Washington Still Wants China to Be a Responsible Stakeholder

Despite heated language, the U.S. goals haven’t changed.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, arrive at a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, arrive at a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. policy community has produced no shortage of strategies for competing with China. Increasingly frustrated that the long-standing U.S. policy of engagement failed to turn Beijing into a “responsible stakeholder,” the Trump administration, along with a bipartisan cross section of Washington’s policy community, changed tact. Their competitive strategies are willing to impose costs on Beijing, restrict economic engagement, and tolerate greater bilateral friction to push back on China and more aggressively defend U.S. interests. But competition, it is often pointed out, is not an end in itself. What, then, do these competitive strategies seek to achieve?

Washington’s objectives in shaping China’s international behavior remain largely unchanged, even as the means for achieving them have shifted. This is seldom acknowledged, in part because it doesn’t fit comfortably with the narratives of either hawks or doves on China. In addition to deterring Chinese aggression and maintaining its strategic position in the region, the United States is still trying to shape China into a rule-abiding and system-sustaining member of the international community. In other words, it continues to seek to shape China into a “responsible stakeholder,” just as Robert Zoellick famously called for 15 years ago. Thus, those that suggest the responsible-stakeholder approach is “dead” overstate just how much has changed for a wide swath of Washington.

To be sure, today’s vision of China as a responsible stakeholder is a less ambitious one. No one expects Beijing to altogether stop doing business with unsavory regimes, and Washington, for its part, seems motivated to cultivate an economically less interdependent relationship. However, much as Zoellick outlined, Washington continues to aspire to shape China into a state that “not only adjusts to the international rules,” but also works “with us to sustain the international system” and helps to “address the challenges of the new century.” As long as transforming China into a responsible stakeholder remains a U.S. objective, the United States would do well not only to acknowledge it but to publicize it to China and the world.

As much as the Trump administration’s policies have put the U.S.-China relationship on a confrontational path, its May 2020 white paper on competition with China is clear that it does “not seek to contain China’s development.” Rather, it aims to compel China “to adhere to norms of responsible state behavior.” Among the norms most commonly cited by the administration are those that Zoellick urged China to abide by in 2005—for example, to adhere to the terms of international agreements, embrace transparency and accountability, and resolve its territorial disputes peacefully.

Consistent with its efforts over its first three years in office, the administration also continues to seek to enlist China’s help in achieving a denuclearized Korean peninsula, the principal international challenge Zoellick called on China to help address. Alongside its competitive and often inflammatory language (which is addressed below), the Trump White House declares that the United States “stands ready to welcome China’s positive contributions” and hopes that the United States and China can cooperate “in ways that benefit the peace, stability, and prosperity of the world.”

Perhaps the biggest change in the administration’s objectives have come in the economic domain. The administration has moved to reduce U.S. dependence on China-based supply chains and to limit Chinese participation in sensitive sectors of the U.S. economy and those of its allies. While this is an important change in U.S. policy, the administration has been clear that its “approach is to not exclude China.” Rather, it aims to put an end to “unfair Chinese trade practices” and compel Beijing to “protect intellectual property,” while “rebalancing the United States-China economic relationship.” These were all goals articulated by Zoellick in 2005.

In pursuit of these and other objectives, the administration embraced the tactics of reciprocity, the use of which now enjoys bipartisan support. By establishing a tit-for-tat dynamic, reciprocity seeks to incentivize China to lower trade and investment barriers, decrease government subsidies, lift visa restrictions on foreign journalists, and provide U.S. diplomats with greater access to Chinese society. Reciprocity aims to compel Beijing to adhere to international rules and norms by penalizing it for non-compliance.

If the Trump administration has largely maintained the goal of shaping China into a responsible stakeholder, senior officials’ use of inflammatory ideological rhetoric has obscured this fact and worked at cross purposes with it. In a high-profile July speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Chinese Communist Party threatens the world with a “new tyranny,” suggested that the Party’s rule in China is illegitimate, and implied that the United States must work to change China’s domestic political system. U.S. hopes for political liberalization in China have long existed uneasily alongside the reassuring message of welcoming China’s rise as a responsible stakeholder. But it is difficult to see how such rhetoric does not entirely undermine U.S. declarations that its goals are limited to altering Beijing’s behavior and that it aspires to partner with China to sustain the international system. The result has been a confused—if not incoherent—articulation of U.S. China policy.

