Sino-US engagement was never ‘normal,’ but it wasn’t a failure either
At the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China and the ensuing normalization of Sino-American relations, it has become a truism in some quarters to assert that the entire enterprise was a colossal failure.
Many observers now argue that the strategic or economic rationales for normalization were never that strong or beneficial to begin with, or that seeking virtually any positive outcomes from engaging with China economically or otherwise was quixotic and self-destructive. For Beijing, we are told, normalization and engagement with the West were simply mechanisms for strengthening China and lulling the United States into a false sense of security, in order to replace the U.S. as the paramount military power in Asia and the world, and to overturn the so-called global liberal and free market order.
In accordance with this view, some observers even argue that Washington should have foregone normalization and continued its crude Cold War containment policy to prevent China from accessing the U.S. and global market and thereby acquiring the means to build up its military and economic prowess.
The complex reality of an “abnormal” relationship
On the contrary, normalization and the U.S. engagement policy with China that formed its core have not been abject failures, but rather a significant, if qualified, success. Sino-U.S. normalization resulted from the convergence of fundamental Sino-American strategic and economic interests, along with the overdue recognition by Nixon and other American leaders that it made little sense to continue to attempt to prevent a nation of over 800 million people from participating in the world. Foremost among these interests were the use of China as leverage against the Soviet Union, the facilitation of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the provision of U.S. access to the Chinese market, and the integration of China into an array of multilateral institutions. U.S. policymakers never measured the success of this effort in terms of how far the U.S could move China toward a liberal democratic system, as some now contend.
These goals were achieved, to varying degrees. China’s reform-driven development has contributed substantially to overall global growth. Trade with China has produced a net increase in jobs and wages and affordable, quality consumer products in the U.S. and many other countries. While Beijing has stolen U.S. technologies and commercial secrets, Chinese investments in, and technical exchanges with, the United States have also contributed significantly to the development of cutting-edge U.S. technologies.
In addition, Beijing has provided critical diplomatic and political assistance, albeit not always as much as Washington has desired, in addressing such global problems such as terrorism, WMD proliferation, natural disasters, and pandemics. And a Sino-U.S. understanding regarding Taiwan that made normalization possible in the first place has provided prosperity and freedom for that island for decades.
At the same time, Sino-U.S. normalization has certainly not produced unqualified successes. Strong differences and resulting tensions have either continued from the pre-1972 era, or emerged after normalization, over Taiwan, trade and investment issues, cyberattacks, military behavior in the Western Pacific, human rights, policies toward North Korea, regional maritime disputes involving China and U.S. allies or partners, and a host of other issues.
As a result, the relationship has at times lurched between periods of relative optimism and progress, with an emphasis on common interests, and periods of pessimism and rivalry, often driven by major events that served to push leaders and publics in either direction. These include everything from the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and the 911 attacks on America, to the 2008 global financial crisis, to the more recent Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
What this suggests is that Sino-U.S. normalization was never entirely “normal,” if normalcy is defined as relatively routine and stable relations sustained by adroit diplomacy, mutual respect, and the pragmatic working out of differences. Such features have certainly existed to some degree at various times. But the relationship has always involved a complex mix of cooperation and competition, driven by both pragmatism and ideology. Despite this, the underlying impetus on both sides was alway to maximize benefits and minimize costs or threats, not to clearly dominate the other side or provoke it into full-scale hostility, nor to entice or coerce it to adopt one’s own system. This impetus remains today.
A new basis for normalization and engagement
Today we are obviously witnessing a more uniformly rivalrous and ideological Sino-U.S. relationship. But this situation has not developed due to the emergence of the same forms of rivalry and competition that marked the Cold War era, as some contend. And it is not inevitable. Intensified Sino-American rivalry is occurring within a changed global environment posing both new and old challenges and opportunities, a much deeper level of interdependence among nations, and hence a far more diffuse and cross-cutting set of incentives for both the U.S. and China than existed during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War.
