WHEN RICHARD NIXON made his historic visit to Beijing in February 1972, he reassured Mao Zedong that neither of their countries had plans for global hegemony, meaning that they could work together and “find common ground, despite our differences”.
Nixon’s trip marked a shift not just in America’s relations with China but also in the centre of gravity for analysis of the country in America. China-watchers moved towards a more doveish presumption that China did not pose a threat and a hope that engagement would mean it gradually becoming more like America. Nearly half a century on, the balance has shifted once again, towards a hawkish posture that, as in the cold war, stresses ideological competition. The relationship is as confrontational now as at any point in the 50 years since Nixon went to China.
“It doesn’t take any bravery to be a China hawk today. It takes bravery to not be one,” says a former official who advised several presidents on China. He and many others see a desire for a new cold war in Washington. President Joe Biden’s officials, like President Donald Trump’s, talk of “strategic competition” with China, rather than co-operation.
Both parties on Capitol Hill strike a similar tone. A bill called the Strategic Competition Act passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21st, promising to “counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally”. Analysts at think-tanks and in the media have written stratagems for containment and elegies for engagement.
Expertise about China is not necessary. Within government, analysts who once focused on war zones have pivoted to China. Those who preach moderation towards the Chinese government risk being tarred by the most strident hawks as apologists, their motives called into question. Esteemed China specialists who were previously called on by the White House for advice have fallen out of favour.
China’s own actions have prompted the pushback. In the past decade the Communist Party has intensified repression at home, ramped up military activity in its near seas and, with its newfound economic heft, pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Meanwhile Xi Jinping, China’s president, warned that China was engaged in an ideological struggle with the West, and that he would not tolerate dissent or unrest. His removal of term limits on his rule, the crushing of civil liberties in Hong Kong and the mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang shocked many previously doveish analysts into hawkishness.
Former proponents of engagement are often now the loudest cheerleaders for the change in tone. “It was an illusion that China would change if we just sent more ballet troupes, more foundations, more academic exchanges, more journalists, more trade,” says Orville Schell of the Asia Society. “The message, and this is what the academic community is starting to understand, is that Leninism, if you have had many decades of it, is deep.”
Under Mr Trump, America’s national-security policy became focused on challenging China, by improving deterrence, especially in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait; by trying to stop Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, from building 5G networks around the world; and by rooting out Communist Party influence and espionage in America, subjecting an unknown number of academics and researchers with China links to scrutiny from the FBI.
Mr Trump appeared personally inclined to court Mr Xi and overlook or even applaud his repressive impulses. Yet the Trump administration was the first in the world to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and companies for their complicity in human-rights abuses in Xinjiang (the Biden administration would later co-ordinate further sanctions with its allies).
Dozens of American dissenters, including some prominent China scholars, pushed back in 2019 in an article in the Washington Post entitled “China is not an enemy”. They argued that America was exaggerating the threat from China as an “existential” one, and that its confrontational policy would weaken the hands of moderates within the Chinese government. On both counts their arguments were dismissed by critics as a rehash of engagement-era tropes, in particular the notion that there exists a meaningful pro-reform faction within Mr Xi’s Communist Party. The conversation about China in Washington remained unchanged.
In the summer of 2020 four Trump officials gave a series of speeches describing the Communist Party as a threat to freedom and democracy globally. And in January the Trump administration became the first government to declare that the atrocities committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang constituted genocide, a view the Biden administration has repeated but other countries have generally not. Mr Biden has adopted the Trump hard line, with less fire-breathing rhetoric, about the contest between authoritarianism and democracy.
Public sentiment against China runs high, too, in America and among its democratic allies. Being tough on China will continue to be popular. What worries the moderates, and even some of the hawks, is how China will respond if it decides the Biden administration is, like the Trump administration appeared to be, locked in an adversarial struggle. The strategic rationale of Nixon’s opening to China was that they had an adversary in common, the Soviet Union. Now America and China are left only with each other.■
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This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Doves become hawks”