At the top of our next president’s task list will be rescuing American foreign policy from the wreckage of the Obama years. The prevailing headlines detail a grim litany of new threats, each one emanating from an Obama administration policy failure. From the expansionist barbarity of the Islamic State, to the collapse of Libya into warring factions, to Yemen’s degeneration into civil war and a terrorist safe haven, to unprecedented concessions that have strengthened Iran, to Russian adventurism forcibly redrawing Europe’s borders, to the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the threat environment that the Obama administration is preparing to hand over to its successor is grave.
Not since the end of World War II has the American-led international system been under such severe strain from so many quarters. While the above threats all command attention, perhaps the greatest challenge to world order is the resurgence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is the only nation that has the size, wealth, and ambition to credibly threaten U.S. global leadership and international stability. At stake is not only the national security of the United States but the future of the international system our nation helped create and has led for seven decades. In truth, they are almost inseparable. At the end of the Cold War, the late Samuel Huntington argued that only by remaining the dominant world player could the United States ensure the continuation of a liberal order. Thus, the challenge from China is not only geopolitical; Beijing is also ideologically hostile toward democratic capitalism and free societies.
Our next president’s China policy needs to address the heart of the problem: The external assertiveness of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) emanates from its internal repression. As Aaron Friedberg has pointed out, “the party’s desire to retain power shapes every aspect of national policy. When it comes to external affairs, it means that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to ‘make the world safe for authoritarianism,’ or at least for continued one-party rule in China.”
The CCP has thus far successfully maintained its monopoly on power and avoided any meaningful political reform. American policy in recent years has conceded this monopoly to the CCP and done little to support Chinese reformers, dissenters, and voices for liberty. There may have been short-term rationales for this, but as a policy it has run its course.
A new strategy that aims for a freer China would, in the span of history, not be so new at all. It has been part of the strategic conception of most U.S. presidents since the Cold War opening to China.
U.S. Policy and Democracy in China
Nixon and Kissinger’s justly heralded strategic opening to Beijing in 1972 realigned mainland China from a Communist revolutionary adversary to a “normal” authoritarian partner in the Cold War. This new relationship rekindled hopes that China might eventually transition from autocratic to democratic. A series of developments in the 1970s and 1980s—including Mao Zedong’s death, the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, and the collapse of Soviet communism at the end of the Cold War—provided some episodic momentum to these hopes. Many wondered if perhaps the words “Chinese democracy” might eventually become a reality and not just a Guns N’ Roses album.
Accordingly, every American administration since 1989 has premised its China policy on a strategic bet: that as China becomes more prosperous, it will also become freer and a more responsible member of the international system. From George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, each administration built its China policy on this assumption that economic reform would lead inevitably to political reform. This was a reasonable premise. Many of Washington’s authoritarian friends in Asia had successfully embraced democracy, including South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. As other Asian societies made this transition, it made sense to assume that China would follow the same path.
While encouraging closer economic ties between the United States and China, these presidents also attempted to engage China through outreach and dialogue. Treating China like an adversary would cause it to act like an adversary, the assumption went, whereas engaging with China would lead it to be more like us: peaceful, stable, and free.