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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe AmericasChina’s America Policy: Back to the Future

China’s America Policy: Back to the Future

Authors: Thomas Fingar, David M. Lampton

Affiliation: Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Organization/Publisher: The Washington Quarterly

Date/Place: December 19, 2023/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 21



Keywords: Foreign Relations, Stereotypes, Dialogue, Internal Instability



Relations between the United States and China have reached their lowest point since the early 1960s, and there is a strong possibility of further deterioration unless both Washington and Beijing take action, which they currently seem unwilling or unable to do. Tensions have been building up for years due to a variety of factors and are likely to persist indefinitely. Given that finding a quick solution to the problem appears unlikely, the best we can hope for is a cautious coexistence, careful risk management, and keeping the door open for a better future, regardless of how far away that may be. To achieve even this modest goal, it is crucial to have a deeper understanding of China’s goals, concerns, and behavior, particularly its inclination to prioritize reducing vulnerability to external ideas and interference overgrowth—an approach that is detrimental to China, the United States, and the global community.


The prevalent stereotypes and exaggerated portrayals of China’s policies and decision-making are not only inaccurate, but also unproductive. Simply describing China as an autocracy fails to provide a comprehensive understanding of the motivations and methods employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to preserve its political system. Additionally, reducing the primary goal of China’s foreign policy to countering US ambitions does not capture the complex factors that influence China’s actions. It is important to consider whether challenging the United States aligns with China’s own security and prosperity interests and acknowledge the complexity of China’s motivations and actions in the global arena.


Furthermore, attributing all PRC policies solely to the vision of Xi Jinping oversimplifies the dynamics within the Chinese leadership. While Xi has cultivated a cult of personality, his policy preferences and views on the United States are not fundamentally different from other top leaders. Xi represents a collective leadership that articulates consensus positions. Another oversimplification is viewing China’s actions solely through the lens of a rising power or great power competition. Such a perspective hampers cooperation and fosters a zero-sum mentality. It is crucial to recognize the potential for collaboration and understanding between the United States and China. 


One caricature depicts China as an unstoppable force poised to replace the United States and reshape the global order. However, a more nuanced perspective suggests that China’s current actions are not driven by confidence and strength, but rather by a perception of weakness and vulnerability. For example, China’s alignment with Russia in the Ukraine crisis is motivated by a fear that if Russia fails, China will face a strong and hostile America and its allies alone – a self-defeating strategy. These oversimplified portrayals highlight the need to analyze and comprehend the underlying motivations behind China’s behavior. Effective policies require an accurate understanding of what drives China’s actions in order to counter, mitigate, or occasionally leverage them. It is crucial to recognize that US policy and actions play a central role in shaping China’s behavior. Managing the current impasse, therefore, requires influencing Chinese perceptions and priorities towards a less confrontational and more cooperative coexistence. In summary, it is important to move beyond simplistic characterizations and stereotypes when analyzing China’s policies and decision-making. A nuanced understanding is necessary to foster constructive dialogue and cooperation between the two countries.


To grasp China’s key national goals, one must examine its consistent pursuit of prosperity and security throughout its history. These goals, pursued simultaneously and adjusted based on circumstances and leadership calculations, inform China’s domestic and foreign policies. Historical patterns reveal alternating phases of prioritizing security or economic and social development, resulting in significant shifts in policy approaches. A security-focused approach emphasizes a hostile external environment, economic self-sufficiency, domestic social control, and ideological adherence. On the other hand, a development-focused approach highlights interdependence, openness, pragmatism, and innovation. Transitions between these approaches involve careful considerations and have been rare occasions in China’s history since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Understanding these nuances is essential for effective policymaking that addresses the complexities of China’s motivations and behavior while fostering a transition to a more cooperative coexistence between the US and China.


The Chinese government is most worried about internal instability as it poses a direct threat to its power and can be exploited by foreign and domestic opponents. This is why they are quick to suppress criticism and unrest. After Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese leadership focused on jumpstarting and modernizing the economy, which initially boosted their confidence and legitimacy. However, public discontent in the late 1980s led to the Tiananmen Square protests and a national crackdown. Reform and liberalizing policies were resumed in 1992, resulting in rapid growth and wealth acquisition. But in the late 1990s, leaders like Xi Jinping became worried that further reforms could threaten the party-state system, citing the Soviet Union’s collapse as a cautionary example. Although China officially claims to be committed to reform, its behavior has shifted, often attributing changes to perceived hostile actions by the United States. The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 reinforced China’s belief that the US would try to hinder its rise. The Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia” further heightened China’s concerns, leading to strengthened ties with Russia.


China’s response to perceived threats from the US involved stoking nationalism by exaggerating external hostility and presenting China as a victim. The goal was to unite Chinese support for the government and its policies. However, recent actions, such as backing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, have weakened China’s global alliances and bolstered its adversaries. The emphasis on protectionism has also led to tighter control measures, including crackdowns on religion, restricted access to information, and reduced ties with foreign organizations. China’s deep suspicion of US intentions has driven it to obstruct US objectives worldwide, often at the expense of other Chinese interests. This mutual distrust has resulted in increased military and national security spending, fueling an arms race across different domains. The cycle of actions by both sides only reinforces the other’s suspicions, contributing to a worsening of their relationship.


Ending the downward trajectory in US-China relations requires joint efforts and domestic political changes in both countries. This necessitates convincing China to prioritize economic growth and development while fostering a shift in perception regarding US intentions. Despite occasional expressions of a desire to improve relations, tangible steps such as reducing tariffs, promoting academic exchanges, and reopening consulates have remained stagnant. Even the Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco in November 2023 showed no substantial change. Positive sentiments are consistently followed by increased friction, encompassing issues such as surveillance, policies in the Ukraine War, US activities in Asia, and tensions surrounding the One China Policy and Taiwan. Neither unilateral actions by the US nor acquiescence to China’s demands will resolve the tensions. While China may seek improved relations, its focus on maintaining domestic stability and countering perceived US efforts to contain it makes changing the situation challenging. China’s historical norms of protectionism and ingrained perception of malign intentions from powerful neighbors act as barriers to creating a more benign environment.


The proverbial saying in China “One hand cannot clap” highlights the importance of both the US and China adjusting their policies towards accommodation. However, this is a challenging task and the current path comes with significant costs. The key lies in three simultaneous developments: China recognizing the lasting presence of the US in Asia, the US accepting China’s internal governance as a domestic choice, and both countries prioritizing global cooperation instead of using each other for contentious policies. Unfortunately, the current prospects for such an understanding are bleak as leaders focus on portraying each other as the primary threat.


To improve the situation, the US should refrain from actions that provoke China and impede meaningful dialogue. It is important to continue prudent military exercises while minimizing provocative statements or actions. The US should make genuine efforts to address concrete issues, even if Beijing initially reacts negatively. Imposing preconditions for discussions is counterproductive, and both sides should consider taking advantage of low-hanging policy opportunities, such as reopening consulates and promoting educational exchanges. Concerning Taiwan, the US should maintain strategic ambiguity and acknowledge the diminishing credibility of the “One China Policy.” The Biden Administration’s portrayal of the global situation as a “struggle between democracy and autocracy” is unhelpful and only exacerbates tensions. While the immediate prospects for improvement may seem pessimistic, avoiding counterproductive behaviors and emphasizing cooperation can pave the way for progress in significant policy areas. Demonstrating a willingness to reduce inflammatory rhetoric and collaborate where possible can foster international cooperation and facilitate advancements in addressing transnational challenges.


By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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