American ‘China watchers’ are debating US policy: The Gulf should watch closely

Mohammed Al-Sudairi

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Over the past few years, and against the backdrop of mounting tensions between the United States and China over a range of political, economic, technological and military issues, American attitudes to China have changed. Among political, academic, and business elites, as well as the experts and analysts known as “China watchers,” the narrative has hardened. The once-prevailing narrative of an inevitable Chinese transition towards political democratization and liberalization has yielded to language that increasingly identifies China as a technologically advanced authoritarian “strategic competitor,” a Cold War-style political and ideological rival to the United States, and even an all-encompassing racial-civilizational threat to the West.

This shift in collective attitude has been accompanied by a debate over how to respond to China’s rise. Among “China watchers,” two clusters of opinion have emerged. The first, which increasingly perceives itself as a marginalized voice in Washington, advocates returning to a more cooperative form of engagement with Beijing to help mend Sino-American relations in light of the trade war, perceptions of unfettered Chinese technology theft, disputes over Hong Kong and Taiwan, and China’s expanding military footprint in the South China Sea. This approach is epitomized by an open letter to the Trump administration titled “China is not an enemy,” signed by Susan Thornton, Michael Swaine and Ezra Vogel among others in July.

The letter’s signatories argue that while China has taken a disconcerting and harmful policy route under Xi Jinping, “many US actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.” These US actions stem from a fundamental misreading of China’s intentions – as an aggressive and confrontational power - and an exaggeration of its current and future capacities. According to the letter, the Trump administration’s zero-sum confrontational approach is not only ineffective, but risks decoupling the two powers technologically and economically – a disastrous scenario. It also risks empowering Chinese nationalists at the expense of pragmatic voices in the Chinese political elite. The letter concludes by calling for a strategy “based on a realistic appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behavior,” greater attention to coalition-building on the basis of shared security and economic interests, and a focus on domestic reform.

The letter, guardedly well received by Chinese media, prompted criticism from other “China watchers.” These critics are the second, more skeptical cluster of analysts. They consider cooperative engagement with China as having been excessively permissive and not sufficiently attentive to the threat it poses to the United States and its allies across different sectors. In addition, they are more vocal about the deterioration of human rights in China. These are not necessarily supporters of the current approach adopted by the Trump administration towards China, but see its tougher and more confrontational stance as a step in the right direction.

In a Washington Post editorial, journalist and author of a book on US-China relations John Pomfret claimed the letter’s signatories misunderstand how the Chinese Communist Party operates, misled by a “romantic” attitude to China. The deterioration in Sino-American relations it not just the result of the “easy to criticize” Trump administration, says Pomfret, but a consequence of long-term generally cooperative strategies, some of which were advocated by the signatories of the letter themselves. Engagement has only emboldened Chinese leaders, who do not respond to “kinder, gentler policy.”

Bill Bishop, another well-known expert on Chinese affairs and author of the Sinocism blog, criticized the letter on similar grounds. The signatories failed to consider that the Chinese political system is “open to coercion but not persuasion,” and has no dovish or pragmatic strands. China’s leadership interprets an American conciliatory stance as weakness. Therefore, continuing a non-adversarial and cooperative approach will only reward further bad behavior from Beijing: The US needs to take a tougher approach in its management of Sino-American relations.

The most dismissive criticism of advocates of engagement, even prior to the publishing of the public letter, came from Tanner Greer on his blog The Scholar’s Stage, in a post titled “Give No Heed to the Walking Dead.” Stating that “Engagement is dead,” Greer argues that the cooperative policy has failed and commentators who had advocated it were no longer relevant to the challenge of dealing with an ideologically-charged rival such as China.

While the two clusters of “China watchers” disagree over “who got China wrong,” whether engagement has failed, and the extent to which China constitutes an existential challenge to the United States, they do agree on some points. Both clusters are critical of recent domestic and foreign developments in China, and recognize that a more effective American-led multilateral approach is needed to check Beijing’s worst excesses.

At its core, the debate points to the pronounced shift taking place in how American “China watchers” and other elites are thinking about China, defined by an overall hardening of attitudes and a skepticism over Beijing’s intentions and ambitions. This shift, which has its origins in the late Obama years, is fundamental and long-term. While facilitated by the Trump administration and its hawkish rhetoric and stances, this debate predates it. The shift in thinking will potentially play a decisive role in shaping the course of Sino-American relations for many years, if not decades, to come.

Sino-American relations have a global impact. For us in the Arabian Gulf, situated between our long-standing security partnership with the United States on the one hand, and a growing strategic relationship with China on the other, the future trajectory of Sino-American relations will have an immediate impact on our national security and strategic calculations. While a sustained negative turn in Sino-American relations might offer us room to pursue more multilateral and diversified foreign policies, it could also prove to be detrimental to the broader security environment in which the Gulf is embedded. Technological decoupling between the two powers might impose, over the long-run, an unanticipated cost to our national security. The outcome of these debates is therefore crucial. It would do us well to follow developments in thinking – both in Washington and in Beijing – and to prepare accordingly.


Mohammed Al-Sudairi is a Non-Resident Senior Researcher and the Head of the Asian Studies Unit at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

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