The Cyber Defense Review

Power Versus Pragmatism: Unlearned Lessons in Dealing with China

By | December 22, 2021

The prevailing China trope in Washington is that US engagement with China has been a failure. The argument goes that far from turning China into a status quo power aligned with western interests and values, engagement has provided the Chinese Communist Party with the wherewithal to promote an illiberal agenda that poses an existential challenge to the US-led international order.

This is both true and an oversimplification that masks the lessons about China unlearned as yet by most Western leaders. It is true in the sense that China has in the past decade taken a markedly illiberal turn and is now demanding that the international order should be modified to accommodate its emergence as a major global power. But it is an oversimplification in that US expectations were at least initially more realistic about what engagement might produce. Any review of past official US pronouncements on the rationale for engagement with China makes it abundantly clear that this was never about promotion of democracy or regime change. Rather the hope was that engagement would result in a China that would play a constructive and stabilizing role in world affairs, in contrast to the highly disruptive role it had played in the Mao era, and evolve towards an "autocracy-lite" regime. The US government’s China experts were under few illusions about the nature of a regime that had demonstrated in June 1989 how far it was prepared to go to maintain its hold on power. Meanwhile China’s Party-state had made no secret that the main aim of China's by-then dramatic economic development was to strengthen the Party’s hold on power, a reality that western policy-makers chose to ignore.

 

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