articulated and widely shared assessment of the nature and severity of the challenge” from China. But the assessment he offers, although clearly articulated, is neither widely shared nor accurate. China’s challenge to the United States (and the West) is not as absolute or existential as Friedberg suggests; Beijing’s international behavior is driven by structural, historical, and material factors beyond just the nature of the CCP regime; and there is in fact room for mutual accommodation and peaceful coexistence if Washington is prepared to recognize this and to adopt a more empirical assessment of the “nature and severity” of the challenge.
This is where engagement still provides opportunities and in fact the best vehicle for averting conflict and fixing the U.S.-China relationship. Friedberg correctly observes that “engagement was a gamble rather than a blunder,” and he acknowledges that “US and other Western policymakers cannot fairly be faulted for placing their original bet.” It is true that the gamble has not paid off, but that does not mean the original bet has been lost. Engagement in fact has not failed; it just hasn’t succeeded yet. And Friedberg himself implicitly endorses it when he recommends that “the United States and its allies should continue to articulate the hope that liberal reforms will someday be possible [in China] and try to create conditions that may make them more likely.” That was, and remains, an excellent reason for engagement with China.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).