Skip to content
closeup photography of red berries

What is US Policy on China?

No one knows, especially US policymakers.

Words: Joshua Rovner, Yun Sun, and Kevin Klyman
Pictures: Joey Huang

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. It aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise. 

According to the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, China is the United States’ greatest foreign policy challenge. But the exact nature of that challenge and how best to address it is not nearly as clear. Recent high-level meetings between Chinese officials and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen demonstrate a willingness by both sides to engage one another, but parts of the relationship remain adversarial and threaten to devolve further. 

Amidst the turmoil of this relationship, the Reimagining US Grand Strategy program convened its monthly roundtable to discuss what the US approach to China should be. The conversation focused on areas for potential cooperation and the topics most likely to cause controversy. Participants largely agreed that the Biden administration’s strategy is missing a clear articulation of its desired outcome for its China policy. While the administration has identified many new policies and initiatives aimed at China, it has not been clear what exactly it is trying to accomplish over the longer term. Three participants provided their insights on the Biden administration’s China policy and how it might be refined.

Joshua Rovner, Associate Professor, American University

The United States has made itself secure and prosperous in the last few decades. It came out of the Cold War with a historically unprecedented advantage in relative strength, and it can project military power like no other. Reliable national security has allowed it to invest in other foreign policy goals, including human rights, global health, and democratization. Its large advantages have allowed it to weather terrible policy blunders, like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The United States’ margin of error also means that it can live with waste and inefficiency. Even critics of overspending acknowledge that bloated budgets are “foolish but sustainable.” 

Having built a favorable international order, the United States is now in the business of holding on. It does not seek fundamental changes in the global balance of power, the ideological foundations of international commerce, or the familiar routines of international institutions. In other words, US grand strategy is that of the status quo.  

How long can this last? The answer is far from simple. US grand strategy has persisted for a number of reasons — economic, geographic, military, and political — and woe betide the analyst who tries to determine which has mattered most. An additional factor contributing to US success has been the absence of competitors. Most of its would-be rival great powers were diminished after World War II, and the Soviet Union impoverished itself in the Cold War. The status quo is easier to sustain when there aren’t many challengers.

The Biden administration is working hard to maintain the longstanding Asian order, but its efforts are coming under strain as China presses outward.

Enter China. Over the last quarter century, Beijing has made remarkable economic strides, which has allowed it to invest in sweeping military and nuclear modernization programs. Its ambitions have grown alongside its new capabilities. The Chinese leadership has become more assertive in its regional claims and more confrontational with the United States and US allies. Beijing is clearly not satisfied with open-ended US maritime dominance in East Asia. The Biden administration is working hard to maintain the longstanding Asian order, but its efforts are coming under strain as China presses outward.

Staying the course is also difficult to sustain at home. The absence of a clear security threat makes it hard for Congress and the public to rally around the flag. And the absence of some larger goal makes it hard to sustain enthusiasm for a large forward-deployed military force posture. There is nothing glorious or exciting about the status quo.

It is possible that overcoming Chinese expansion might become that goal. A Chinese attack on Taiwan could galvanize public and congressional support, especially if US personnel were casualties. But for the time being, US grand strategy in Asia seems to be caught in the middle: its military presence is enough to frustrate Chinese officials, but China’s response has not been enough to forge a consensus in Washington about how to respond. So the status quo, however unsatisfying, remains in place.  

Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Director, Stimson Center’s China Program

In US-China relations, all policy necessitates compromise. For US policymakers to create a cohesive China policy, they must first define what kind of relationship the United States desires with China, identify points of compromise, and determine what the endgame looks like for the US-China relationship. Currently, the United States has not identified the markers of success for the bilateral relationship, creating a sense of uncertainty for the future of US-China relations.  

Currently, the United States has not identified the markers of success for the bilateral relationship, creating a sense of uncertainty for the future of US-China relations.  

Additionally, the United States needs to decide whether it will continue to pursue a compartmentalized approach in the relationship. If the objective of US policy on China is to compete, then a compartmentalized approach makes sense. However, if the goal is to also cooperate, then a compartmentalized approach adds barriers to engagement. A prime example is US-targeted sanctions on Chinese actors and institutions engaged in bilateral cooperation. While US government officials do not view sanctions, such as those on General Li Shangfu, as problematic for future military exchanges, these sanctions are problematic from China’s perspective. Under such conditions, Beijing does not see cooperation as a tenable option.

Kevin Klyman, Lead Technology Researcher, Harvard’s Avoiding Great Power War Project

The US foreign policy establishment has hailed the Commerce Department’s October 2022 export controls on China’s semiconductor industry as an unambiguous success. Various experts have claimed that the restrictions were well thought out, allies were surprisingly willing to comply and adopt their own rules, and “the Biden administration got the scope, scale, and, critically, the timing right.”

Despite these plaudits, many observers have described these export controls as a “declaration of economic war” on China. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, told Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his recent visit to Beijing that such measures are a serious impediment to improving US-China relations. Wang demanded that the United States “lift illegal unilateral sanctions against China, stop suppressing China’s scientific and technological advances, and not wantonly interfere in China’s internal affairs.” Nevertheless, the Commerce Department is readying even more severe semiconductor export controls in order to prevent Chinese firms from developing large AI models.

The burgeoning consensus in Washington that semiconductor export controls were a clear-cut victory for the United States should give us pause. Relatively few foreign policy analysts have stopped to ask: What if the analysis of the “adults in the room” in the White House is wrong on export controls? There are three main causes for concern here.

The burgeoning consensus in Washington that semiconductor export controls were a clear-cut victory for the United States should give us pause.

First, the Commerce Department largely does not consider the economic impact of export controls when formulating policies related to economic warfare. Undersecretary of Commerce Alan Estevez said last year that the economic impact of restrictions would never supersede security concerns: “Letting a foreign adversary use US technology or allied technology…just goes against the grain for me so [the ancillary economic impact of export controls] could be a consideration but it would be trumped by the national security considerations.”

Second, the US government is not skeptical enough about AI. The prevailing view in Washington is that AI will rapidly transform warfighting and the economy, meaning the United States must win the AI competition at any cost. This is among the primary factors motivating US semiconductor export controls: By blocking China’s access to graphics processing units, the United States limits China’s ability to use such chips to train models akin to OpenAI’s GPT-4. But there is ample evidence that many AI systems are just snake oil and that today’s large language models are not “superintelligent” agents that will immediately upend geopolitics. Applications of AI are overwhelmingly commercial — the theory that large AI models will have massive military applications is untested, though it still drives US policy.

Third, export controls are expanding rapidly. US officials have repeatedly acknowledged that they intend to implement similarly broad export controls targeting AI, biotechnology, and quantum information science in China. It has become increasingly difficult to believe policymakers’ assertions that they are protecting a “small yard with a high fence” with “narrowly focused” export controls when the yard regularly doubles in size. 

The long-term strategy underlying the tech war remains inscrutable. But it is clear that semiconductor export controls and related policies have significant ramifications that the Blob has overlooked.

Joshua Rovner, Yun Sun, and Kevin Klyman

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.