Generational clash among US experts in China policy debate

SAN DIEGO • An emerging generation of China policy experts in the US is advocating a much sharper tone and approach towards Beijing, in contrast to a number of veteran China hands whose careers were shaped by the promise and tradition of engagement.

The evolving debate over China strategy is taking place amid a generational shift, and the diverging views were on vivid display during a forum last week at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

"A more competitive United States would be a stabilising force," said Dr Ely Ratner, who was deputy national security adviser to former vice-president Joe Biden and is now executive vice-president of the Centre for a New American Security.

US strategy should "not just be engagement or containment", said Dr Ratner, 42, who was among several scholars and former practitioners loosely dubbed "the younger generation" who spoke at the inaugural China forum held by UCSD's 21st Century China Centre.

"There will be issues," he said during a panel, "where the US will have to be confrontational - on information operations, intellectual property theft, Xinjiang province, on the most illiberal aspects of China's behaviour". China has held at least a million Uighur Muslims in re-education camps in Xinjiang province.

To be sure, there were policy prescriptions that everyone - young, old, Republican, Democrat - agreed on, and the generational split is not absolute.

One area of agreement is that to confront the economic and security challenges posed by a rising China, the US needs to sharply boost its investments in education and advanced technology research, as well as take advantage of global alliances to bring about a desired change of behaviour in Beijing.

Those proposals are undergirded by a bipartisan consensus that China poses a broad challenge - in economic, military and technological terms - that the US cannot afford to ignore.

One area of agreement is that to confront the economic and security challenges posed by a rising China, the United States needs to sharply boost its investments in education and advanced technology research, as well as take advantage of global alliances to bring about a desired change of behaviour in Beijing.

Indeed, the Trump administration's 2017 national security strategy declared that the US has entered a new era of great power competition, with China and Russia as the two strategic competitors.

But the more seasoned China hands have also repeatedly admonished that the relationship can be managed through dialogue and finding common ground, without verging into hostile rivalry. Their remarks were also a rebuke of the Trump administration's more hawkish rhetoric on Beijing.

"There's little desire for a permanent confrontation, much less conflict, with China," said forum co-chair Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to former US president George W. Bush.

"What's the challenge? The challenge is to be both strategic competitors and strategic cooperators at the same time - and to not let the strategic competition that we will face drive us into becoming adversaries or enemies," he said. "We need a competitive coexistence framework for US-China relations."

Apart from the public panel held on Aug 12, the forum's proceedings were conducted under rules preserving anonymity. Some participants, however, agreed to be quoted for this article.

Mr Jeffrey Bader, whose three-decade career in government on China issues spanned the State Department, National Security Council and Office of the US Trade Representative office, said: "What I fear right now is, because of the emergence of China as a strategic foe, rival, the whole framework of engagement is being abandoned."

He cited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is increasingly speaking out about China's activities, a State Department spokesman calling China a "thuggish regime" and national security adviser John Bolton asserting that China is seeking "global dominance".

 
 

Meanwhile, several "next-generation" specialists expressed a greater wariness of China's intentions and pressed for a more muscular approach.

"People in their 40s see Xi Jinping's China as the China we have to deal with," said Ms Melanie Hart, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, referring to the Chinese President whose crackdown on dissent, abolition of presidential term limits, military build-up in the South China Sea and rollback of political and market liberalisation have frustrated American policymakers. Beijing's approach "is often zero-sum. It aims to surpass the United States", she said.

She added that China is seeking to use its growing military power to achieve "dominance in the Indo-Pacific" and leverage its burgeoning economic and political might "to make the global system more authoritarian".

Forum co-chair Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Centre, warned against overreach in the fight against intellectual property theft, saying it could hound talented Chinese scientists out of the US and lead to an "anti-Chinese version of the Red Scare".

At one point, a Chinese participant quipped to the group that he preferred the "older generation" to the younger folk.

Mr Evan Medeiros, who at 48 is a greybeard among the younger generation and who worked on China policy in the National Security Council under the Obama administration, agrees Washington should take Beijing to task for its coercive and predatory behaviours. But he also urged tolerance in the inter-generational debate.

"Both sides," he said, "could do a better job of meeting each other half way."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2019, with the headline 'Generational clash among US experts in China policy debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe