To the chagrin of foreign policy wonks, U.S. presidential elections are almost never about foreign policy. This one is no exception. The American people, quite reasonably, care more intensely about things that impact them more directly than U.S. foreign policy. America’s size, power, and remoteness insulate voters from grave danger.
The think-tankers churn out reams of white papers and op-eds, about What Trump Should Do About Iraq or some such, and no one reads them. Candidates and their staffs have better things to do. The political people tell candidates what they need to say on TV in the unlikely event they get asked a tough question about foreign policy.
Even within foreign policy, small-ball topics that have inexplicable political cachet, like Benghazi, dominate the scene. Big, lumbering subjects that enjoy consensus among elites get ignored.
So as the Trump nomination unfolds amid telenovela-level drama, let’s dig in to U.S. China policy.
It’s both a cliche and true that the relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. If it goes sideways, pretty much every facet of international life would be affected, from security to economics to the environment.
Together, the two countries comprise nearly 40 percent of the world economy and more than 45 percent of the world’s military expenditures. Although China’s growth rate has slowed considerably, its rate is still high enough and its economy is now large enough that when combined, promise a relatively stronger China if present trends continue.
When confronted with a rapidly rising power, the question facing a dominant state is how much to worry. Some scholars have argued that the United States should work to contain China, since it’s unlikely China will rise in a way that doesn’t threaten the United States. Others have argued that more of the same will likely ensnare China in a “rules-based international order” that will prevent the worst visions of a future China from coming to be.
But the central problem of U.S. China policy is that it makes the future American policymakers fear more likely. What U.S. policymakers want is a China they can trade with, but that remains militarily weak and feeble. The problem is that as trade persists, China becomes relatively more strong, which makes it less likely Beijing will pursue a humble foreign policy.
Trade with China helps narrow the gap in relative economic power between the two countries. As it does, China has more resources to put toward contesting U.S. dominance in East Asia. The question then becomes: Do you believe China will resist U.S. power or shrug at it?
Ask yourself: If China dominated the Western Hemisphere the way the United States dominates East Asia, would the United States tolerate it or work to unwind it? (Or, ask the same question with the British Empire in place of China.)
Of course the U.S. would work to push back China, just as it worked to push back the British Empire. Then ask yourself, as John Mearsheimer asks his students at the University of Chicago, whether you think China is that much more trusting and magnanimous than the United States, or whether the United States is somehow unique in its distrust of other states and belligerent in confronting them.
It isn’t. What that means for U.S.-China policy is that as China grows relatively wealthier, it is likely to convert that wealth into power, and as it grows more powerful, it is likely to resist U.S. prerogatives more forcefully. U.S. policymakers seem to have given little thought to this prospect.
Chinese growth could collapse totally. In that case, it’s an academic question. But if Chinese growth continues, and if U.S. growth remains sluggish, the question will become an important policy problem afflicting the most important relationship in the world.
For now, however, politicians will continue to debate whether the president has said “radical Islamist terrorism” enough and continue to ignore an important contradiction at the center of U.S.-China policy.