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A Response by David Feith

  1. The Shadow of the Past

What should be the goal—the “end state”—of U.S. policy toward China? The question is darkly shadowed by the past, when for some 25 years, U.S. policymakers widely agreed on a goal that was clear, compelling, and egregiously wrong. 

Some called it “convergence.” The Germans called it “Wandel durch Handel,” for “change through trade.” The journalist James Mann brilliantly identified it in 2007 as the “Soothing Scenario.” It was the belief that diplomacy and especially trade with China would liberalize its politics and spur its transformation into a “responsible stakeholder” in a U.S.-led liberal international order. 

Those ideas served us terribly. Given this experience, we should approach with modesty the task of articulating new goals now for our China policy. 

  1. About Us, Not Them

In my view, the appropriate end state for U.S. policy captures not the condition of China’s politics but of America’s interests, as reflected in our security, freedoms, and prosperity. 

China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and especially under Xi Jinping, is hostile to U.S. interests. We know that it is skillful at accumulating power and coercive leverage. The key questions are whether we (and our allies) will have the skill and will to defend ourselves, build resilience, and maintain advantage. These traits will be tested in contests for military and techno-economic supremacy that will determine future global power. 

Jackie Deal’s essay is a valuable guide here. 

It underscores that the stakes of our China challenge are enormous—life and death. It shows that the CCP does not simply seek economic-material advantage in mercantilist terms but seeks ideologically to coerce and even tyrannize those over whom it has control, at home and abroad. What is required from us, Dr. Deal observes, is a “counterstrategy” of “extrusion and containment.” This is wisely not a maximalist formulation. It usefully conveys, however, that our task is hard and should begin with domestic efforts to reverse gains the CCP has made by exploiting the openness of our system.  

  1. Xi’s End State is U.S. “Demise”

Xi Jinping himself spoke of strategic end-states in a speech delivered to CCP leaders in 2013 (and kept secret until 2019). He directed his Party-state in clear Communist terms to fight and win a long-term existential struggle with global capitalism, led of course by the United States: 

Some people think that communism can be aspired to but never reached, or even think that it cannot be hoped for, cannot be envisioned, and is a complete illusion. . . Facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engels’s analysis of the basic contradiction of capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism will inevitably perish and socialism will inevitably triumph outdated. This is the irreversible overall trend of social and historical development, but the road is winding. The ultimate demise of capitalism, and ultimate triumph of socialism, will inevitably be a long historical process.

We should have no illusions about the CCP’s long-term goal and how hostile it is. This commitment by China to our “demise” may not change so long as China is led by an ideological CCP. 

  1. Why Not Their Demise? 

Some analysts note Xi’s hostile statements and contend that U.S. strategy should reciprocate—that we should set our goal as the demise of the CCP. Only this, they argue, would decisively end the competition and uphold U.S. values, including respect for the universal democratic rights of China’s people. Our last Cold War ended with the Soviet Communist Party’s demise, after all, in 1991. 

These arguments are worth considering. But it may be unwise to formulate a goal in these terms. Decisive, democratic, and 1991-style are terms that set a very high bar. They are provocative. And they may impede rather than advance U.S. purposes. In setting a strategic “end state,” we should define a condition that is achievable at reasonable cost and risk, on a timetable we can realistically plan for, and with sustained support from the American people and our allies. This is not an argument for being soft but for being smart. 

Setting such a goal does not prevent U.S. officials from criticizing China’s domestic rights abuses. Nor does it bar us from expressing the hope that China’s government will eventually transform into a true friend of the United States that respects the democratic rights of the Chinese people. The sooner that happens, the better. Speaking up for human rights, helping victims, and penalizing perpetrators is the right thing to do and illuminates what is at stake if CCP power multiplies.

  1. Sharks, Dolphins, and Cages 

Former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger has offered a compelling and simple analogy for our China challenge. Describing the failed “convergence” vision of the past, he said:

We saw a baby shark and thought that we could transform it into a dolphin over time, to become a friendly sort of system. Instead, what we did was we kept feeding the shark and the shark got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And now we're dealing with a formidable, great white.1

Pottinger extends the metaphor to suggest an end state that seeks not to transform China’s politics but to limit its capability to act against our interests:

With a shark you put up a shark cage. The shark doesn’t take it personally. It bumps into the cage. It respects those barriers.

This is the logic of constraint, not transformation. It was reflected in the official “U.S. Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” published in 2020, which stated:

United States policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model. . . Rather, United States policies are designed to protect our interests and empower our institutions to withstand the CCP’s malign behavior and collateral damage from the PRC’s internal governance problems.2

This way of thinking is practical and prudent. It has the advantage of being far more acceptable to allies than would be the goal of regime demise, which would inevitably be disparaged as “regime change.” China, of course, cannot be put into a cage, so there are limits to the analogy. But there is a crucial difference between constraint and transformation.

  1. Counter-Coercion Defense: Taiwan Deterrence, ‘Super OPEC’, Sovereign Resilience 

If we set our strategic goal as wise and tough constraint of China, where do we fix boundaries? Two lines clearly deserve priority. First is military aggression against Taiwan. Second is acquisition of dominance over the key inputs of modern economic life.  

Forcibly annexing Taiwan would open the way for Beijing to dominate Asia and gain coercive power around the world. It would undermine U.S. economic strength and independence, as well as our security and diplomatic credibility, including the integrity of our alliances. It would spur proliferation of nuclear weapons. The world would become enormously more dangerous.

Less well-recognized is the threat from China’s techno-industrial strategies. Decades of misguided U.S. trade and technology policies have helped China gain rising economic coercive power that must now be rolled back. China wants to become a super-OPEC of the 21st century: able to control supply of vital inputs to the world economy, especially in computing (e.g. semiconductors, AI) and “green” technologies (e.g. solar, electric vehicle batteries, minerals). Its aim is not just commercial but strategic: to give itself coercive leverage, a license for aggression, and tools to win wars. 

To counter this, the United States and our allies must improve the balance of military power, harden economic and technology policies, and secure our political institutions against CCP influence. We should also devise active rather than just reactive strategies to affect Beijing’s strategic calculations. The CCP should not be confident that its aggressive plans will succeed. Its officials should worry about the internal contradictions in their political system, the social problems their policies have created, and the world’s negative view of their human rights abuses. 

If we in the West take the action necessary, China’s leaders will focus more on our strengths and their own vulnerabilities. They will feel less bold. We will have succeeded when Beijing can no longer confidently or credibly pursue global primacy. Today, we are far from that point. The task ahead is immense and urgent.

1 Ken Moriyasu, “China is a ‘Great White Shark’ Fed by the West: ex-Trump Adviser Pottinger,” Nikkei Asia, 4 May 2023.
2 Trump White House, “United Stated Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” Office of the President of the United States, May 2020.