Kevin Lamarque / Reuters Obama and Xi in Washington, September 2015

Did America Get China Wrong?

The Engagement Debate

The View From China

"The United States has always had an outsize sense of its ability to determine China’s course,” Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner write in their article “The China Reckoning” (March/April 2018). Of course, China here could be replaced by present-day Egypt or Venezuela, or by South Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Americans have often thought that they could alter another country to their liking and then felt frustrated when things turned out otherwise. Still, Campbell and Ratner’s self-reflection is admirable. And their counsel—that Washington should focus more on its own power and base its China policy on more realistic expectations—is worth taking seriously.

Although Campbell and Ratner have legitimate reasons to be dismayed at the direction of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, their Chinese counterparts may be equally disillusioned with, and probably more perplexed by, the United States. Some U.S. watchers in China, myself included, find the country we have studied for years increasingly unrecognizable and unpredictable. We should do our own self-reflection to examine what went wrong. Political polarization, power struggles, scandals, a lack of confidence in national establishments, tweets doubling as policy announcements, the frequent replacement of top officials in charge of foreign affairs, vacancies in important government positions—similar problems existed before, but their intensity and scope have been particularly stunning since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

The way the Trump administration is wielding U.S. power and influence is bewildering to Chinese political analysts. In recent years, Americans have often asked China to follow the “rules-based liberal international order.” Yet Washington now has abandoned or suspended some of the same rules that it used to advocate, such as those of the Paris agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It has become harder and harder for foreign-policy makers in China to discern what rules the Americans want themselves and others to abide by, what kind of world order they hope to maintain, and where Washington is on major international issues. 

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