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Professor Zhao Suisheng lectures on US 40-year engagement policy with China


On June 19th, RDCY Seminar Series was held in Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China (RDCY). Zhao Suisheng, professor at Josef Korbel School of International Studies and director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation of University of Denver, delivered a speech with the theme about “the US engagement policy with China for more than 40 years”. Mr. Zhao systematically recalled the evolution of US engagement policy with China over the past 40 years, and elaborated its merits and demerits. In his view, engagement policy will last but will face transformation. US will abandon the illusions of changing China and return to realism. Moreover, Professor Zhao believes that US President Trump has not surpassed his predecessor at present, and his policies to China will fluctuate in the future.

He introduced the origins and purposes of the US contact policy. It was proposed by the US after Nixon`s visit to China. There are two goals. First is geopolitics. At that time, both China and the US faced a common enemy, the Soviet Union. The second is the long-term strategic purpose of the United States to change China. On the one hand, this contact policy is to help China modernize, allowing China to emerge a middle class, and achieve political liberalization and democratization. On the other hand, the rise of China in the international order dominated by the United States, so China is one of its stakeholders and it will not pose a threat to the United States’ international leadership.

At that time, China was backward and eagerly needed to revitalize. US’ technology, investment, and market played a positive role in China`s reform, opening-up, and development. In this sense, China and the US have reached a consensus, but this is a "misplaced consensus". Because the US attempted to turn China into a Western-style democratic society like itself, but the purpose of China’s modernization is to make the country rich and strong. Under such a misplaced consensus, the contacts between China and the US were successful from the late 1970s to early 1980s. US believed that China was changing in the direction it wanted.

However, Sino-US relations were severely tested after the end of the Cold War, because their common enemy, the Soviet Union, had disappeared. China, as the only major socialist country at the time, was in turn recognized as a strategic American competitor. During this period, according to the guidelines of Deng Xiaoping, China maintained its policies of low-profile and did not engage in confrontations and strengthened cooperation.

The financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 was an important turning point in the development of Sino-US relations. The US blamed China of China’s changing; China blamed the US of US’ restrictions. The US gradually realized that China did not accept some of its ideas, and US did not have the ability to change China. Therefore, under this circumstance, the US believed that the engagement policy with China can no longer be pursued in accordance with the original strategic objectives.

At the same time, China was full of confidence. The financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 hurt US’ economy deeply, but China quickly came out of it. At that time, many scholars believed that the US` dependence on China was greater than China’s on the US. China was increasingly dissatisfied with the international order dominated by the US, because it appeared to be unfair and unreasonable. Now China’s voice, plan, and wisdom are increasingly challenging the dominance of US. Therefore, the US began to worry about that China would establish a set of international rules to replace the US-led international order.

Professor Zhao does not think that Trump`s policies to China have undergone fundamental changes. The US attributes many economic problems to political issues. On the issue of security, several scholars believe that the Thucydides Trap between China and the US may cause conflicts and wars because of the fear between each other. After Trump took office, there are only two issues of concern with China: North Korea and trade issues. Therefore, his policies on China are very concentrated on these two issues, and trade frictions recently are not entirely directed against China. 

Why are Trump`s policies to China impossible to make essential changes? Why does the US have no way to abandon its contact policy with China even if it has so many criticisms? There might be a few reasons as follows:

First, China has benefited greatly from engagement policy, and the US has benefited a lot as well.

Second, if the US wants to maintain its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, it must cooperate with China.

Third, the engagement policy has largely prevented confrontations between China and the US. It is beneficial to China’s development, and is also very important for regional peace and stability.

Last, the US did not abandon its engagement policy, but instead transformed. The policy in the past was for changing China. Now it only seeks to safeguard the interests of the US.

Key Words: China   US   policy   Zhao Suisheng  

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