Expert Voices: Robert Sutter
China scholar Robert Sutter talks to CACR about congressional China policy, the Trump administration's impact on the US approach to China, and China's global influence. This interview is edited for clarity and length.
Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University (2011-Present ). He also served as Director of the School’s main undergraduate program involving over 2,000 students from 2013-2019. His earlier full-time position was Visiting Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University (2001-2011).
A Ph.D. graduate in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University, Sutter has published 22 books (four with multiple editions), over 300 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States. His most recent book is Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy of an Emerging Global Force, Fifth Edition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Sutter’s government career (1968-2001) saw service as senior specialist and director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service, the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the US Government’s National Intelligence Council, the China division director at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
You’ve argued that Congress is an important driving force in US China policy today. Can you explain why that is? Why is Congress at the historical apex of its influence on China policy?
Well, I think I wouldn’t characterize it as the historical apex of its influence, but it has more influence on China policy than at any time in American history. What has happened here in Washington in the last four and a half years is the coming together of bipartisan majorities in the Congress to cooperate closely with a hard-line policy toward China from Trump administration officials– I wouldn’t say Mr. Trump necessarily– and carried over with the Biden administration. This began in 2017 with the national security strategy of the Trump administration, and then the majorities in Congress agreed to it. Mr Trump, as you know, would vacillate, but several of his people were consistently hard toward China.
The policy itself was accepted here in Washington by these majorities in Congress and the administration, but it was a very narrow acceptance. The country didn’t have any idea what was going on, and the media didn’t capture this at all in 2018. And so what happened with Congress is that it continued seeking a whole-of-government effort against the multifaceted challenges posed by China. This showed itself in the middle of 2018 with a very important law, the National Defense Authorization Act, that had all sorts of provisions targeting China, and it continued thereafter.
In 2019, the Democratic candidates running for president hardly said anything about China. Joseph Biden was not concerned about China, for example, and yet the Congress kept at this. Mr. Trump and his people moderated their approach to China to some degree in 2019 as they were carrying out their trade negotiations with the Chinese. You didn’t really get a uniform hard policy until 2020, when public opinion swung heavily against China and the mainstream media swung against China. But throughout this period, Congress has kept at it. The bipartisan majorities in congress have been much more consistent, and I think much more important, going forward.
And so Joseph Biden is now very much in line with these majorities in Congress in his views. His views in 2019 were not in line with those concerns. This gives me a lot of confidence that a hard policy toward China will continue, because these majorities in Congress want this. Regardless of who’s in the White House, I think it’s going to continue, and that’s what I argue in various publications.
Was this extraordinary hardening towards China inevitable? Is it a result of China’s rise and the forces of international relations when our primacy is challenged, or did it arise somewhat in response to chance and random events? For example, you said that the Trump administration moderated its approach somewhat in 2019 and made some gains on trade, but then in 2020 a pandemic began, Trump’s rhetoric on China changed completely, and there was a blitz of Trump administration initiatives to crack down on China.
Your question focuses on the erratic behavior of President Trump, and that’s accurate, you’re right about that. And is this situation-dependent? Yes. I think with him, it is. But many of his people didn’t feel that way and were very concerned about China.
The real issue is, what are these challenges that China poses to the United States in a variety of different ways that are just grossly out of line? It’s a malign regime in many, many ways, and it’s strictly out for itself. It’s going to lead to an order which is very devastating and very bad for the United States and other countries that are concerned with a more benign international order. And I’ve tried to enumerate this in various ways, so the concern here is that the Chinese have now manipulated and used various nefarious practices in economics, in military matters, in diplomacy, and so forth. This is the challenge. It is a whole series of challenges for the United States. And Congress saw this in 2018. They were very clear about this.
What does it boil down to? Number one, China wants to expand at others’ expense in Asia. And that’s what it’s doing. Are you going to let that continue? Is it a good thing if that continues and the Japanese and Taiwan and Vietnam and Malaysia and South Korea and others just have to knuckle under in the face of this aggression? I don’t think so. I think that’s bad. It’s bad for the order, and it’s certainly bad for the United States.
