U.S.-China relations: Is it time to end the engagement?

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his speech as he and China's President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj - RC1BAC33F660

Content from the Brookings-Tsinghua Public Policy Center is now archived. Since October 1, 2020, Brookings has maintained a limited partnership with Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management that is intended to facilitate jointly organized dialogues, meetings, and/or events.

Executive Summary

Intensive engagement with China, which has been a foundation of U.S. policy since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, is under attack by critics of U.S. policy who seek to disengage the two countries. China’s growing strength, its perceived challenge to U.S. global leadership, its economic mercantilism, and other actions that are seen as threatening have persuaded many American policymakers and analysts that engagement no longer serves U.S. interest as we head into a period of intense rivalry. The Trump administration, legislators, and corporate and academic institutions are in the process of abandoning long-standing cooperative arrangements and programs affecting trade, investment, students on American campuses, funding of academic programs, media, and military interaction.

Engagement was never undertaken as a favor to China but because it was judged to be in the U.S. interest. Its abandonment would be highly likely to exacerbate hostility between the United States and China, persuade Chinese leaders and citizens alike that a more adversarial stance toward the United States is necessary, and advantage other countries operating in China that will not follow the U.S. path of disengagement. Continuing intensive engagement in no way would prevent alterations in U.S. policy to respond to challenges from China in the economic, digital, academic, and security fields. Indeed it would likely make policy changes more effective by giving China a continuing stake in the relationship with the United States.