June 16, 2023 | The Washington Post

Biden wants a ‘thaw’ with China. What would that take?

June 16, 2023 | The Washington Post

Biden wants a ‘thaw’ with China. What would that take?


The Chinese Communist Party won’t change

The Chinese Communist Party follows a deliberate, consistent strategy toward the United States that has not changed — and will not anytime soon. That strategy’s overarching goal is to overtake the United States and project power internationally. The current confrontation between America and China is because of this fundamental reality, not any of Washington’s policies.

What, then, would a thaw look like? It would mean that the United States, having concluded that confrontation is not worth it, would decide to back down from the defense of its interests.

In more concrete terms, this would entail a reversion to the situation that prevailed in the first 15 years of this century. In 2001, Beijing joined the World Trade Organization, allowing it to reap the benefits of a place in the free, liberal global market. For the decade and a half that followed, the Chinese Communist Party weaponized that place and broke the system’s rules with few, if any, repercussions. Beijing subsidized its state champions, dumped their goods, stole intellectual property, used economic ties to force geopolitical questions, and conducted a genocide at home. In the process, Beijing developed a chokehold over the U.S. economic and political systems — such that even today, with bipartisan recognition of China’s threat and a newly aggressive Beijing, competitive action struggles to keep pace with rhetoric and calls for a thaw risk prevailing.

All of this took place in an environment of (relatively) cordial U.S.-China relations because Washington simply wasn’t paying attention — or didn’t care.

A so-called thaw would return to that asymmetric dynamic but with a heightened threat. The Beijing of 2023 is far more powerful than it was in 2001. Its non-market measuresgeopolitical positioning and domestic repression are all more threatening today. Accordingly, Beijing would be much more aggressive about asserting itself in a contemporary thaw. This would include explicitly asserting extraterritorial sovereignty; leveraging industrial and capital dependencies to force concessions (and rents) from foreign companies and governments; and supporting global spoilers (e.g., Russia) in destabilizing the international order.

Beijing’s strategy won’t change. Nor will the fundamental contradiction between U.S. and Chinese interests. The question is whether Washington is willing to face down that contradiction. Today, a thaw in name would be appeasement in practice.

Emily de La Bruyère is co-founder of Horizon Advisory and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies with a focus on China policy. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.