The second set of challenges has to do with economics. You have a country that’s employing state-directed economic practices to mobilize their resources in ways that wipe out competitors, and they do this very effectively. This is not a free enterprise system. This gives small countries very little opportunity to do anything, and it’s really a challenge to the United States. If they become the leading force in high technology, which they’re striving really hard to do and putting all their state power behind it, this is not the free enterprise system, this isn’t even Japan Incorporated, this is much, much worse than that. And so this is the order we’re going to have: China will dominate, and whenever China wants something, they will get it, and the rest of the world will just have to say, too bad. Is that good? I think that’s very bad, for a whole host of reasons, and it’s certainly bad for the United States.
And then we have governance. Look at what the Chinese do in governance. They carry out all sorts of unconventional ways of leveraging power, and they’re constantly leveraging power in order to get what they want. And this is the key question that we don’t know the answer to. What do they want? I’m a practical person, and I’ve worked on China for a long time, and I haven’t figured out what they want, and I don’t think they have either. What they want is more. And this will come at the expense of many other people, many other countries. It will come at others’ expense in a gross way. This is not a good thing. It’s not a good thing for the United States, obviously, and Congress sees this. The majorities in Congress collectively see this governance, economic, and security challenge. And they say, we’ve got to have a whole-of-government approach to deal with this. And what’s the cause of this? Chinese practices and Chinese regime behavior. They’re not rising in a way that other powers rise; they’re out to conquer. Some say they’re not aggressive, but they sure are aggressive, in a whole host of ways. On the economic side, it’s predatory. It’s a predatory system. So I agree with the Congress on this. I think they’re right. These are fundamental challenges.
Are there any developments that could change China’s very aggressive practices? A change in the regime, a change in leadership, or a change in the policy inclinations of the leadership in Beijing?
I think you need an international effort to show China that the costs of these efforts are going to be too high. I think the US should lead that effort. And that’s what Mr. Biden says he’s going to do, and Mr. Trump, in his own way, sort of said this too. Certainly his strategy said this, that this is dangerous, this is bad for the world, it’s bad for us, and it’s bad to the point that we have to defend against it, we have to make sacrifices in order to deal with this situation. I think that would work, I think that can be done, but it’s going to be a long struggle.
You mentioned that you think this Washington consensus is going to continue– this very, very strong congressional coalition that advocates a hard line on China. But there are also political forces, albeit a minority in America, that incline towards isolationism or accommodation with China. You mentioned that it doesn’t really matter who’s in the White House, because this congressional majority is going to be so strong, but do you think that our China policy is still going to be consistent if any of these figures rise to power?
It’s a very good question, and I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression that it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House as far as China policy is concerned. My point is that Congress constrains the executive branch. If they try to move in a direction that’s significantly deviant from what Congress has been advocating, I think that’s going to be a very difficult thing for the administration to do. They could do it, because the Constitution gives the power to the president in foreign affairs, but nonetheless, I think that the influence of Congress is very strong.
As to your question, I’m watching this closely. I’m trying to figure out if there are these kinds of trends. I look at Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and various other people of the liberal persuasion, [and they] have been very much concerned with China for a number of reasons. So you’re right about this isolationist sentiment, and it is probably the most likely to cause a pause or some sort of change in policy toward China, but you don’t see it very much. For example, you saw it even with Putin in Ukraine to some degree, you saw some commentators saying, oh, we shouldn’t be involved, this type of thing. You noticed they’re quiet now– that hasn’t worked out very well– but what you find is that this is sort of a lead out from the America First point of view that’s common among members in the Republican party. Mr. Trump is a leader of this kind of thinking. America First could lead to the kind of isolationism you’re talking about. When I look at these various political meetings, the CPAC meeting and other meetings, what you see, however, is that the people who are America First are very anti-China, so that hasn’t really seeped in there. I’m not sure what they would be prepared to do. If an America First candidate wins the presidency, this would complicate the ability of the United States to muster international support against China. These individuals, like Mr. Trump, disparage US alliances, and US alliances are essential to this effort. If you don’t have these alliances, you won’t have a united front in dealing with China, and you’ll be in a much weaker position. So I think that’s something that needs to be watched carefully, and I’m not sure what Congress can do to stop that, but I think they would try. There would be a sentiment that something had to be done about this.
