Review

‘Stronger’ Bets the United States Can Outlast China

When it comes to the mutual relationship, Beijing gets a vote.

By , a senior fellow for China at the Center for American Progress.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) faces Yang Jiechi (left), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) faces Yang Jiechi (left), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, at the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18. Frederic J. Brown/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Ryan Hass’s book Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence is the hottest take on American attitudes toward Beijing of 2011. Unfortunately, it was published in 2021.

At the book’s core is a cogent but ultimately flawed argument for the resumption of President Barack Obama-era China policy that Hass, as director for China in Obama’s second-term National Security Council, helped shape. Hass argues that the United States is strong, China’s rise is not inevitable, and the United States can still bring China into a stable international system through measured diplomacy and strategic concessions. Stronger is reminiscent of a bygone era in both U.S. domestic politics and the world order, U.S. China policy that valued supposed nuance over efficacy and that clung to hopes of engagement long after they had been dashed on the rocks of Beijing’s failure to change. Hass’s business-as-usual recommendations will serve as a ruler with which to measure the evolution of Biden’s China policy, a review of which is due out later this month or next.

Ryan Hass’s book Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence is the hottest take on American attitudes toward Beijing of 2011. Unfortunately, it was published in 2021.

At the book’s core is a cogent but ultimately flawed argument for the resumption of President Barack Obama-era China policy that Hass, as director for China in Obama’s second-term National Security Council, helped shape. Hass argues that the United States is strong, China’s rise is not inevitable, and the United States can still bring China into a stable international system through measured diplomacy and strategic concessions. Stronger is reminiscent of a bygone era in both U.S. domestic politics and the world order, U.S. China policy that valued supposed nuance over efficacy and that clung to hopes of engagement long after they had been dashed on the rocks of Beijing’s failure to change. Hass’s business-as-usual recommendations will serve as a ruler with which to measure the evolution of Biden’s China policy, a review of which is due out later this month or next.

Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence, Ryan Hass, Yale University Press, 240 pp., .50, March 2021

Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence, Ryan Hass, Yale University Press, 240 pp., $27.50, March 2021

Hass’s argument has three parts. First, the United States has a stronger hand than China in its democratic institutions, favorable demographics and geography, an unparalleled innovation ecosystem, and a system of alliances. It should first and foremost focus on shoring up these strengths. Second, China is revisionist but unlikely to achieve its goals even without direct U.S. intervention due to demographics, political fragility, and the tyranny of geography. Third, the United States can mitigate the risk of conflict with China by striving to maintain competitive interdependence, a strategy that includes competing to provide public goods and technology innovation while preserving interdependence and cooperation more broadly.

Hass encourages a U.S. strategy that seeks to “encourage China to become ambitious without becoming aggressive. In practical terms, this means that the United States should be prepared to accept China’s expansion of influence, as long as China’s rise is peaceful and noncoercive and within the bounds of international law and norms.” That’s a big if right there.

The events of 2020 call into question the first leg of Hass’s argument: that the United States is stronger than China. Since Stronger was completed, former President Donald Trump bungled the American response to the coronavirus pandemic, attempted to steal a presidential election, incited a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and inspired an ongoing purge of the Republican Party. But more generally, political developments in the United States over the last five years amount to a three-alarm fire for political institutions and domestic stability, a position widely supported by diplomats and academics across the political spectrum. Whether the U.S. economy, population, alliance system, or innovation is stronger than China’s is of little comfort as the U.S. social contract unravels.

What’s more, U.S. political instability has dramatically increased even as political power has been effectively centralized by Chinese President Xi Jinping over the same time period. Centering a key foreign-policy strategy on the inherent strength of a decaying democracy over an authoritarian regime concentrating power seems like a risky bet, at least in the near term. Additionally, international and U.S. public opinion toward China hardened dramatically in 2020, upending another of Hass’s arguments—that a robust policy response to China undermined U.S. institutions and alliances, because it was anti-democratic in the United States and counterproductive to allied policy coordination.

