by Keith McCormick and Emma W. Sandifer
As relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) loom ever larger for the U.S., DACOR’s annual conference in 2022 focused on “Balancing Competing Interests in U.S. Relations With China.” The Washington-based organization of foreign affairs professionals brought together diplomats and academics to explore the idea that U.S. policy toward China needs to pursue cooperation in some areas and competition in others while simultaneously confronting Beijing and preparing to deter or win a conflict, if it comes to war.
The hybrid conference, with some attendees present at the historic DACOR-Bacon house and others joining online, was conducted under Chatham House Rules. The keynote address, by Ambassador (ret.) J. Stapleton Roy, was live-streamed to a classroom of political science faculty and students at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Speakers broadly agreed that a nuanced policy is necessary. However much some in Congress and the public might prefer to see China as either an ‘enemy’ or a ‘friend,’ reality is more complex; U.S. national interests may demand a strategy that takes different, even seemingly contradictory, approaches in different areas. But which ones?
Potential for Conflict
The danger of a war between the U.S. and the PRC over Taiwan came up repeatedly. The first panel of the day, which focused on security and foreign policy, was taken up largely with that issue. Speakers warned that it was far from certain that the United States would win a conventional war over Taiwan. Even if the danger of nuclear escalation is contained, the PRC navy is now larger than that of the U.S., and Beijing could afford to concentrate entirely on this theater while the U.S. military is spread around the globe. The U.S. has a handful of air bases within range of Taiwan; China has 35. War games staged by the RAND Corporation showed a U.S. fleet of large and expensive aircraft carriers losing to a swarm of smaller, cheaper Chinese weapons such as drones.
At the same time, speakers cautioned against assuming that a conflict is inevitable. True, the PRC has embarked on a rapid and potentially destabilizing buildup of its military forces. It has increasingly committed its prestige to resolving the Taiwan issue sooner rather than later. The people of Taiwan were shocked by Beijing’s crackdown on democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong and no longer believe in the prospect of a peaceful resolution based on the formula ‘one country, two systems.’ Yet conferees did not conclude that PRC leaders are ready to gamble on war. Indeed, the PRC may believe that it is U.S. actions, such as the recent visit of Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, that are driving the two countries toward a conflict. The dizzying turns in U.S. policy under the previous administration, which veered from praising Xi Jinping when it seemed that he could help deliver a deal on North Korea to imposing punitive economic sanctions, prevented the kind of predictable relations that allow for peaceful planning and pragmatic dialogues. Several speakers offered thoughtful reasons why time may be on the U.S side, and it may be in our interest to delay a showdown for as long as possible.
There was broad agreement that the war in Ukraine is preventing the U.S. from carrying out its long-planned ‘pivot to Asia.’ The conference also concluded that it is distracting the U.S. from its most important opponent, China. America has more to fear from an aggressive and growing PRC than from an aggressive and shrinking Russia.
The threat from a revisionist and increasingly nationalistic PRC involves not only military and strategic issues, but also abuse of human rights and an increasingly aggressive challenge to the concept of democracy. The conference was reminded of Beijing’s continuing campaign to crush the Uyghurs and the Communist Party’s doubling down on systems to control dissent. This is leading China to a closer alliance with other authoritarian nations, including Russia. Speakers also documented China’s efforts to replace United Nations officials at all levels with PRC nationals, to replace the concept of individual rights with that of collective rights, and to replace the idea of universal human rights with that of non-interference in member countries’ internal affairs. Yet China has also increased its contributions to the UN’s regular budget (from 2% in the early 2000s to 15.25% today) and offered to shoulder a larger share of its peacekeeping burden; there may be opportunities to explore increased cooperation in some international organizations based on joint or overlapping interests.
