Despite heated language, the U.S. goals haven’t changed.
The U.S. policy community has produced no shortage of strategies for competing with China. Increasingly frustrated that the long-standing U.S. policy of engagement failed to turn Beijing into a “responsible stakeholder,” the Trump administration, along with a bipartisan cross section of Washington’s policy community, changed tact. Their competitive strategies are willing to impose costs on Beijing, restrict economic engagement, and tolerate greater bilateral friction to push back on China and more aggressively defend U.S. interests. But competition, it is often pointed out, is not an end in itself. What, then, do these competitive strategies seek to achieve?
Washington’s objectives in shaping China’s international behavior remain largely unchanged, even as the means for achieving them have shifted. This is seldom acknowledged, in part because it doesn’t fit comfortably with the narratives of either hawks or doves on China. In addition to deterring Chinese aggression and maintaining its strategic position in the region, the United States is still trying to shape China into a rule-abiding and system-sustaining member of the international community. In other words, it continues to seek to shape China into a “responsible stakeholder,” just as Robert Zoellick famously called for 15 years ago. Thus, those that suggest the responsible-stakeholder approach is “dead” overstate just how much has changed for a wide swath of Washington.