Kevin Lamarque / Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a response from Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 7, 2013.  

Bucking Beijing

An Alternative U.S. China Policy

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In contrast to its Cold War strategy of containment, Washington's current approach to China is not the product of a deliberate planning process. It is nowhere codified in official documents. Indeed, it does not even have a name. Still, for the better part of two decades, the United States has pursued a broadly consistent two-pronged strategy combining engagement and balancing. 

U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama have worked to engage China through diplomacy, trade, scientific cooperation, and educational and cultural exchange. Since the mid-1990s, successive administrations have also taken steps to maintain a favorable balance of power in East Asia. As China has grown stronger, the United States has bolstered its own military capabilities in the region, enhanced its strategic cooperation with traditional allies, and built new partnerships with other countries that share its concerns, such as India and Singapore.

The engagement half of this strategy has been geared toward enmeshing China in global trade and international institutions, discouraging it from challenging the status quo, and giving it incentives to become what the George W. Bush administration termed a "responsible stakeholder" in the existing international system. Although U.S. policymakers have grown more circumspect in recent years, they have long hoped that trade and dialogue would help eventually transform China into a liberal democracy. The other half of Washington's China strategy, the balancing half, has looked to maintain stability and deter aggression or attempts at coercion while engagement works its magic.

Recent events have raised serious doubts about both elements of this strategy. Decades of trade and talk have not hastened China's political liberalization. Indeed, the last few years have been marked by an intensified crackdown on domestic dissent. At the same time, the much-touted economic relationship between the two Pacific powers has become a major source of friction. And despite hopes for enhanced cooperation, Beijing has actually done very little to help Washington solve pressing international problems, such as North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons or

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