Given the drastic decline of U.S. political stability over the last year, Hass’s dismissal of domestic efforts to forge bipartisan unity through shared alarm over the Chinese government’s intentions and actions seems premature. Five months into the Biden administration, the most prominent bipartisan congressional efforts include a law penalizing violence against Asian Americans that has risen precipitously during the pandemic and a bill that seeks to counter China’s economic, technology, and political goals.

Hass’s second argument—that China’s core interests challenge the United States, but its ability to successfully realize them is limited—is another miscalculation. Hass points to large trends that will hamper China’s ambition, such as its numerous borders, aging population, lack of influence abroad, and fragile political system. To be sure, this is a topic of perennial debate within the China analyst and policy community, especially as Beijing shifts into panic mode about its demographic woes. But in the context of Stronger, Hass fails to translate China’s systemic weaknesses into clear roadblocks to Chinese government aspirations to “revise … the security order in Asia … and the liberal nature of the existing international order.” China’s numerous borders have not prevented it from settling recent border disputes by force and in its favor. The fiscal cost of an aging population depends on the regime’s tolerance for expensive public goods. And China’s lack of cultural magnetism abroad has not prevented it from growing and wielding significant political and economic influence internationally, particularly among elites in authoritarian countries.

Hass fails to show how these weaknesses will prevent China from crossing American redlines as he identifies them, including “preventing any power from dominating Asia … maintaining unimpeded freedom of navigation and overflight … control[ling] discourse outside one’s borders … and preserving an open, rules-based international trading system.” The assumptions behind Hass’s assertions—that numerous borders invite a defensive posture, that an aging workforce cannot disrupt international trade—deserve significant investigation.

On the basis of the United States’ strength and China’s relative weakness, Hass advises that Washington should pursue a strategy of competitive interdependence. The strategy acknowledges the inherently competitive nature of the relationship but also maintains that the two countries will and should remain interdependent. He therefore believes that the United States should continue efforts to influence China, seeking to win a footrace instead of a football game. As Hass argues:

“[T]he goal of American strategy need not be—and should not be—to seek to defeat or collapse [of China], as it was with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Rather, a central goal is to encourage China to become ambitious without becoming aggressive. In practical terms, this means that the United States should be prepared to accept China’s expansion of influence, as long as China’s rise is peaceful and noncoercive and within the bounds of international law and norms.”

Hass’s belief that China can still be brought into a U.S.-led international system as a responsible stakeholder is anachronistic. As Xi said in a recent speech to the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, “We must advocate multilateralism, oppose unilateralism and hegemonism, and guide the international community to jointly shape a more just and reasonable new international order and build a new type of international relations.” Ceding ground to a country that eschews foreign intervention, universal human rights, and collective responsibility for global threats is not a win. It would undermine previous U.S. government efforts to shape a more just international order, abandoning U.S. concepts such as responsibility to protect, and dooming collective action on efforts from basic labor rights to climate change prevention and mitigation.

Because he misdiagnoses U.S. abilities and China’s bottom line, Hass offers recommendations that seem under-calibrated to shape China’s behavior. Simply put, many of Hass’s recommendations for U.S. China policy are indistinguishable from doing nothing. On multilateral institutions, Hass encourages American policymakers to accept “a greater role for China on the world stage” by creating more room for Chinese leadership, even at the cost of reduced efficiency, effectiveness, and U.S. ability to drive consensus. Without an assertive U.S. multilateral diplomatic effort, this will happen anyway. For trade tensions, Hass prescribes a strongly worded joint statement about unsustainable practices, a threat that no doubt has the Chinese leaders quaking in their boots. To address human rights abuses, Hass advises U.S. officials to move away from harsh policy statements and toward creative advocacy on less controversial human rights issues, such as food safety and disability rights. In Hass’s vision, bolstering American confidence at home justifies near catatonia bilaterally.

