The New Reality of Sino-American Relations

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The New Reality of Sino-American Relations

As part of the broader Make America Great Again agenda, the Trump administration has upended many aspects of America’s China policy.  For 25 years after the Cold War, the United States executed a strategy based on the idea that a combination of persistent engagement and prudent hedging would ultimately integrate Beijing into the American-led international order, similar to Japan or South Korea.  In recent years, however, that strategy unraveled as China became more repressive internally while growing stronger and more assertive externally.  In response, a bipartisan consensus has proclaimed that the U.S. must get serious about competing with Beijing.

International policy experts Hal Brand of Johns Hopkins University and Zack Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute have identified four basic options for resetting America’s China policy: accommodation, collective balancing, comprehensive pressure, and regime change.  These options illustrate the range of possible approaches and capture their distinct analytical logic about the nature of the “China problem” and the appropriate response.

At one extreme, Washington could seek accommodation with Beijing in hopes of striking a grand bargain and establishing a cooperative long-term relationship. 

At the other extreme, the United States could seek regime change or even precipitate a military showdown to prevent China from growing more powerful.  

However, the extreme strategies of accommodation and regime change are overly risky and likely to fail, perhaps catastrophically.  A policy of accommodation simply ensures that China will use espionage and unfair trade practices to supplant the United States and impose its own totalitarian system on all mankind. 

A policy of regime change might lead to a nuclear exchange that neither side can win or an economic battle that will seriously damage the global economy.

That means any realistic solution involves the two middle options: collective balancing and comprehensive pressure.

  • Collective balancing would rely on U.S. cooperation with allies and partners to prevent China from constructing a regional sphere-of-influence and eventually displacing the United States as the world’s leading power.  Collective balancing accepts that Chinese power is likely to expand but assumes that it is possible to prevent Beijing from using its power in destabilizing ways...

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