While most of Washington’s broader policy community has avoided such provocative rhetoric, it shares the administration’s aim to shape China into a responsible stakeholder. President-elect Joe Biden has stated that he would confront Beijing by working with U.S. allies to “to shape the rules of the road” in a way “China can’t afford to ignore.” His objective is not to reduce China’s access to the international system but to ensure that Beijing stays involved and plays by the rules. He has also said that he will maintain the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese goods and use them as “leverage” to advance the same economic goals Trump sought to achieve.

Biden has called for partnering with China to address “climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security,” just as Zoellick sought to have Beijing work with the United States on “energy conservation and efficiency” and to combat “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, poverty, [and] disease.” The president-elect also seeks to work with Beijing in a “coordinated campaign … to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.” Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, and Kurt Campbell, a senior Biden adviser, have similarly advocated establishing reciprocity to force Beijing to “start complying with trade rules” and envision China as an “essential partner” in addressing a number of the biggest transnational challenges.

With few exceptions, proposals from across the political spectrum continue to seek to shape China into a responsible stakeholder. A competitive strategy written by analysts at a left-leaning Washington think tank aims to have China use its “growing capabilities to address global challenges,” calling for Beijing to play “an increasingly active role to shape global institutions, norms, and outcomes.” To this end, they encourage Washington “to create more space within the international governance system for China.” Two scholars at a right-leaning think tank propose applying pressure on the Chinese Communist Party so great that it either “modifies its objectives or loses its grip on power.” They are explicit, however, that Washington should “leave the door open” for China to become a responsible stakeholder, providing an off-ramp from the pressure they suggest applying and implying that the modifications they seek in Chinese objectives are those reflective of a responsible stakeholder.

When the White House says that it does not seek “a particular end state for China” and others suggest that Washington should not aim to achieve a “definitive end state” in its competition with Beijing, they may be referring to China’s domestic political system. However, much of Washington does seek to achieve a particular end state for China: They seek to transform it into a responsible stakeholder. As long as this remains a de facto U.S. objective, Washington should embrace and broadcast it.

Senior Chinese leaders themselves now publicly state what they long would say only privately and via state media: The United States does not in fact welcome China’s rise and instead seeks to contain it. It will be difficult to convince Beijing otherwise but, because such a belief is sure to exacerbate bilateral competition and doom any possibility of shaping Beijing into a responsible stakeholder, it would be foolish for Washington not to make every effort to counter it.

In this regard, simply denying that the United States aims to contain China is far less compelling than offering Beijing the affirmative and familiar vision of it as a responsible stakeholder, one that will compel Chinese leaders to reflect on the enduring aspirations of U.S.-China policy. Washington should also note that Beijing need not simply take its word for it: It should encourage Beijing to test its commitment to reciprocity by positively altering its behavior in ways requiring reciprocal U.S. action.

Calling for China to be a responsible stakeholder has always been an ambitious and principled objective—and, as ever, it may fail. Prudence suggests that Washington should seek to maximize the likelihood of success while minimizing the costs and risks of failure. Doing so does not require making unilateral concessions or placing faith in the miraculous, socializing power of participation into the international system. It requires the United States to hew closely to the logic of reciprocity, altering the mix and sequencing of the carrots and sticks it presents to Beijing to incentivize constructive behavior and penalize its opposite. It also requires the United States to abandon the maximalist rhetoric of democratizing China and focus instead on compelling Beijing to live up to its commitments to treat its citizens humanely.

Critically, even if Beijing never comes around, declaring that the United States continues to seek to shape China into a responsible stakeholder is also a valuable message to send to partners around the world. It will help to reassure the many states increasingly concerned about being pulled into a maelstrom of deteriorating U.S.-China ties that far from seeking conflict with China, or regime change in Beijing, the United States desires to welcome it into the community of responsible nations. Moreover, by publicly embracing the responsible-stakeholder objective, Washington can help debunk the oft-stated Chinese refrain that the United States is seeking to create a new cold war with China, a message Beijing leverages to present itself as a geopolitical victim and to alienate partners from Washington.

Needless to say, no element of U.S. strategy toward China is more important than its objectives. If U.S. policymakers neglect to recognize that, even as competition with Beijing intensifies and relations deteriorate, they still seek to transform China into a responsible stakeholder, they risk operating with an incomplete picture of what winning looks like. And if they cannot compellingly express their objectives to Beijing and the world, they are almost certain to compete ineffectively.

Andrew Taffer is a researcher with the China & Indo-Pacific Security Affairs division at CNA and a Non-Resident Fellow with the International Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the policy or position of CNA or any of its sponsors.

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