SAN DIEGO — An emerging generation of China policy experts is advocating a much sharper tone and approach toward Beijing, in contrast with a number of veteran China hands whose careers were shaped by the promise and tradition of engagement.
The debate is taking place amid a generational shift, and the diverging views were on vivid display during a forum last week sponsored by the University of California at San Diego.
“A more competitive United States would be a stabilizing force,” said Ely Ratner, who was deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden in the Obama administration and is now executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security.
U.S. strategy should “not just be engagement or containment,” said Ratner, 42, who was among several scholars and former practitioners loosely dubbed “the younger generation” who spoke at the 21st Century China Center’s inaugural China forum.
“There will be issues,” Ratner said during a panel, “where the United States will have to be confrontational — on information operations, intellectual property theft, Xinjiang Province (where China has detained at least a million Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps), on the most illiberal aspects of China’s behavior.”
There were policy prescriptions that everyone — young, old, Republican, Democrat — agreed on, and the generational split is not absolute. One area of agreement is that to confront the economic and security challenges posed by a rising China, the United States needs to sharply boost investments in education and advanced technology research, as well as take advantage of international alliances to bring about a desired change of behavior in Beijing.
Those proposals are undergirded by a bipartisan consensus that China poses a broad challenge — in economic, military and technological terms — that the United States cannot afford to ignore. The Trump administration’s 2017 national security strategy declared the U.S. has entered a new era of great power competition, with China and Russia as the two strategic competitors.
But the week’s proceedings also were leavened by repeated admonitions from the more seasoned hands that the relationship can be managed through dialogue and finding common ground, without verging into hostile rivalry. Their remarks also were a rebuke of the Trump administration’s more hawkish rhetoric on Beijing.
“There’s little desire for a permanent confrontation much less conflict with China,” said forum co-chair Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush, during a public panel on Monday. “What’s the challenge? The challenge is to be both strategic competitors and strategic cooperators at the same time — and to not let the strategic competition that we will face drive us into becoming adversaries or enemies.”