Author: Khoo, Nicholas1
Published in National Security Journal, 17 March 2021
Download full PDF version – The Trump Administration and the United States’ China Engagement Policy (504 KB)
The long-standing post-1972 consensus supporting a US policy of engagement with China has been eroded by increasing dissatisfaction with developments in China’s domestic and foreign policies. As a consequence, a policy of near full-spectrum US engagement has been replaced by a more conditional posture where conflict increasingly outweighs cooperation. This article describes the relationship’s breakdown during the Trump administration. It then evaluates two major competing explanations for the deterioration. These emphasise either the role of the concept of identity, or aspects of power politics, specifically, state interests and the distribution of capabilities. In a concluding section, the implications of a more confrontational Sino-US relationship for New Zealand are discussed.
Keywords: US engagement policy, Sino-US conflict, identity, neorealism, state interests, distribution of capabilities, New Zealand non-alignment.
US-China relations have faced many challenges since Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong brokered a dramatic diplomatic rapprochement in 1972, but none as serious as the present.1 At the present time, contention is the dominant characteristic in issue areas ranging from trade and military affairs, to human rights and democracy. Indeed, even before the Trump administration came to power, a consensus had developed among US China specialists that US engagement policy with China had failed, even as debate existed on what policy to replace it with.2 Thus, in 2015, Harry Harding, a leading China expert, lamented the poor state of the US-China relationship. According to Harding, “present [US China] policy is widely believed to have failed.”3 Looking to the future, his concern was that the US-China relationship would become “essentially competitive or even degenerate into open rivalry.”4 That time has come. Since 2017, there has been open acknowledgement in the United States of “geopolitical competition”5 and “strategic competition”6 with China, and serious discussion of how to “decouple” the relationship.7 Meanwhile, the Chinese perspective is that policies pursued by the US, particularly during the Trump presidency, are responsible for the present state of the relationship.8 As the Biden administration takes over the policy reins, this article establishes that the era of a near full-spectrum US policy of engagement with China has ended,9 replaced by a more conditional posture that reflects a greater US tolerance for conflict.10 It then proceeds to evaluate two major competing explanations for this development. These emphasise either the role of the concept of identity, or aspects of power politics — specifically, state interests and the distribution of capabilities. A final section discusses the implications of heightened Sino-US rivalry for New Zealand.
1 Nicholas Khoo is Associate Professor in the Politics Programme at the University of Otago. He thanks Peter Grace, Reuben Steff, and John Tai for comments on this article.