A Dead End for Diplomacy?

Jun 16, 2023

As the US Secretary of State wings his way toward Beijing — finally, I add, emphatically— the focus of the US-China conflict shifts back toward diplomacy. Unfortunately, this mission is shaping up as a painful reminder of what is missing in the realm of US-China engagement.  My Yale colleague and former senior US diplomat, Susan Thornton, has written eloquently of the important role that diplomacy played in the early days of relationship building between the two nations.  Sadly, those days now appear to be over.

Diplomacy ultimately takes its legitimacy from politics.  And with the politics of US-China conflict escalation increasingly poisonous, Antony Blinken’s hands are largely tied as he sets foot in Beijing.  This morning (June 16), I happened to catch a CNBC interview with Rep. Mike Gallagher, Chairman of the new House Select Committee on China. Gallagher had the audacity to blame America’s China problem on nothing other than engagement. His strident message echoed a piece he published earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, “Zombie Engagement With Beijing,” which argued that “…engagement invariably leads to appeasement in the face of foreign aggression.”

Oh really?  As the first hearing of the Select Committee painfully illustrated on February 28, the Gallagher view makes US-China diplomacy an oxymoron. Admitting China into the WTO in late 2001 has become the smoking gun in this polemic — a negotiation now argued to have been based on the presumption that if we (the United States) let China into our trading system, they (China) would become more and more like us. I italicized three words in the previous sentence – we, our, and they — with the intent of underscoring the utter disdain of today’s bipartisan consensus of US politicians toward a China that doesn’t toe the line of America’s rules for a unipolar world. In the spirit of my recent book, Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives, this is a classic false narrative.

Gallagher is a stalking  horse for a dangerous ahistorical China bashing that has now taken Washington by storm.  It ignores the extraordinary breakthroughs of US-China engagement that were spawned by the diplomatic gambits of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s. A key lesson of those successful efforts and the three communiqués that followed, which anchored the modern US-China relationship, is that they were all part of a grand strategy of engagement that was a high priority for Washington in the early years of the post-World War II era.

There is no room for grand strategy in today’s climate of geostrategic paranoia.  Blinken is not Kissinger — he has been smothered by a toxic anti-China climate that has engulfed Washington.  On his watch, the US-China conflict has become more of a battle of wordsmanship — de-risking versus decoupling, competition versus containment, coercion versus accountability.  Splitting rhetorical hairs between these distinctions doesn’t justify aggressive actions by either nation — tariffs, sanctions, or military posturing, Missing is a viable framework of engagement that can bring both sides together in resolving the mutual problems of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship. I continue to pound the table on my proposal for a US-China Secretariat as the centerpiece of such a new architecture of engagement.  Is anyone listening?

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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