NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D onald Trump on the campaign trail was a big man when it came to China. Beijing, he promised, would quickly be brought to heel under a Trump administration. Trump failed to accomplish his China goals, but he is not alone in that: Barack Obama failed in much the same way, as did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, among others.
The last president to get what he wanted out of China policy was Richard Nixon, who understood that China was a threat and an annoyance to the Soviet Union and wanted to make it a bigger threat and a bigger annoyance, which he did.
One of the problems with U.S. China policy is that Washington does not seem to understand what kind of power it actually has when it comes to China.
There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of power in international relations.
The first is pure power, or hostile power. That is how international relations were largely conducted for much of human history: Henry II rules the Vexin because he has an army there, and the French can’t beat it. The flat assertion of pure power is a primitive and backward way of doing business except in extreme circumstances — but, more to the point, it is an option available to the United States on only a very limited basis. Under a variety of different administrations representing both parties and several different ideological orientations, the U.S. government has found that it can effectively execute only narrow and short-term military programs, because the American people consistently are unwilling to “pay any price and bear any burden” and turn against formerly popular wars once the bills start coming due and the body bags start coming home. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the United States has repeatedly failed to meet its objective through military action except when those objectives are narrowly tailored military outcomes, as with George H. W. Bush’s masterly performance in Desert Storm. But after a few months, Americans start talking about “nation-building at home” and demand that the money we are spending on military campaigns in faraway lands be redirected toward filling potholes in Peoria.
We failed to achieve our goals in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington knows this, and Beijing knows this. Our mighty military deterrent deters military action against us (the occasional Russian bounty on American heads notwithstanding) but does not do very much more.
The second kind of power is patron power, based on cultivating and exploiting patron-client relationships. Patron power works by offering foreign states and other overseas interests some benefit — cash aid, military guarantees, political support — and then using the threat of taking away that benefit to extort cooperation out of the client state. Here, too, the longstanding inclinations of the American people restrict the U.S. government’s real range of action. Americans are very hostile to foreign aid as such (it is a vanishingly small part of federal outlays but a political obsession among populists Right and Left) and are wary of those “entangling alliances” George Washington warned about. The U.S. government managed to exert real influence on Pakistan as a client state for much of the Cold War and got some benefit out of it, but that is more the exception than the rule. Efforts (mostly well-meaning) to make Israel into a client state have been politely declined by the Israelis, who value their relationship with the United States but do not wish to be dominated by it. In Central and South America, U.S. efforts to exert patron power have not amounted to very much, except in the case of Costa Rica and a few other bright spots.
U.S. policy toward China has gone wrong because Washington behaves as though our relationship with China were a patron-client relationship, in which the United States graciously grants Chinese firms access to U.S. markets in exchange for certain vaguely defined (and often conflicting) reforms: that China become more democratic, less aggressive, less mercantilist, etc. But countries do not trade — people do, and firms do. U.S. consumers do not buy certain Chinese goods because they believe they are doing Beijing a favor, and U.S. firms do not source goods or services from Chinese providers because they believe that they are participating in some sort of foreign-policy project. They make these choices voluntarily, for their own reasons. Trying to use tariffs or other trade restrictions to bludgeon Beijing into toeing Washington’s line fails because the U.S.–China trade relationship is not, however much the populists may insist otherwise, a gift to Beijing. Using trade policy to keep Apple or Google from effectively pursuing their corporate interests will not stop Beijing from pursuing its political interests. For decades, the U.S. government maintained a very effective blockade of Cuba, at very little cost or inconvenience to American consumers and American firms, and still failed to achieve the political outcomes Washington sought. China is much closer to being a peer than Cuba is, and what did not work on Fidel Castro is not going to work on Xi Jinping.
