“My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic,” Ronald Reagan told his adviser Richard Allen in January 1977, four years before he became president.
“It is this: We win and they lose. What do you think of that?”
As the U.S. now girds for a trade war, and perhaps a new cold war, with China, it’s worth thinking through what our endgame should be now.
It can’t be Reagan’s.
The Soviet Union was always a house of cards. China is not like that. It’s a regime, but it’s also a nation and a civilization, and the three are tightly woven. It will evolve one way or another, but it’s unlikely to simply collapse.
The president has turned a trade dispute into a test of wills, and the willingness of dictatorships to let their people absorb economic blows usually exceeds the ability of democracies to do likewise.
The endgame can no longer be what presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama hoped it would: Beijing’s “peaceful rise” as an economic power and a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has behaved in increasingly nefarious ways. Domestically, it has shifted from one-party to one-man rule and become a surveillance state that locks up innocent people by the hundreds of thousands in concentration camps. Abroad, it snoops, steals, kidnaps, cheats, pollutes, undermines, corrupts, proliferates and bullies. The goal of “Xi Jinping Thought,” the party’s new official dogma, isn’t stakeholdership. It’s dominance.
China also poses an underappreciated danger. By many measures, it has already peaked. Its economy is sliding; its debt is exploding; its population is aging; its workforce is shrinking; and its most successful citizens are leaving. As China’s economic prospects dim, its taste for foreign adventures will grow.
So what should the outlines of a wise China policy be?
China can’t be defeated. It’s dangerous to provoke and too unscrupulous to appease. But it can be countered, undermined and enticed – a type of containment with off-ramps.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration, might have served as a core piece of the strategy by deepening U.S. economic ties across the region. But Trump withdrew from it in his first week of office.
Deepening military cooperation with our allies in Asia should serve as another piece of the strategy. But Trump ended large joint exercises with South Korea and has thrown shade on military ties with Japan.
Denouncing China’s human-rights abuses and championing civil rights and religious liberty would counter Xi’s efforts to entrench a cult of personality. But Trump’s administration shelved sanctions intended to punish Chinese officials for their mass incarceration of Chinese Muslims.
Worst, Trump is obsessed by our trade deficit with China, which has led to his tariffs. But tariffs are a tax on U.S. consumers, and the wrong tool to deal with China’s routine theft of intellectual property. Trump is falling down here by failing to sanction the entities or individuals doing the stealing.
The goal of the next administration should be to reverse each of these errors. It would also help if U.S. policymakers resisted the temptation to think of China as our next great enemy. As the Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff once pointed out, there’s a difference between adversaries and enemies – between those whose designs “you want to defeat” and those whose very existence “you have to destroy.”
China is now an adversary of the United States. A wise U.S. policy should treat it as one. But it should also do everything possible to keep it from becoming an enemy. Generous accommodations in trade negotiations would help: The last thing the U.S. or the world needs is a wrecked Chinese economy or a humiliated Chinese public.
How do we gradually deflect and deflate the ambitions of an immense rival power, without quite bursting them? That will be America’s central geopolitical challenge for years to come.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.