Karl Eikenberry Discusses the Second Report of the Task Force on U.S.-China Policy and Its Recommendations for Managing the Increasingly Competitive U.S.-China Relationship


U.S. Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
U.S. Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
Photo credit: 
Daisuke Suzuki /Pool/Getty Images

Three years into the Trump administration, “the United States and the People’s Republic of China find their bilateral relationship at a dangerous crossroads,” write Orville Schell of the Asia Society and Susan Shirk of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), co-chairs of the Task Force on U.S.-China Policy, at the opening of a recently published report, Course Correction: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy. The report features the second set of findings issued by the Task Force, a group comprising China specialists from around the United States, which is convened by Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and UCSD’s 21st Century China Center and which includes Karl Eikenberry, director of APARC’s U.S.-Asia Security Initiative.

In its first report, issued in 2017, the Task Force identified the fundamental interests of the United States in its relationship with China. Since then, more stresses and strains have beset the bilateral relations between the two countries. But while “Beijing’s recent policies under Xi Jinping’s leadership are primarily driving this negative dynamic” and the “Trump administration is justified in pushing back harder against China’s actions, note Schell and Shirk, “pushback alone isn’t a strategy. It must be accompanied by the articulation of specific goals and how they can be achieved.” The new report propose a strategy to that end, which the Task Force calls “smart competition.”

APARC caught up with Ambassador Eikenberry to learn more about the report and its recommendations.

Note: the following has been edited for clarity.

How does the February 2019 report by the Task Force on U.S.-China Policy differ from its 2017 report? 

Since our Task Force’s first report was published in February 2017, the Trump Administration’s China policy has developed significantly, its defining characteristics being demonstrated in trade and economic policy and in security strategy. Our new Task Force study takes stock of the current state of U.S.-China relations and focuses on policy analysis and policy prescription. It seems clear that President Trump’s shift from a strategy of engagement to one of more explicit competition was overdue. This report suggests the best organizing principles for the management of what will likely be an increasingly competitive U.S.-China relationship in the coming years.

How does this report frame Sino-American relations?

The report underscores the fact that this is not a zero-sum game. Emphasis is placed on finding ways and means to cooperate with China when mutually advantageous—and there are many issue areas where this is or might be possible, such as climate change and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But the report also makes clear that in the domains of economic exchange, security, and political values—such as individual freedom and the primacy of the rule of law—America needs to work with like-minded allies and partners to ensure the global system that has benefitted all for over seven decades is not overturned by those seeking unilateral advantage.

Several of the report’s Task Force members were also involved in the recent China report from the Hoover Institution, Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance. Where do you think these two publications intersect and part ways?

There was some overlap among the contributors to the two reports—full disclosure, I had the opportunity to participate in both projects. I think the studies are actually complementary—the portion of Course Correction devoted to PRC overseas influence activities drew upon the findings published in Chinese Influence and American Interests.

What development is of greatest concern to you as you think about the future of Sino-American relations?

I’m most concerned about the blurring of the management of economic exchange (trade and investment issues) and security competition (which includes maintaining a technological advantage over one’s competitors). The proliferation of technologies with military applications is complicating efforts of those trying to maintain robust economic relations between China and the United States. If our economies decouple, we will have a new Cold War