And I should of course have mentioned that Trump can be re-elected, and he certainly had an isolationist streak and his famous unpredictability and penchant for alienating our partners and allies in Asia and elsewhere. So you’ve talked about how we can try to change China’s practices, marshaling international support and making sacrifices–
If I could intervene, it isn’t so much how we can change China, the issue is, how do we protect ourselves? That’s the immediate issue. And there’s so much thought about, what should our strategy toward China be, what should we do that’s going to work for China over the long haul– no. We need to focus on defending America. And we don’t do enough of that. We get all wrapped up in trying to figure out what to do with China, and that’s a big mistake right now. Because it takes attention away from how the Chinese are manipulating us, how the Chinese are penetrating us. We need to protect America, and that’s against Chinese challenges, and that’s what Congress I think agrees with. I think if we as specialists focused on this more, then we would avoid these elaborate constructs of what our China policy should be and have a much more realistic approach in dealing with the dangers that we face, and that’s what I think needs to be given more attention.
You mentioned that Congress has been very gung-ho about these issues. What more would you like to see Congress and the administration doing?
Well, I think Mr. Biden needs to have an effective strategy. I know he’s coming up with one, which has been a long time in coming, and I understand the problems involved, and I think this is a complicated process, but I think it needs to be done. And so some choices will have to be made. For example, you talked about the constituents that are wary of a tougher approach to China, and I view them somewhat differently than what you described as the extreme left and extreme right, although I think those are elements that you need to consider. I think the main area is business. I think businesses that are involved with China don’t want to jeopardize their interests there. How do you have a firm, tough approach to China when you don’t want to employ your economic relationship, you don’t want to jeopardize that in any way? And China is notorious for punishing people for even doing small political things by exercising their economic power. So how do you incorporate them? And then how do you incorporate people like at my university and others and in high-tech companies that are so integrated with the Chinese and their global interests and have many interactions aimed at innovation that involve specialists from China? How do you integrate them into your strategy in a way that’s going to be effective? For example, if we put tens of billions of dollars into high-tech development to come up with innovation, and the innovation is the result of high collaboration with various foreign entities, including many in China, how are we going to be sure that the tens of billions of dollars don’t go to products that will come into the hands of the Chinese authorities very quickly? It’s a big dilemma. And then we have a lot of China specialists who think that the China danger is exaggerated and that the approach that we’re pursuing with China is wrong, so how do you bring them along? So I think it’s tough, but without the strategy and without a clear effort, we’re going to be much weaker as a result. The administration seems to understand this, and I hope they have come up with a strategy that can be implemented effectively and will rally the support of various entities in the United States and prove effective internationally in dealing with these challenges posed by China.
I noticed recently that the Biden administration has been making a lot of noise about reducing the tariffs that remain extant on Chinese imports because of the inflation issue. Could unforeseen events that pop up domestically and internationally, like inflation and Ukraine, cause the administration or Congress to alter their hardline policies on China, like we may already be seeing in the economic realm? Is there any chance that unpredictable developments could affect the Washington consensus in the coming years? Or do you think that the forces that are pushing it forward are so strong that the coming years will see a continued hardening towards China?
I think it’s a hard thing to predict, and all sorts of things could happen. Who predicted the pandemic? So yes, obviously, there could be these developments. But I look at two things that are most important. One, will Xi Jinping's China continue to do what they’re doing? They have been. I think this is a key element that we need to think about in looking at where the US-China relationship might go. I think of course leadership changes in the United States could be very important as well, but I think the key issue on the US side is this sense of urgency. I saw this in the Congress beginning in 2018. It came out from people like Elizabeth Warren, like Patrick Leahy, like of course Mr. Rubio in the Senate, but also people like Mark Warner, my senator from Virginia. I pay a lot of attention to him and what he says about China because I think he’s very well-informed and very moderate, and he’s very alarmed about China. The challenge is seen as an urgent one that needs action, and Congress is determined to take these actions. The trouble with Congress is that it’s not very good at doing a strategy. The members deal with issues piecemeal. The commercial people look at commercial things, the agricultural people look at agricultural things, and so on. It’s all sort of a hodgepodge. But they’re all trying to do something about these challenges that they face in these areas. So if this sense of urgency were to subside in some way and be offset by a major distraction, then that would weaken this so-called Washington consensus. But I haven’t seen anything that shows that yet.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine was a good test. I have seen nothing that shows significant change in attitudes towards China as a result of the Ukraine war. In fact, I think it’s reinforced the negative view in the United States about China because of its alignment with Putin in so many ways. Other things could happen that I can’t predict at this point, but I think those would have to be big things, not something small. Because the sense of urgency is powerful, and thus far it hasn’t subsided. The defense mechanisms of the United States are not in place to deal with this issue, and there is a sense of urgency that we have to have these defense mechanisms to deal with these challenges from China. What are they, where are they, and how are they working? And this is what legislation in Congress is trying to do, and I think the administration’s trying to do it too, but it’s slow going, so we’re in the process of doing this. It’s a complicated process.