Trade and Economic Interests
Competition, rather than conflict, confrontation or cooperation, was the approach the conference deemed most likely to advance American interests in the areas of trade and economics. Both the Trump and Biden administrations imposed heavy tariffs to discourage trade, but despite these actions trade has actually continued to increase: in 2022 the U.S. will import more goods from China and export more to it than ever. Some of this may be due to the actions of the Federal Reserve in raising U.S. interest rates, since a strong dollar sucks in imports. But the figures mask a significant change in categories as the U.S. shifts to importing semi-conductors and technology from other countries in Asia, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Overall, the high level of economic integration of the last two decades seems unlikely to continue. Fears that the Chinese yuan might replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency are greatly exaggerated, but American policy has been handicapped by the lack of a coherent, market-opening strategy for freer Indo-Pacific trade.
Opportunities for Cooperation
The conferees saw the greatest potential for cooperation in the areas of climate change and energy. High levels of cooperation on this issue during the Obama administration dried up during the Trump years. President Biden authorized Secretary Kerry to offer to insulate talks on climate from other, more difficult aspects of the relationship—an approach that appeared successful until Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, after which Beijing suspended the dialogue in rage. In the long run, cooperation on the threat that climate change poses to both countries seems inevitable, and the U.S. should extend it regardless of tensions in other areas. Yet even this will be difficult as China continues to increase its use of dirty fossil fuels while proclaiming its intention to move toward carbon neutrality. Success will require a patient effort that involves all aspects of energy policy and the promotion of joint research, even while we compete with China in such areas as the sale of clean solar energy technology.
Summing up these wide-ranging issues, the conference concluded that the U.S. cannot afford a one-dimensional policy toward the PRC. The belief that trade and investment would lead to greater democracy in China has been invalidated by the success of Xi Jinping’s regime in consolidating the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. At the same time, PRC confidence in U.S. intentions has been eroded by our drift away from the ‘One China’ policy toward a de facto policy of ‘One China, One Taiwan.’ China today is a revisionist power, intent on challenging American hegemony, while U.S. hubris after the end of the Cold War led it to waste an opportunity to consolidate a more sustainable international order. America is not a power in decline, as Russia and China assert. To prevent that, however, it must improve its understanding of what drives PRC and Russian actions; not allow the conflict in Ukraine to distract it from the more dangerous challenge in Asia; keep those two powers apart instead of driving them together; and come up with nuanced policies that attach top priority to avoiding an unnecessary war and using diplomacy to manage fundamental national differences.
Ambassador (ret.) J. Stapleton Roy, Distinguished Scholar and Director Emeritus, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, The Wilson Center—Keynote speaker
Dr. Richard C. Bush, Nonresident Senior Fellow-Foreign Policy, Center for East-Asia Policy Studies, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution
Dr. David Dollar, Senior Fellow=Foreign Policy, Global Economy and Development, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution
Dr. Joanna Lewis, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Energy and Environment and Director, Science, Technology and International Affairs Program, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Dr. Syaru Shirley Lin, Research Professor, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, and Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, and Chair, Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation
Dr. Richard Ponzio, Senior Fellow and Director, Global Governance, Justice and Security, The Henry L. Stimson Center
Dr. Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch
Ambassador (ret.) David Shear, Adjunct Lecturer, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Ms. Susan A. Thornton, Senior Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School and Nonresident Senior Fellow-Foreign Policy, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution
Keith McCormick co-chairs the DACOR Program Committee. He retired from the Foreign Service after a 40-year career in government. He served as an Air Force officer and a journalist in the 1970s and did his academic work at Berkeley, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Institute for Advanced International Studies in Geneva. As a Foreign Service Officer, he held posts at various embassies in Europe, Africa and Asia and positions in the State Department, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the NSC staff. As an inspector for the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, he helped assess the work of more than 50 embassies and bureaus.
Emma W. Sandifer has served as the program assistant at DACOR since fall of 2021. Born and raised in Atlanta, GA., she earned her B.A. at Wake Forest University and is a current M.A. candidate in International Affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, with a concentration in U.S. Foreign Policy. She has previously written for publications such as International Policy Digest. Emma is interested in pursuing a career in foreign policy analysis and research.