Unlike the former Soviet Union, China is now engaged in every region of the world as a major trader, investor, technology innovator, and provider of development assistance, often to the benefit of many countries. These strengths have given Beijing a much greater voice in Asian and global policy fora and created strong incentives among many countries, including the United States, to sustain positive relations with China. They have also contributed greatly to a process of globalization that has produced a far more interdependent, heterodox, and multi-dimensional world.
At the same time, Beijing’s greater power and influence challenge some existing international norms and practices championed by the West, and its actions in some areas (such as trade) have violated its own commitments. China under Xi Jinping has clearly become more domestically repressive and internationally assertive (though the latter is not always negative). In addition, the rapidly growing Chinese economy has allowed Beijing to produce a potent set of military capabilities that are ending the military predominance that the United States had sustained in the Western Pacific for seven decades.
China’s complex, growing impact demands an effective response, but not one that denies the clear benefits of normalization and exaggerates the threat China poses, a view we see so frequently in Washington and elsewhere. Moreover, the solution to the China challenge should not involve U.S. efforts to sustain its post-WWII economic and military dominance, nor to rope allies and partners into opposition to China.
While still overall the most powerful nation in the world, the United States can no longer afford, both politically and financially, to pour untold additional resources in a futile attempt to regain its military primacy in Asia. And even if possible, it is by no means clear that such an outcome would stabilize the region, given China’s clear capacity to continue countering such U.S. efforts. This would likely produce an intensifying arms race, a heightened likelihood of crises over Taiwan or maritime disputes, and growing tensions with U.S. allies and friends over willingness to confront China via such extreme means. The Biden administration says that it will not compel countries to choose between Beijing and Washington, but their recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy suggests otherwise. What is required in Asia is a stable balance, which in turn requires a more positive-sum relationship with Beijing.
Moreover, the U.S. also no longer enjoys the international admiration that it arguably possessed (at least in the West and parts of the developing world) during the Cold War. High levels of economic inequality, political polarization and dysfunction, extensive programs of torture and illegal surveillance, and the unsanctioned invasion of sovereign foreign countries during the so-called Global War on Terrorism have undermined its international reputation. The U.S. will almost certainly not return to its past level of power and influence, given the growing multipolarity of the global order, economic constraints, and the unpredictability of U.S. policies for other nations.
Adding to this complex reality is the fact that common, transnational threats now exert an unprecedented impact across the world, first and foremost, climate change, followed by pandemics, WMD proliferation, and economic instability. These challenges pose far greater threats to the United States and other nations than the threats presented by the rise of China. They make it absolutely imperative for Beijing and Washington to develop a less intensely competitive, zero-sum relationship.
Finally, in this context, most nations are today motivated more by a desire for autonomy and continued economic and social progress through shifting associations than for alignment with Beijing or Washington in pursuit of a polarized, Cold War-style world. This suggests that framing the major dynamic operating in the world today as “great power competition” or the “struggle between democracy and authoritarianism,” as the Biden administration does, or as “a struggle for the victory of socialism” as the Xi Jinping government does, constitute the primary distractions confronting the world, not China’s efforts to use normalization and engagement to tranquilize the West.
A new strategic incentive but a difficult road ahead
All these fundamental features of today’s world mean that despite strong ideological, policy, and power differences, genuinely productive forms of Sino-U.S. engagement must and can continue. Foremost among these is indeed the overriding strategic necessity to greatly strengthen the global response to the existential threat posed by climate change. In this sense, one strategic imperative driving normalization (counter-balancing the Soviet Union) has now been replaced by another (dealing with climate change). Great power competition must not be allowed to eclipse this new strategic imperative and dominate how the two sides engage.
Sustaining or building the benefits of Sino-U.S. normalization and engagement will not be easy, nor the path forward obvious. It will probably require more pragmatic leadership than we now have in either capital, and a clearer willingness to set priorities, define red lines, create limits on rivalry, build incentives for cooperation, and undertake credible assurances to avert decoupling and conflict. Even under the best of circumstances, the future relationship will not be free from dangers. But it can certainly avoid the worst case fears of a future of virtually unqualified “intense competition” and hostility that is offered by many in and out of the U.S. and Chinese governments.