Regarding strategy, would you like to see something like what the Trump administration described as a whole-of-society approach? What is it that a comprehensive strategy would bring to the table that goes beyond what Congress is pushing very hard and what the Biden administration is currently trying to do, which is basically continue the Trump administration’s hard line on China but with a more multilateral element?
Well, I think it needs to be systematized. You just can’t have this hodgepodge of whack-a-mole actions where it comes up and you smack it down. That’s wasting a lot of energy and effort. It needs to be integrated. And the Trump administration's strategy as stated in December of 2017 was good about this. It was integrated. That’s what’s needed. It shows what the priorities are. What are the main things that you’re concerned about? What are you going to focus on? It allows you to do that kind of thing, and more important perhaps is that with the strategy, you’re in a better position to persuade your allies and partners what you’re about and what you’re trying to accomplish in dealing with these challenges from China. As I indicated, defending America should be our foremost goal, but we have to persuade these others that they need to defend themselves too and work with us to do that. I think many countries, like India, Australia, and Japan, understand this, but many don’t, I think that that needs to be worked on.
The final point here, which I think is most important, is that we are able to convey through a strategy that this is something that really enjoys bipartisan support. It’s going to last. This isn’t something that’s going to be put aside with an America First president. That will be a very important signal, if we’re trying to build an international front to deal with China’s challenges. We need to have them stick with us as we move forward rather than expect us to change radically in two years. How do you assure that? Well, you first have to have the approach, the strategy has to be laid out, and then you have to show that it enjoys this strong bipartisan support, and if you can show that, I think that would help a lot.
Considering Washington’s efforts to multilateralize US initiatives in Asia since the Trump administration (such as the Quad, AUKUS, and increasing multilateral coordination of sanctions and other measures under the Biden Administration), do you foresee the United States hardening its military alliances in Asia in the manner of NATO?
Well, I don’t see the need for that at this point, and I think that would be controversial in Asia. I think at this stage you work with what you have, and it’s important to understand that the US really doesn’t have as strong a hand as it used to in Asia, so most of the countries in Asia don’t want to choose. Almost everybody in Southeast Asia feels that way. In the Indo-Pacific, you have three middle powers or powers that are with the United States in dealing with China in a major way– Japan, Australia, and India– and then beyond that, it gets very mushy, and the support isn’t strong at all. China’s been beating the United States significantly in Southeast Asia, so the only country there that’s willing to work with the United States really closely on the security side is Singapore, and they do it carefully. Vietnam is really not willing to go very far in the security realm with the United States, and we now have a very ambiguous situation in the Philippines. So we’re in no position to be coming up with a NATO in Asia. We’re still working with middle powers and building relationships, and of course building commonalities. There are common things that we can work [on] with these countries that don’t involve China per se, and that’s done in lots of different ways, as you pointed out.
That brings us to Taiwan, because that’s one US partner and perhaps middle power that you didn’t mention. Is there a need for the United States to rethink its approach to Taiwan? Is its current course of maintaining strategic ambiguity and expanding military and diplomatic support sufficient?
Taiwan gets a lot of attention lately. What’s happened over the past couple of years, and this is accentuated by the Russian attack on Ukraine; there is a strong focus on Taiwan. People are saying, oh my God, this is a dangerous situation, and it is, and it’s always been a dangerous situation. It’s been very very perilous in various ways, and so those policymakers over the years have dealt with this in various ways. They’ve found that the one-China policy, this very broad, poorly defined American approach to dealing with Taiwan, has worked fairly well for the United States, to the point that we have avoided major conflict with China over Taiwan for these many decades. I’m a very small part of that effort, since that’s what I did in small ways in various iterations in the US government, and that makes me look at the situation and say, yes it’s a dangerous situation, and yes Chinese capacity is growing, and yes the US is trying to keep pace with that, and there is this Thucydides trap that Graham Alison has gotten a lot of publicity about, but God bless me, this is the same freakin’ issue we’ve been dealing with for a very long time, so why do a radical change?
