“A more competitive United States would be a stabilizing force,” said Ely Ratner, who was deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden in the Obama administration and is now executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security.
U.S. strategy should “not just be engagement or containment,” said Ratner, 42, who was among several scholars and former practitioners loosely dubbed “the younger generation” who spoke at the 21st Century China Center’s inaugural China forum.
“There will be issues,” Ratner said during a panel discussion, “where the United States will have to be confrontational — on information operations, intellectual property theft, Xinjiang Province [where China has detained at least a million Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps], on the most illiberal aspects of China’s behavior.”
To be sure, there were policy prescriptions that everyone — young, old, Republican, Democrat — agreed on, and the generational split is not absolute.
One area of agreement is that to confront the economic and security challenges posed by a rising China, the United States needs to sharply boost investments in education and advanced technology research, as well as take advantage of international alliances to bring about a desired change of behavior in Beijing.
Those proposals are undergirded by a bipartisan consensus that China poses a broad challenge — in economic, military and technological terms — that the United States cannot afford to ignore. Indeed, the Trump administration’s 2017 national security strategy declared that the United States has entered a new era of great power competition, with China and Russia as the two strategic competitors.
But the week’s proceedings also were leavened by repeated admonitions from the more seasoned hands that the relationship can be managed through dialogue and finding common ground, without verging into hostile rivalry. Their remarks also were a rebuke of the Trump administration’s more hawkish rhetoric on Beijing.
“There’s little desire for a permanent confrontation much less conflict with China,” forum co-chair Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said during a public panel on Monday. “What’s the challenge? The challenge is to be both strategic competitors and strategic cooperators at the same time — and to not let the strategic competition that we will face drive us into becoming adversaries or enemies.”
Said Hadley: “We need a competitive coexistence framework for U.S.-China relations.”
Apart from the public panel, the proceedings were conducted under rules preserving anonymity, but some participants agreed to be quoted for this article.
Jeffrey Bader, whose three-decade career in government on China issues spanned the State Department, National Security Council and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, had this lament: “What I fear right now is because of the emergence of China as a strategic foe, rival, the whole framework of engagement is being abandoned.”
He cited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is increasingly speaking out about China’s malign activities, a state department spokesman calling China a “thuggish regime” and national security adviser John Bolton asserting that China is seeking “global dominance.”
Meanwhile, several “next generation” specialists expressed a greater wariness of China’s intentions and pressed for a more muscular approach. “People in their 40s see Xi Jinping’s China as the China we have to deal with,” said Melanie Hart, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, referring to the Chinese president whose crackdown on dissent, abolition of presidential term limits, military buildup in the South China Sea, and rollback of political and market liberalization have frustrated American policymakers.
Beijing’s approach “is often zero-sum,” she said. “It aims to surpass the United States.” She said China is seeking to use its growing military power to achieve “dominance in the Indo-Pacific” and leverage its burgeoning economic and political might “to make the global system more authoritarian.”
Like Hart, Oriana Skylar Mastro, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has known China only as a rising power and advocates taking tougher measures. She painted a bleak picture of American military readiness. “In many contingencies today,” she said, the United States may “not prevail.”
If countering China’s aggression is a real priority, she mused, “why not put land bases in Vietnam? That would end the South China Sea issue.” Another participant advised that Vietnam would never allow that.
Forum co-chair Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center, warned against overreach in the fight against intellectual property theft, saying it could hound talented Chinese scientists out of the United States and lead to an “anti-Chinese version of the red scare.”
At one point, a Chinese participant quipped to the group that he preferred the “older generation” to the younger folks.
Evan Medeiros, who at 48 is a graybeard among the younger generation and who worked on China policy in the National Security Council under the Obama administration, agrees the United States should take Beijing to task for its coercive and predatory behaviors.
But he urged tolerance in the intergenerational debate. “Both sides,” he said, “could do a better job of meeting each other half way.”