The United States and China have had full diplomatic relations for exactly 40 years. There’s been little time to celebrate, given the continued U.S. economic pressure on Beijing — including over $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports. But in November, President Trump announced a forthcoming U.S. trade deal, with China ostensibly agreeing to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance and eliminate discrimination against foreign firms.

These policies suggest an intensification of a traditional U.S. strategy to pressure China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, and behave in accordance with U.S. preferences. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration’s goal “is not pursuing a cold war or containment policy with China,” but rather “to make sure China acts responsibly and fairly.”

What does that mean, exactly? Over the past four decades, U.S. strategy toward China has combined military deterrence and economic inducements – essentially a threat to impose costs for “bad” behavior, while rewarding Beijing’s cooperation.

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Vigorous measures to induce short-term Chinese cooperation involve a stark tradeoff, however: They prevent American policymakers from discerning China’s long-term intentions. And that’s a problem, insofar as it hinders the United States from developing a coherent long-term foreign policy strategy toward China.

Twin U.S. policy goals: constraining China while figuring out its intentions

The United States has long attempted to constrain China to act in accordance with U.S. preferences. The U.S. deters Chinese military coercion through security guarantees to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, for example, and promotes Chinese compliance with international economic rules by allowing China to benefit asymmetrically from participating in institutions like the WTO.

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At the same time, policymakers and scholars look to China’s foreign policy behaviors for information about China’s likely future intentions — specifically, whether China is a “benign” rising state, or a “hostile” state that will reshape the international order against U.S. interests.

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This question is profoundly important for U.S. foreign policy — what policymakers believe about China’s intentions determines the relative wisdom of a mutually-beneficial “engagement” strategy that facilitates China’s rise, versus a competitive “containment” strategy that suppresses China’s power gains.

Why does constraining China make it hard to learn its intentions?

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My research shows that these two goals of U.S. foreign policy — inducing short-term Chinese cooperation, and identifying China’s long-term intentions — are at odds. The threat of punishment vs. promise of rewards gives China strong incentives for short-term cooperation, even if Beijing’s vision for the global order differs radically from the U.S. view. Cooperation allows China to continue to gain power, which it could then use to get what it wants in the future at Washington’s expense.

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However, even a hostile China could be induced to behave cooperatively in the short run, making it difficult for other countries to learn what China really wants. This is because both a benign China that shares U.S. goals and a hostile China with very different aims would send similarly cooperative signals.

Policymakers thus face a choice between inducing cooperative behavior from China today, and figuring out China’s intentions for the future, when it will have become powerful enough that the United States can no longer constrain its behavior. The Trump administration, like its predecessors, has opted for policies that achieve the former goal at the expense of the latter.

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What do U.S. policymakers believe about China’s intentions?

There is a vigorous debate within the U.S. foreign policy community about China’s foreign policy goals. Although some experts acknowledge that China’s long-term intentions are ambiguous, policy experts tend to be either “optimists” with high confidence that Chinese and American goals are largely compatible, or “pessimists” who are adamant that China will undermine U.S. interests as it rises.

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The Trump administration falls in the pessimist camp. The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy characterizes China as a “revisionist power” that “want[s] to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” and is “attempting to erode American security and prosperity” – claims that were echoed in recent statements by Vice President Mike Pence.

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But many scholars note a lack of evidence that Chinese and U.S. interests conflict. Indeed, China has remained largely cooperative in complying with the existing international order – and embraced a high degree of economic interdependence with the U.S. and its allies. Even recent Chinese initiatives, including the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, have so far served to augment the existing rules and norms of the U.S.-led order, rather than challenge them.

Yet given the policies of past and current U.S. administrations toward China, this broad cooperation hasn’t told us much about China’s long-term intentions. This ambiguity is reflected in the collective uncertainty of the U.S. foreign policy community about the compatibility of U.S. and Chinese national interests.

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How can we gain more insights into China’s intentions?

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My work identifies an alternative U.S. strategy toward China, one that would give Washington more long-term information, while risking a loss of short-term cooperation. This strategy is one of selective retrenchment: Relaxing constraints over China’s behavior on issues of high importance to China, but relatively low importance to the U.S., would provide a window into China’s future intentions on other issues.

Here’s how selective retrenchment might work, on two topics much in the news: Taiwan and the South China Sea. Advocates of retrenchment argue that the U.S. could draw down military deployments in these areas, yet continue to bolster vital commitments to Japan and South Korea through strong diplomatic signals and targeted military investments.

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My argument implies that China’s cooperative actions under lower U.S. constraints, such as continued support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or restraint regarding Taiwan, would be more credible signals of its benign intentions more generally. This logic also applies to removing constraints over China’s behavior in regional economic institutions.

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There’s a crucial caveat – my argument does not imply that retrenchment on any particular issue is necessarily superior to the current U.S. policy. For example, the risks of allowing China to unilaterally control the South China Sea may be prohibitive, jeopardizing maritime commerce, U.S. credibility or valuable institutional advantages.

But it’s important to acknowledge the informational tradeoff of constraining China’s immediate behavior. If the benefits of inducing China to cooperate in the present are deemed too great to risk, then policymakers face a significant degree of uncertainty about China’s intentions in the future.

Brandon K. Yoder is a research fellow with the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His research centers on international relations theory and the politics of China and East Asia.

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