Jim Steinberg, former United States deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, discussed U.S.-China relations and analyzed the current situation between what he described as a hawkish White House and an ascendant China during a Thursday event.
American Grand Strategy hosted the event, which was moderated by Peter Feaver, the director of AGS and a professor of public policy and political science. Steinberg contended that American foreign policy has now reached a watershed moment with major ramifications for the future.
“For the first time in 50 years, there’s a fundamental debate about whether the U.S. has an interest in having a positive, constructive relationship with China,” Steinberg said.
Aside from serving in the Obama administration, Steinberg was vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and the deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton. He now teaches social science, international affairs and law at Syracuse University.
In the present day, Steinberg encouraged steadfast adherence to traditional U.S. principles in East Asia while maintaining an open door of cooperation with China. In the case of human rights, he argued that Chinese elites will protect their autocratic regime at all costs.
He argued that the United States should protect Taiwan against aggression from its bigger neighbor, even if this means military confrontation. The bargain with China, Steinberg said, is that America would be allowed to support Taiwan with military infrastructure while stopping short of a push for full independence.
Not all in the audience agreed with Steinberg’s stance, however. During the question portion, an audience member heatedly that Taiwan belonged exclusively to China. When Steinberg attempted to respond, the individual repeatedly talked over the moderator’s requests for silence.
As Feaver signaled for the next question, the audience member interjected again and began comparing Taiwan’s situation to potential secession movements in Hawaii, California and Texas.
Turning to the past, Steinberg explained that U.S. foreign policy on China rested on the “basic assumption” of cooperation since the 1970s, reflecting a conscious decision to encourage its economic rise. He noted that this policy choice resulted in real-world implications: the decision to officially recognize Beijing instead of Taipei, forbearance toward the Chinese Communist Party’s checkered human rights record and the acceptance of China into the World Trade Organization.
Steinberg argued that part of this choice to cooperate stemmed from pragmatism, as U.S. policymakers knew that their Chinese counterparts clung to certain fundamental positions that neither the power of the carrot nor the stick could change. At the same time, he said, China’s economic ascendancy would also benefit the United States by driving global growth.
This policy of cooperation worked as long as China remained behind the United States. But now, he explained, Chinese President Xi Jinping projects unprecedented confidence at home and abroad, and the Chinese economy rivals only America in terms of gross domestic output.
“Now that China is beginning to approach our strength, is it still in our interest to cooperate?” Steinberg asked.
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Although it may seem easy to criticize past policies for bolstering China at the United States’ expense, Steinberg said that it is not so simple. U.S. policymakers handled a rising China in the most pragmatic way possible to advance American interests.
After all, Steinberg said that the “essence of policymaking” should focus on what will ultimately be achieved.