Stopping the Spiral: Threat Perception and Interdependent Policy Behavior in U.S.-China Relations

A new article for The Washington Quarterly, co-authored by Thomas Fingar and David M. Lampton, investigates the drivers of Chinese policy behavior, assesses the role of U.S. policy in shaping it, and suggests steps to reduce the heightened tensions between the two superpowers.
US-China meeting at the Filoli estate prior to APEC 2023 in San Francisco U.S.-China meeting at the Filoli estate prior to APEC 2023 in San Francisco. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

U.S.-China relations have deteriorated to a level unforeseen since the early 1960s. China’s rapid military modernization, maritime posturing, and diplomatic withdrawals signal a persistent security-focused approach from Beijing. What is to be done in an era of great power competition, where policies promoting careful coexistence and reduction of tensions are deprioritized?

In a new article for The Washington Quarterly titled “China’s America Policy: Back to the Future,” co-authors Thomas Fingar, Shorenstein APARC fellow, and David M. Lampton, a senior research fellow at the Johns Hopkins—SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and a former Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at FSI, explain the current tensions through a comprehensive analysis of the historical drivers of Chinese policy. The article enhances the understanding of Chinese grand strategy and proposes a series of policy prescriptions to help reduce the dangerous externalities of the diplomatic feud between Beijing and Washington.

Unhelpful Caricatures of China

Fingar and Lampton begin the article by acknowledging that U.S. policy is an important driver of Chinese behavior. They argue that U.S. policy has often been based on inaccurate and oft-counterproductive characterizations of China.

The authors challenge reductivist portrayals of Chinese strategy as purely ideological are misleading, asserting that “describing the PRC as an autocracy means interpreting its behavior as part of an ideological crusade to preserve the regime and thwart U.S. ambitions” and that  “Beijing’s Communist Party leaders, like leaders in all countries, seek to preserve their political system, but that is not their only objective.”

Fingar and Lampton also dispute the prevailing view in Washington of China as an “unstoppable juggernaut determined — and/or destined — to displace the United States and remake the international system,” emphasizing instead that current PRC behavior is better understood as the product of perceived weakness and fragility.

To manage the current impasse, the authors suggest that Washington must avoid exacerbating the situation and must shape Chinese perceptions in a way that might facilitate a transition to a more cooperative coexistence.

The True Drivers of China’s Strategy

The authors purport that, over the centuries, China’s policy options have coalesced into one of two comprehensive approaches: one that prioritizes national and regime security, and another prioritizing economic and social development.

The first approach assumes a hostile international environment and promotes “economic autarky, tighter domestic social control, ideological conformity, a leader-in-charge approach to governance, and deep suspicion of foreigners.” The second “emphasizes the gains to be made through interdependence and openness, places less emphasis on ideology, and instead underscores the importance of experts, pragmatism, initiative and innovation.”

These two drivers, in the authors’ view, neatly explain the last century of Chinese grand strategy and frame the current administration’s emphasis on security and coercive Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.

Theories of Encirclement

The authors add that, both historically and currently, an important category of factors shaping Chinese policy is assumed subversion, that is, “persistent attitudes […] centered on suspicion and fear of outsiders (foreign countries and groups) and social forces swirling in China itself [...] Almost any action that could be negative for China is perceived as taken to weaken the regime.”

Chinese commentators often cite U.S. foreign policy activities — including Secretary of State Clinton’s statements about maritime claims at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, the Obama Administration’s 2011 “Pivot to Asia,” NATO’s and other security groupings’ involvement in Asia, and alleged U.S. efforts to foment regime change through “peaceful evolution” — as a rationale for Beijing’s increased assertiveness.

However, Fingar and Lampton see these as excuses and contributing factors to decisions primarily motivated by concerns about a perceived growing danger of domestic instability that would impede economic growth and erode regime legitimacy.

What can be done?

In the final section of the article, the authors reflect on the poor state of U.S.-China ties, arguing that “relations will spiral unless domestic factors persuade Beijing to reprioritize growth and development.” Indeed, Xi Jinping’s return to the security-minded policy package signifies a departure from the cooperative approach prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century. The authors emphasize that an escape from the current downward trajectory in U.S.-China bilateral relations “will not occur without joint efforts and a change in the domestic politics of both societies.”

For this to happen, Beijing must first perceive less hostile intent from Washington. According to the authors, this will be no easy feat. Despite common expressions of intent to improve relations and to put a “floor” under the relationship voiced at ministerial-level meetings and recent meetings between Biden and Xi, little has improved in real terms. “Even limited and tangible efforts to pick low-hanging fruit such as mutual reduction of tariffs, restoration of academic exchanges, and reopening closed consulates remain dormant or ineffective.”

For Fingar and Lampton, Washington needs an approach that does not depend on prior or simultaneous moves by Beijing. The authors provide three concrete areas that may help bolster U.S.-China ties. The first is to avoid behaviors that push “PRC hot buttons” and trigger predictable reactions that stymie meaningful dialogue. The U.S. must continue to conduct necessary and appropriate military exercises in international waters and airspace and should call out dangerous or unprofessional actions by the PLA Navy or Air Force.

To this end, the U.S. should also avoid making statements and take actions that make it difficult for Beijing to respond positively, as “many third country observers are spring-loaded to criticize US inaction to reduce tensions [...] Conversely, PRC initiatives should be treated seriously, examined carefully, and addressed appropriately.”

The second area of improvement is to avoid declaring preconditions for discussions or taking actions that may not be in U.S. interests. Such preconditions rarely, if ever, have eased or accelerated desirable outcomes, and imposing conditions further complicates the resolution of issues and indicates to third countries that the United States is solely responsible for tensions.

To start the process, the authors suggest that “both sides ought to pick some low-hanging policy fruit like reopening consulates in Houston and Chengdu and increasing mutual media access [...] Both sides should see the benefit of having more than 350 American students studying in China.”

The third and most complicated issue is Taiwan. “Taiwan-related issues are the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored, but there is nothing to be gained by abandoning the policy of strategic ambiguity or further muddying the US position,” write Fingar and Lampton.

The authors suggest that the correct response to speculation on this issue should be “restatement of the USG position that the use of force in the Taiwan Strait is unacceptable, that there will be absolutely no support for Taiwan independence unless Taipei and Beijing peacefully reach agreement, and that relations between the people of Taiwan and the United States will remain unofficial [...] Washington needs to stop nibbling around the edges of the One China Policy.”

Only when progress is made on these three areas will perceived threats to Beijing begin to diminish. In the meantime, the current U.S. and Chinese framework of great power competition that “justifies efforts to hobble the other, is harmful to both countries and impedes international efforts to address global challenges.”

The authors deploy the “first law of holes” as a good place to start: “When you are in a hole as we are now in the relationship with China, stop digging. Making things worse is a poor way to seek improvement.” A reduction in tensions will not be easy, but tangible and modest measures to avoid hostility and work toward bounded competition and even cooperation on transnational challenge areas like pandemic disease and climate change mitigation should remain a possibility. 

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