What I’ve seen in the Trump administration's last two or three years, and the Biden administration has pursued this, is saying, we have a one-China policy, it’s very broad in application, and if we want it to be broad in application, we don’t have to be strict like the Obama government was. How do we deal with this Chinese expansionist aggression against Taiwan? And so what we’re doing is, we’re boosting Taiwan diplomatically, economically, and militarily. We’re solidifying our relationships more and more and hopefully keeping our forces in line so that they can deal with the China contingency in Taiwan. That approach makes a lot of sense to me. Why change it? Why do you need to end strategic ambiguity? Why do you need to do something with Taiwan that would show that you have torn up the one China policy? Why antagonize the situation? Why make it worse? I just don’t think you need to do that. I think you need to strengthen Taiwan, and show strength, but you don’t have to do that with banner headlines, you could just do it. I think US officials can go to the Chinese and say to their face, we follow a one-China policy, it isn’t your one-China principle, we have never followed that, we follow a one-China policy. I think that’s the right approach.
Do you think that our deterrence might eventually fail to keep pace with China’s pace of military modernization and preparation for a Taiwan contingency, though? Do you ever think there could be a point where our deterrence under a policy of strategic ambiguity simply isn’t enough?
Yes. That certainly can happen. And I just don’t think we’re there yet.
I don’t know the balance of forces now. I think it’s very hard for people outside of the government and really outside of the defense establishment to really know what American military capacities are. I was an intelligence officer in the government, I worked on China and other issues, and I could never find out what US capacities were. I think a lot of the military people don’t know either. And so I don’t know about what’s going on, what the US can actually do, and my sense is they have some surprises, but I don’t know.
Is the US keeping pace? I don’t know. Is China going to overwhelm the US? I don’t know that for sure. I think we’ve seen some surprising developments in the Ukraine. We’ve seen Russia look pretty strong before the attack and now they don’t look so strong at all. The bottom line for me is, is China prepared, is Xi Jinping prepared to militarily confront America? Do I think he wants to? Probably, at some point. Is he prepared to do it? He’s not. I think the evidence is very clear. Look how they beat up Australia and Japan and all these other countries. What did they do to Trump? He insulted the Chinese time and time again. Pompeo constantly insulted the Chinese. What did they do to those people? Nothing. They did nothing. And the same thing with the Biden people. They don’t go after them on this issue. They don’t want to confront America yet. It’s too dangerous for them. And there are too many negatives associated with this. It’s too risky.
They’d much prefer to have an approach where they get control in ways that don’t involve direct attack, because that’s very disruptive to their economic well-being and something that’s important for their legitimacy at home. I watched their behavior to see what they do to confront the United States military. If they start doing that, then I’ll start getting worried. But they haven’t done that in a long time, even though they’ve been provoked time and again.
It seems like a lot of your discussion about the future of US-China relations and the necessity of US strategy to deal with Chinese practices is based quite naturally on the assumption that the Chinese regime is going to stay in power and continue its practices. Do you think that there’s anything that could plausibly threaten the regime’s grasp on power in the next couple of decades? Alternatively, do you think there’s anything that could cause the regime to undergo any serious changes in policy or in outlook?
Yes. You’ve mentioned the next several decades, and I never would try to make that kind of prediction, but looking at the next few years, I do think the United States, with its allies and partners, can have a big impact on how the Chinese calculate their interests. And I think that would give them some pause and lead to behavior that will be less challenging to the United States. I don’t think it will threaten the stability of the regime. I think the regime is quite strong, and quite stable, and they’ve done an excellent job at winning support inside the country. They control the thinking of people in China, so they have strong support for what they do, whatever they do. Xi Jinping has also been very effective in controlling the levers of power so that the other leaders who might compete with him really are not very powerful at this point. So I think the stability of the regime, or Xi Jinping’s leadership, seems very strong. I think we have to work on the assumption that he’s going to be here for some time doing the kinds of things that he’s doing. That’s not going to go away.
