For more than four decades, engagement with China was the prevailing consensus in Washington, despite ongoing disputes and sporadic tensions in the bilateral relationship. Yet a new consensus began to emerge toward the end of Obama’s presidency, one that calls for replacing engagement with strategic competition.
The Trump administration epitomizes this emerging consensus. In its 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy, China was labelled “revisionist power” and “strategic competitor,” respectively. In May 2020, the White House released a report that outlines its “whole-of-government approach [to] strategic competition” with China. Guided by these policy documents, Washington launched a trade war against China, imposed sanctions on Chinese tech companies, accused Beijing of building up “sharp power,” tightened visas for Chinese scholars and students, enhanced its ties with Taiwan, and closed down the Chinese consulate in Houston, to name the most notable examples. The bilateral relationship reached its lowest point since prior to Richard Nixon’s landmark visit in 1972.
With a new president in the White House, many observers are hoping to see an immediate halt to the free fall in China-US relations. For their part, senior Chinese officials have called on the Biden administration for a major course correction. Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, Le Yucheng, vice minister of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered four suggestions on improving the bilateral relationship: respect, reversal, renewal, and responsibility. In an online dialogue with the National Committee on US-China Relations on February 2, Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Central Committee for Foreign Affairs, urged Washington to treat China as it is, restore normal interactions, properly manage differences, and broaden mutually beneficial cooperation.
But Beijing’s appeals apparently had fallen on deaf ears. Just two days after Yang’s remarks, Antony Blinken, the new US secretary of state, made it clear that the Biden administration will pursue a foreign policy that benefits fellow Americans, answers their needs, and reflects their values. This supposedly new foreign policy sounds strikingly similar to the old “America First” championed by the Trump administration. On the same day President Joe Biden described China as America’s “most serious competitor,” promising to push back on Beijing’s alleged wrongdoings ranging from economic practices to global governance. Though the phone call between Biden and President Xi Jinping on the eve of the Chinese lunar new year seems to be a positive sign, it would be totally unrealistic—if not delusional—to expect a quick reset of China-US relations. At least in the short term, strategic competition will almost certainly remain the default US China policy.
Competition is one of the core values Americans live by. Be it sports, academics, business, or scientific research, Americans love competition, which is supposed to bring out the best of an individual. The same competitive spirit has defined US foreign policy since the end of World War II, which aims to maintain America’s global leadership. It is fair to say that being the world’s preeminent power has become an integral part of America’s national identity. To be America is to be the world’s No.1, and to be No.2 is to be un-American. Thus it should not come as a surprise at all when an increasingly powerful and influential China is viewed as a serious strategic competitor vis-à-vis the United States.
The key question, then, is how America will compete with China. Here a lesson from US domestic politics is highly relevant. In How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argued persuasively that American democracy rests on two fundamental norms, that is, mutual tolerance and institutional restraint. The former means treating political opponents as legitimate (for example, agree to disagree) and the latter restraining from abusive use of institutional power (such as politically motivated impeachment). Against the backdrop of extreme polarization, they pointed out, Democrats and Republicans have nearly completely destroyed these two norms—or what they call the “soft guardrails of democracy.” The consequence is democratic backsliding, a trend that, if unchecked, could turn America into an illiberal democracy, they warned.
In competing with China, US leaders also should follow the norm of mutual tolerance, that is, China should be treated as a legitimate competitor with which America must learn to live, rather than an enemy which America must destroy at any cost. Competition with tolerance could help American leaders bring out the best of America by reforming domestic institutions and revitalizing the American economy. Competition without tolerance, by contrast, would only bring out the worst of America by whipping up anti-Communism, paranoia, and ethno-nationalism. It is a sure recipe for self-inflicted catastrophe.
Above all, Washington must realize that it cannot be the world’s perennial superpower. America may be exceptional in its founding, natural endowment, and commitment to liberty and democracy, but none of these qualities—or their combination—makes it an exception to the cyclical patterns of world politics, as embodied in the rise and fall of great empires. It is a fact that America used to lead the world. It is wishful thinking, though, that America must lead the world, again or forever. That American leadership is often viewed as desirable does not necessarily make it indispensable. For the sake of its own security and prosperity—and that of the rest of the world—it is imperative that Washington rethink its China policy.
(Xie Tao is professor and dean of the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of the author, not necessarily those of the People's Daily.)