An American Consensus: Time to Confront China

Media Coverage | January 17, 2019

The foreign policy establishment in Washington has recently come to the realization that a new strategy is needed in the American relationship with China. In their view, the old policy rested on the false assumption that China would grow increasingly like the West through constructive engagement. However, China has not only failed to become more free, politically or economically, it has risen as a global superpower propagating its own development model elsewhere in the world. To counter this, the U.S. approach toward China under the Trump administration has quickly turned to all-out confrontation, sharply rebuking Beijing’s practices and downplaying areas of potential cooperation. But this shift is neither the beginning of a new trajectory nor a specific feature of this administration. In many ways, frustration with China’s rise has been broadly felt across the political spectrum, among members of the legislature and the non-government foreign policy community. While the effect of a trade truce coming out of the G20 may be short-lived, Washington’s overall tougher stance on China may represent an overarching, self-sustaining framework in U.S. policy in Asia for years to come.

This White House has delivered a series of rebukes in the U.S.-China relationship, which to many, seem like a turning point: labeling China a “revisionist power” in major security policy documents, criticizing Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, and calling out its intellectual property theft and “whole-of-government” approach to projecting influence. However, the concern that China is emerging as a major rival is not a new mindset; its presence could be felt in earlier administrations and iterations of Congress.

During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for deepening economic ties while containing China’s power and strategic ambitions. As a result, strategies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and strengthening ties with India started to take shape. Similar policies continued in the Obama administration with its signature “Pivot to Asia” strategy (later dubbed a rebalance) aimed at solidifying partnerships to hedge against a growing China.

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