There’s a perception, which you touched on in your book, about the decline in America’s influence or capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. It seems to me like the international momentum may have shifted against China a little bit, however. For example, you’ve recently seen China attempt to use economic coercion to force Lithuania to change its Taiwan policy, and what that’s really done is pissed off the European bloc and gotten it to close ranks a little bit. You also have China getting closer to Russia at what I think for China is a very inopportune time. Do you think that the international momentum is shifting against China at a time when it’s trying to expand its international influence, perhaps most notably through the announcement of its “Global Security Initiative,” or do you think that China still has the momentum to expand its international influence and challenge US primacy in the international order?
I think the Chinese have had a big setback in Europe. I think you’ve hit on something that’s very important for them. I think this has been a big blow to their efforts in Europe, and this has been a big benefit for the Biden administration in trying to build a coalition of like-minded governments that are prepared to stand up against China from a security governance and economic perspective.
But elsewhere, I think the Chinese are doing pretty well, and I don’t see the Chinese facing that kind of a challenge very much at all. I think the Chinese are winning in Southeast Asia and the US is not. In Latin America, the Chinese are doing pretty well. The trade growth in Latin America has been very impressive over the last year or two. In Africa, the Chinese have a very strong position. They have made advances in the Middle East that are quite significant. So when you add it up, I think it’s a mixed picture, and it’s important that when we read our media, and when we get these accounts, we understand that the media outlets hire people from the West, so they portray this kind of approach when we look at other countries. The Pew people go around and poll countries about what they think about China, and you get all these negative views in a lot of parts of Europe and Canada and Australia and New Zealand and places like that. But if you look at Southeast Asia and Singapore– Singapore likes China, they say 30% maybe disapprove of China, and that’s just one example that you find throughout the world. I think China is against sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, very much against that, and who favors that position? Well, look at the UN votes. And they showed that the vast majority of their countries are in line more aligned with the Chinese position than they are with the Western position. So I think keeping that in mind, if I were Chinese I would say, well, we’re not winning support in Europe, and the West, and Canada and so forth, we’ve alienated them, but elsewhere, we’re doing pretty well, so that’s my way of looking at the situation today.
I suppose one could argue that Europe and US allies in Oceania and Asia carry more international weight than a region like Latin America or Southeast Asia in general, though.
In general, yes. In general, they do.
For decades, there’s been discussion about the rise of India. Do you think that India could emerge in the coming decades as a counterweight to China and one that is more aligned with the United States?
Yes, I think that’s been the goal of the United States government for some time. The US government, going back to the Bush administration, and probably earlier, certainly the George W. Bush administration, had an avowed policy of making India stronger. Their statements would say, we want a stronger India. I don’t know of any country where the US has that position, that we want them to be stronger. But they did that with India repeatedly, and I think that’s still the policy. The US is counting on this and wants this to happen.
One of China’s setbacks has been the way they’ve handled India. Their ambitions have gotten in the way of a good, manageable relationship with India. They have put India in a subservient position, tried to dominate them in various ways, and the Indians have reacted as you would expect. This has inclined the Indian government to be more cooperative with the United States, and I think they see a sense of urgency. They recognize they can’t deal with China alone. They need support. And so they and Japan and Australia and us seem to have a very similar type of outlook here, an urgent concern about all these challenges we’re facing with China. I think we find that in cooperation, we can counter it more effectively than if we’re alone. I think India feels that way too. And I think that pattern is going to continue, because the Chinese won’t change their behavior.
Since they have a disputed border, it seems like it would be very difficult for China to try to get India into its camp, especially if India feels that its power is growing. It feels like there will always be those friction points in their relationship that could make it hard for China to appropriate India in a strategic sense the way it has Pakistan, for example.
Yeah. I think the broader issue, though, is control. China is seeking control through various intimidation mechanisms and penetration, and in the case of India, they’re being surrounded strategically, and so they’re being seen as vulnerable, and the power that has the most influence on those surrounding countries is China. So it’s not just the border, it’s about the future of India, and what sort of a state it’s going to be and I think that’s very much in the minds of thinkers in India at this time.
A few years ago, in the academic world, there was a lot of talk refuting the notion that US-China relations in the future would come to look like the Cold War. They talked about economic interdependence and the absence of ideological bloc confrontation. But in recent years, we’ve seen the weaponization of trade and economic decoupling, at least in certain spheres, become real; we’ve seen increasing US multilateral initiatives aimed at China, in Asia and globally; we’ve seen US-China relations appear to have permanently deteriorated; and we’ve seen accelerating military competition, accelerating military development in China, and even the specter of increasing nuclear competition. Do you think it’s time for academics to reconsider their opposition to the Cold War analogy?