We do not have patron power in our relationship with China, but we do have (if we would use it) the third kind of power: peer power. This is the mortar of real-world diplomacy. Countries have things they want and things they are willing to trade, and they negotiate. This is precisely the sort of thing that the Trump administration is, in theory, supposed to be good at: the art of the deal. But the United States is, intellectually and morally, in retreat, and the diplomatic failures of the Trump administration are more a symptom of that than a cause. In reality, the contest does not stop simply because the United States is sitting on the sidelines.
Our policy toward Beijing fails because our intellectual framework for understanding U.S.–China relations is missing two pieces: Washington lacks a useful understanding of what Beijing wants, and Washington lacks a useful understanding of what Washington wants.
Because of China’s relative poverty (it has a lower GDP per capita than does Mexico) and because China’s regime stakes its legitimacy on its ability to deliver steady economic growth, Beijing still is obliged to keep a watchful eye on the balance sheet. But it has long since moved past the nickel-and-dime stage of its foreign relations. Of course China wants income and wealth. But China also wants status, with the Chinese people and their leaders seeking a place in the world that reflects the actual strength and importance of the country as they estimate it. (The blustery exaggeration of China’s leaders should not seduce us into the error of believing their hype or of believing that they believe it, either. Chairman Xi et al. probably have a pretty realistic understanding of their vulnerabilities.) Beijing’s ham-fisted efforts at using the coronavirus epidemic as part of a public-relations campaign, for example, reflects China’s status anxiety, not its economic ambitions per se. China, so poor and so backward for so long, desires to be seen not merely as a normal self-sufficient modern country (which it is not) but as a great power.
Washington has opportunities in that, but it rarely makes good use of them. There are things that Beijing wants — and things that Beijing dreads — that are subject to American influence. For example, Japan and India would like to become permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Beijing opposes this, and Washington supports it — in a lukewarm and desultory way. Beijing is much more opposed to Japan’s U.N. ascent than it is to India’s and has in the past offered to back India’s bid if India will decouple its bid from Japan’s. The United States could lean harder into Japan’s cause or stand back from it. What’s more, Japan’s ambitions in the United Nations and around the world are complicated by the fact that it is a U.S. military protectorate, a situation that suits Beijing’s interests nicely. China does not want to see a rearmed Japan with robust conventional military forces and a nuclear arsenal, along with an amended constitution empowering Japan to conduct its military and defense affairs in a more normal way. Whether that happens or does not happen is more Washington’s decision than Tokyo’s — an American drawdown from Japan would change things in China’s neighborhood practically overnight. That is a lot of leverage for Washington.
And what does Washington want? Nobody really seems to know. Sometimes, the answer is “fewer Chinese imports,” which is plainly at odds with the revealed preferences of the American people. What Washington most often seems to want is a foreign enemy to blame for the economic conditions of declining former industrial centers in the heartland, and China does nicely in that role. Washington should want a thriving, stable, and engaged China for the same reason what it should want a thriving, stable, and engaged Mexico — because that suits American interests better than does a poor, unstable, and unpredictable country that we are not, despite our apparent wishes, in a position to ignore. The United States could, through bilateral efforts and robust engagement with international institutions, pursue a policy of using the considerable power it actually enjoys in its relationship with China to bargain not for vague commitments to liberalization or openness but for concrete deliverables, for birds in the hand. But that would require a set of national principles and commitments that can survive an election.
Continuity in foreign affairs requires some continuity and consensus in domestic affairs, which cannot be had when everything is up for radical renegotiation every two years or every four years. The pursuit of consensus, political buy-in, and bipartisanship is not a question of being nice, of being Mr. Milquetoast Moderate — it is a question of creating a political situation in which the American government can actually be put to the use of the American people at home and abroad. I have been listening to American presidential candidates promise to “get tough on China” since I was a child, to no end. And in 2020, it’s more of the same.
The alternating current of populist demagoguery is not the kind of power we can use to do the work that needs to be done. The effect of 325 million spoons banging on 325 million high chairs may be a terrific racket, but don’t try to tell me it is the marching music of the “national interest.”