Generational clash emerges among US experts in China policy debate

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 investments in education and advanced technology research.
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 investments in education and advanced technology research.PHOTO: AFP

SAN DIEGO (WASHINGTON POST) - An emerging generation of China policy experts is advocating a much sharper tone and approach towards Beijing, in contrast with 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 here this past week sponsored by the University of California at San Diego.

"A more competitive United States would be a stabilising force," said Mr Ely Ratner, who was deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden in the Obama administration and is now executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security.

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

"There will be issues," he said during a panel, "where the United States will have to be confrontational - on information operations, intellectual property theft, Xinjiang Province (where China has detained at least a million Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps), on the most illiberal aspects of China's behaviour." 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 United States needs to sharply boost investments in education and advanced technology research, as well as take advantage of international 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 United States cannot afford to ignore. Indeed, the Trump administration's 2017 national security strategy declared that the United States has entered a new era of great power competition, with China and Russia as the two strategic competitors.

 
 

But the week's proceedings also were leavened by repeated admonitions from the more seasoned hands that the relationship can be managed through dialogue and finding common ground, without verging into hostile rivalry. Their remarks also were 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 served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush, during a public panel on Monday.

"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."

Said Mr Hadley: "We need a competitive coexistence framework for US-China relations."

Apart from the public panel, the proceedings were conducted under rules preserving anonymity, but some participants 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, had this lament: "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 malign 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, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, referring to the Chinese president whose crackdown on dissent, abolition of presidential term limits, military buildup in the South China Sea, and rollback of political and market liberalisation have frustrated American policymakers.

Beijing's approach "is often zero-sum," she said. "It aims to surpass the United States."

She said 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."

Like Ms Hart, Oriana Skylar Mastro, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has known China only as a rising power and advocates taking tougher measures. She painted a bleak picture of American military readiness. "In many contingencies today, the United States may not prevail," she said.

If countering China's aggression is a real priority, she mused, "why not put land bases in Vietnam? That would end the South China Sea issue." Another participant advised that Vietnam would never allow that.

Forum co-chair Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center, warned against overreach in the fight against intellectual property theft, saying it could hound talented Chinese scientists out of the United States 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 folks.

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

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