Well, I think that’s already underway. We’re moving– the United States is moving from this policy of engagement, which was premised on it being beneficial to have this close interaction with the party-state and work very closely with it, and we’re recognizing that doesn’t work, and in the efforts to defend ourselves, we recognize that we have to change that, and will this ultimately lead to some type of cold war setting? It could, very easily, it seems to me, but the bottom line here in my judgment should be, is this the best way to defend America? What is the best way to defend America against the Chinese challenges? And I’m not sure you have to go out and say we have this vision of cold war, you just say, no, this is our strategy, we’re going to deal with these different issues, and do it that way, rather than have some sort of encompassing cold war situation, which I think would alienate our allies and partners to some degree, they don’t want to do a cold war, but if you start saying, well, how are we going to defend ourselves, well, let’s look at this area, let’s look at this area, and then you find that some aspects of it are decoupling, some aspects of it are very much restricting interaction, and I think that’s warranted, and if you say, if you’re going to defend yourself, this is what you have to do. And so I think that would be my guide, is to say, well, how best to defend America? I don’t want a vision, I want practice, I want a strategy for doing this, and then you lay it out. And reach agreement in the country and reach agreement with allies and partners and carry it forward, and I think this is a process we’re in the midst of. It’s been going on now for 5 years, maybe longer, and it takes a long time for the United States to move in a very different direction because it’s so different, just to go back to what I said about America in 2019, Americans had no idea that we needed to have a tough approach toward China. They said, “Well, these are the countries that are supposed to be our friends, aren’t they? Aren’t we supposed to work with them, and be our partners,” and so on and so forth, and that’s changed. Why? Because we have to defend ourselves, and that’s the main concern I come back to, which I think is the main concern of Congress, and you’re looking at them, what they’re trying to do.
In the beginning of the Cold War, there was also a lot of domestic rancor, even a domestic political crisis, over the issue of Communism and its containment. This culminated with the McCarthy period. This period seems different. As you’ve mentioned, there’s a strong bipartisan congressional consensus for confronting China. As China continues to rise and the challenge becomes more acute or even approaches a crisis, do you think that we could see the same sort of domestic political turmoil over the China question that we had over the Soviet Union in those days?
That’s a very interesting point. During the McCarthy period, a lot of it was recrimination– in other words, it was attacking people for doing the wrong thing while they were in power. We haven’t had that, have we? I haven’t seen much of that at all. Have there been any hearings that say, well, what did you do wrong? Have policymakers in the Obama government or in the Bush government been brought before the Congress and told, you’ve made big mistakes, and you must be agents of China? That hasn’t happened. Why? I’m not sure. I guess it could happen at some point. But we’re not doing that.
I think if China takes Taiwan, it might happen.
Well, maybe that would happen. But my point is, I think we’re focused on trying to defend ourselves now, and I think that’s probably positive.
I think it would be useful to know what did go wrong and why [past] policies failed, so that we can avoid it in the future. And I do think that so many people in the Obama government who are now in the Biden government have privately done this in their own minds. But nonetheless, I think as a nation, we probably should do this at some point. But I’m glad that we’re not doing it through these highly politicized, recriminating, charges which go against due process and the civil rights of the individuals concerned. I think it’s good we’re avoiding that.
I think the proof of that reconsideration by current officials is in the pudding. It’s been a 180 degree turn since the Obama administration, hasn’t it?
Well, I mean, if you look at what they stood for back in 2016, 2015 and what they’re saying today, it is very different.
I know people, and I imagine you do too, who despise Trump but express agreement with his finally taking a more confrontational attitude towards China. There is that sentiment in the China-watching community.
Well, remember that this isn’t Trump. He didn’t have much to do with [this] strategy, as far as I can see. This is the people that worked with him. They looked at the situation in a hard, clear-eyed way, and they came up with an approach. It looked shocking for people that read it first, and very few people paid attention to it at the time, but Congress saw it, and those majorities in Congress said, yes, this is what we need. And as I said, a lot of the indicators in Congress are very strong that this is going to continue.