The history of the last several decades suggests that we have very limited capacity to encourage positive change in China, certainly not by offering yet more rewards and inducements. We need to deal with China as it is, not how we might wish it to be.
But for that reason, we need to acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, the prospects for meaningful cooperation are very limited and conciliatory gestures risk being perceived as signs of weakness.
Notwithstanding their various anxieties and concerns, at least for the moment, the China Communist Party (CCP) leadership believes they have the wind at their backs and that history is on their side. They are going to continue to push and, unless we choose to give way, a period of intensifying rivalry is thus inevitable.
A second point that should be obvious but bears repeating: our prospects in this rivalry will be greatly enhanced if we can find ways to cooperate more effectively with our democratic friends and allies.
Both in Asia and in Europe, there is a growing awareness of the challenge China poses across multiple fronts and of the need to find an effective response.
Looking ahead, our strategy will have to be two parts defensive and one part offensive. First, and perhaps most obvious: together with our friends and allies, we will need to work harder to counter Beijing’s attempts to expand its influence through coercion and subversion.
In the Indo-Pacific region this is, at root, a problem of military planning and collective defence. Our top priority must be devising, articulating, funding, and implementing a set of operational concepts that visibly offset China’s investments in anti-access/area denial capabilities. This is essential to the continuing credibility of our security commitments and therefore to the durability of our regional alliances.
Both in the region and beyond, especially in the developing world, we will need to work with others to limit the harmful effects of China’s closely linked investment and political influence operations, especially under the auspices of its so-called Belt and Road Initiative. Here the emphasis must be on economic statecraft, diplomacy, and public information, rather than military means.
But here again we need a strategy to help set priorities and to discipline and focus our actions. We should not, and cannot afford to, oppose everything China is trying to do in this domain. Not so much because some of it may have benefits for local populations (although that is possible), but because much of it will likely turn out to be economically wasteful and strategically counterproductive for Beijing. We shouldn’t do things that have the effect of shielding them from the consequences of their own mistakes.
Exposing the risks and problems associated with Chinese investment is useful. But we can’t beat something with nothing. Here the BUILD Act is a step in the right direction.
At the same time as we seek to block some of the many vectors of China’s outward expansion we, together with our friends and allies, are going to have to find ways of better protecting our own societies, economies and political systems from exploitation and manipulation. In sum, we are going to have to modulate and constrict certain aspects of our economic and societal engagement with China. This is a difficult problem and one that we have only begun to wrestle with. Among the questions that need to be addressed are: how can we do this without imposing greater costs on ourselves than on our competitors? And how can we do it without sacrificing the openness that has historically been our greatest source of strength?
The toughest challenge we and the other advanced industrial nations face in this regard is figuring out exactly where and to what extent we should seek to disentangle or decouple our economies from China’s. This process is already well underway, and largely at China’s instigation. We need to reexamine all aspects of our economic relationship, including but not limited to those related to the development of new technologies that may have military as well as commercial applications.
Third and finally: we cannot afford to remain entirely on the defensive in our evolving competition with China. We need to find ways to illuminate the brutal and corrupt character of the CCP regime and to impose costs on it for its egregious and harmful behaviour, both at home and abroad.
The proximate aim of our new strategy must be not to change the character of the CCP regime but to protect ourselves against it. We need to demonstrate to China’s current rulers that they cannot succeed if they continue along their present path. In the process, it is possible that we could help to set in motion forces that will lead eventually to meaningful change.
We should certainly not overlook or do anything to foreclose this possibility. But, because the regime now has confidence and a good deal of momentum behind it, this is going to take time.
Aaron L. Friedberg, Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University. This commentary is an excerpt from the statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States.