Pondering Sullivan: Part II

Feb 8, 2024

Last week, I offered some thoughts on a January 30 speech given by Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor, on the future of the US-China relationship. I drew encouragement from his emphasis on the need for a new architecture of engagement for the two superpowers. But I argued that the new architecture had to go beyond Sullivan’s preference for diplomacy. Consistent with the conclusion of Accidental Conflict, I made the case for more of an institutionalized structure of relationship management along the lines of a US-China secretariat.

There was a lively Q&A session after Sullivan’s speech that was moderated by Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor in the Bush II administration who has focused much of his work on China since leaving the government. The session covered a number of topics that were not in the speech, ranging from AI and human rights to geopolitical instability and China’s relationships with US adversaries (Russia, North Korea, and Iran). But the question that intrigued me the most was, of course, about economics. Dan Rosen, a seasoned China watcher from Rhodium, asked Sullivan to clarify the Administration’s view on the Chinese economy. The question was less aimed at eliciting a forecast from Sullivan but more directed at understanding the economic considerations that might be relevant for framing US national security policy toward China.

Unfortunately, Sullivan ducked the question. Responding more like a politician than a national security analyst, he claimed he didn’t want to be pinned down in making a forecast. That was not the point of Rosen’s question. As Sullivan noted in response to a question from Hadley, debate over China’s growth trajectory has intensified recently, with important domestic and foreign implications. Sullivan conceded that this debate has raised a number of critical issues: US-China economic convergence, China’s tradeoff between economic growth and its own national security priorities, and China’s aspirational growth objectives.  Far from being a gotcha question designed to associate Sullivan with a specific economic forecast, Rosen’s question provided the US National Security Advisor with an opportunity to probe the analytics of how to think about China’s economic challenges.

I was also disappointed that Jake Sullivan didn’t use the occasion of his recent speech to advance his earlier provocative views on the growing technology conflict between the US and China. He has taken the lead in defending Washington’s growing use of export sanctions on advanced semiconductors to protect the conceptual framework of a  “small yard, high fence” that now apparently defines America’s national security priorities vis a vis China. In doing so, Sullivan has stressed that Washington has no desire to contain or suppress Chinese economic growth and development. A year ago, Xi Jinping took precisely the other side of this debate, blaming the US and its allies for “…comprehensive containment, encirclement, and suppression against us (China), bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”  This was a golden opportunity for Sullivan to attempt to reconcile these divergent views.

The trade-off between economic growth and national security is important for both the United States and China, to say nothing of the relationship between them. I have stressed that increased emphasis on national security—whether through decoupling, de-risking, friend-shoring, or export sanctions—is not without altering the efficiency dividends that have long underpinned a more open globalization. This takes on added importance for the US-China relationship, which historically has been anchored in economics and trade. Shifting priorities toward national security point to a conflict-prone re-anchoring that keeps the US and China on a collision course. Jake Sullivan’s reluctance  to expand his views on this key aspect of the US-China conflict was another opportunity missed.

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