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  • Reconsidering U.S.-China Relations:From Improbable Normalization to Precipitous Deterioration
  • David M. Lampton (bio)

United States, China, Foreign Relations, Security, Economics, Culture, Taiwan

[End Page 43]

executive summary

This essay examines the recent deterioration of U.S.-China relations and considers options for each country to stabilize the bilateral relationship until longer-term reforms are possible on both sides.

main argument

How the U.S. and the People's Republic of China deal with each other is the central major-power foreign policy issue of our time. The three pillars of the bilateral relationship for the last four decades (security, economics, and cultural-educational ties) have been undermined by political trends and the senior-most leaders in both societies. In the process, a revisionist narrative is taking root in both nations that the approach of "comprehensive engagement" pursued over the last 40 years was mistaken. Beyond enumerating some gains of engagement, this essay argues that the core problem in Sino-U.S. relations is that security ties are deteriorating rapidly. This deterioration, in turn, infects the other previously supportive pillars of the relationship, namely economic and educational ties. Therefore, the central need is to restore a compelling, positive security rationale for constructive bilateral ties in a very different circumstance from what existed when Richard Nixon went to China in 1972. Another major need is to introduce more reciprocity into bilateral relations so that Americans come to perceive that Beijing will cease tilting the economic, education, and media playing fields so lopsidedly in its own favor.

policy implications

  • • The first principle of U.S. foreign policy since the birth of the republic has been that Washington should neither foster nor permit a circumstance in which a single power or concert of powers hostile to U.S. interests dominates the Eurasian landmass or the Pacific. The effect of current policies is to drive Russia and China together in ways adverse to U.S. interests.

  • • In a circumstance of growing strategic hostility between Beijing and Washington, the Taiwan issue will become increasingly difficult to handle. The U.S. Congress and administration ought to act with a high degree of caution. For its part, Beijing needs to lower the temperature by reducing coercive economic and military measures against the island.

  • • China must introduce greater reciprocity into all dimensions of the U.S.-China relationship. Arguing that its weaknesses or victimhood entitles it to act by different rules from others will no longer be acceptable to an American public convinced of the essential unfairness of the current relationship. [End Page 44]

There cannot be order in the world without an orderly and minimally productive U.S.-China relationship. Neither country will be able to realize its own full potential if opposition by the other impedes progress. More than four decades of increasingly comprehensive engagement (starting in the 1970s) have brought both the United States and China enormous benefits, and indeed there is much to celebrate in both nations. All this notwithstanding, however, there are big problems that both countries must address.

In the United States, it is wrong to attribute today's challenges to the presumed naiveté of those alleged to have argued that China would become "just like us," or democratic. For most of those involved in the growing relationship, peace and rising welfare in both societies, along with more humane governance in the People's Republic of China (PRC), were admirable and fully supportable gains. In China, it is wrong to say that the last four decades of engagement were just the velvet glove hiding the iron fist of an underlying U.S. policy of containment and subversion.

Each country's leadership pursued engagement because it was in its interests. Although the power relationship has changed considerably over the last four decades, Beijing and Washington should not now pursue self-defeating initiatives based on the assumption that everything has changed and that past policy was constructed and pursued on false premises.

As we confront a dramatic deterioration in bilateral ties, we should fix responsibility for the current slide where it belongs—on the senior-most leaders in both countries. They are not living up to their national or global responsibilities. Below...


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