Hass argues these principled but dispassionate positions will change (or at least influence) Beijing’s behavior and will avoid vexing Washington’s allies with deep ties to China. This assessment ignores the extremely limited success of similar policies during the Obama administration, which Hass seems to look back on through rose-colored glasses.

Cybersecurity analysts will be surprised to find that Hass believes that “Credible threats of U.S. sanctions compelled China to alter its practices on government-sponsored cyber-enabled economic espionage from 2015-2016.” While this is technically correct—the Chinese government certainly altered its cyber-enabled intellectual property theft after discussions with the United States—Beijing did not cease its activities, which was Obama’s key objective. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported in 2017, “U.S. industry does not believe there has been a full cessation of cyber enabled IP theft.” Consequently, the Chamber of Commerce also urged the Trump administration to ensure that the Chinese government abided by the 2015 cyberespionage agreement, which Trump also failed to do.

Hass also touts “an authoritative warning about possible military conflict” over Scarborough Shoal as deterring the Chinese government from conducting land reclamation in the disputed area in 2016. This is probably true. But Hass neglects to mention the failure of previous U.S.-China negotiations over Scarborough Shoal in 2012. During these negotiations, Chinese negotiators reneged on an agreement with U.S. and Philippine officials to mutually withdraw ships from the area, resulting in now uncontested continuous presence of Chinese ships in the shoal. U.S. failure to influence or effectively respond to this type of Chinese occupation—as well as other gray-zone behavior in the South China Sea—has arguably led to the more recent but eerily similar Chinese occupation of Whitsun Reef.

The second major issue with Hass’s strategy is that it presumes Chinese government support for a stable bilateral relationship, an assumption that is not fully explored in the book and that currently divides the U.S. policymaking community. “[B]oth countries should be guided by pragmatism and determination to make progress where possible,” Hass intones. “The United States need not—and should not—turn China into an adversary,” he reiterates, as if China does not also get a say. Statements from Xi on how China must “dare to face the strong enemy” (a reference to the United States) in military affairs and on using foreign dependence on Chinese supply chains as a deterrent suggest that Chinese leadership views of America as an adversary have solidified. The window for the United States to reassure Chinese leadership of its peaceful intentions has closed—if it was ever open at all.

This failure to explore the Chinese government’s tolerance for dysfunction in the bilateral relationship leads to a lot of tried-and-failed policy advice that requires good faith efforts from the Chinese government. Hass suggests both sides could develop a “bilateral prelaunch missile notification regime,” establish “a direct link between the U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center and its Chinese counterpart,” and commit “to refrain from activities in space that create orbital debris.” He also suggests “agreeing that nuclear early warning and launch decisions must remain under direct human control.” This wish list, while admirable, ignores the fact that the Chinese government has rebuffed U.S. overtures to establish a stable military dialogue for the better part of 30 years. For all his knowledge of and engagement with China, it is unclear if Hass respects China’s government enough to take “no” for an answer.

While there is much to disagree with in the book, China hands will have to respond to it. Hass’s long-standing relationships with the foreign-policy community in Washington suggest this book is likely being read by key policymakers within the Biden administration. But the policy diagnosis and prescriptions in the book rest on an outdated analysis of both the United States and China. Stronger overestimates both the U.S. capacity for political stability and popular patience for continued long-term efforts to shape Chinese government behavior through cooperation and engagement. The book also falsely imagines the Chinese government has an interest in maintaining a functional relationship with the United States on anything but China’s terms. The debate on a new China policy may not be settled, but an approach that rests on outdated or unrealistic assumptions about China’s intentions and U.S. capacities is unlikely to defend U.S. interests.

Nina Palmer is a senior fellow for China at the Center for American Progress. She has previously worked in government and consulting, including at the U.S. Embassy Beijing, U.S Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of the Navy.