When Washington talks about Chinese trade, we focus on specific policies. For Beijing, however, the focus is on the big picture — specifically, what the Chinese see as a coordinated effort of containment aimed at thwarting China’s rise.
Here’s why the United States needs a different approach.
On Monday, Trump indicated that he viewed China building bridges as a sign that China was unfairly profiting from trade with the United States. He also characterized U.S. trade with China as sponsoring its recent rise. Although perhaps not quite what Trump means, this sounds an awful lot like a policy of containment — especially when combined with the escalating trade war and increasing talk of China as an enemy.
That lens means that other issues, such as a the “unsafe” encounter between the U.S. warship USS Decatur and a Chinese ship in the South China Sea over the weekend are considered part of a broad push to challenge Chinese sovereignty.
Although negotiations and meetings aren’t a magic bullet to resolving or mitigating tensions, both countries' reluctance to meet reflects a worsening relationship between the world’s two largest economies. On Saturday, U.S. officials said that high level security talks planned between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Beijing and a senior Chinese military officer have been canceled after the official refused to meet. On Monday, President Trump also indicated that he was not yet ready to talk to China to resolve the ongoing trade dispute.
That is not a promising approach to resolving tensions and is the opposite of what the United States should be doing.
For one thing, while containment may have worked with the Soviet Union, China is quite a different beast. China has pursued a policy of reform and opening up, and far from adhering to its communist origins that still have a place in official iconography, China has become the biggest market in the world for consumer goods. With online shopping festivals prompting spending many times more than that spent on black Friday, new shopping malls popping up every day, and a growing middle class with a high demand for all kinds of goods, China’s model is a far cry from Moscow’s. Moreover, even though it can be argued that the strategy of containment did eventually work, it came at the price of potential catastrophic nuclear conflict — a risk that should be avoided.
China is also pursuing forward-looking policies on the development of new technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech, and other fields where it hopes to outpace the United States. In some areas, such as access to large data sets necessary for AI innovation, China already has a clear advantage. This means that China is positioning itself to not only keep up with foreign development but take the lead. For consumer products, this would shift the balance of trade. For military capabilities, it would shift the balance of power.
Finally, China is already well into laying the groundwork for not just its own success but for a global network dominated by Chinese interests. That includes not only strategic trading lanes and infrastructure but also the potential to gain control over locations with key military importance.
In short, China would be a formidable foe. And one the U.S., with its increasingly isolationist outlook and current economic emphasis on outdated industry, will be ill prepared to face.
Containment, or at least policies that look like it, are not the only option.
Instead, the United States would be better off pursuing a policy of engagement. That doesn’t mean handing over technology or turning a blind eye to China’s aggressive Belt and Road Initiative, but instead recognizing that negotiations are preferable to conflict — either with tariffs or with warships that come nose to nose.
Like containment, a policy of engagement is not a sure solution. Its process, outcome, and the potential increased prosperity on both sides of the planet, however, are far preferable to the alternative.