Thu. Jun 20th, 2019

The United States is past engaging with China

Author: Kanishka Jayasuriya, Murdoch University

The executive order by US President Donald Trump blocking Chinese tech giant Huawei from the United States is an aggressive unilateral step under the guise of national security. It deals another blow to China as a potential strategic technology competitor to the United States and follows in the wake of the 25 per cent US tariff on a broad swathe of Chinese goods.

This is more than a resetting of the trade relationship between China and the United States. US policymakers have sought to engage and integrate China into the global economy via global trade rules and institutions since the 1980s.

Past US administrations based their China policies on the assumption that China’s economy will move to a more liberal market order via institutional adjustments imposed through global rules. These strategies led to a complex and intertwined relationship between the United States and China. The changes signalled by Trump’s executive order reflect a post-engagement policy supported by the US security community. A significant element of this post-engagement policy is the overt disregard for the WTO rules which have been a US political project since the Cold War.

A key element of this post-engagement policy is the the reconfiguration of security and economics within both trade and strategic policy. The integration of China into the economic order was originally premised on the primacy of a US-based security order in the Asia Pacific. This has been challenged on two fronts. One is the emergence of Chinese political and economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, seen as a challenge to US dominance. The other is the strategic assertiveness of the Chinese military, particularly in the South China Sea.

These Chinese economic–political projects are rooted in distinctive patterns of Chinese capitalist transformation and internationalisation. The United States is now competing by implementing its own political projects on infrastructure, connectivity and trade, with US security agencies combining to promote those particular forms of economic integration that are directly linked to security interests.

The policies of the Trump administration are a response to the domestic political failures of using engagement strategies to manage the various ups and downs of the US–China relationship, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its security counterpart, the ‘Pivot to Asia’. The policies overturn the instruments through which previous strategies of engagement were conceived and executed. The reconfiguration of the relationship between economics and security is at the core of this post-engagement management. This relationship has always been shaped by domestic US politics.

The recent executive order is emblematic of this post-engagement strategy, reshaping the US–China relationship by eschewing the use of international legal rules. The new strategy is in favour of the unilateral use of coercive domestic-based policy instruments such as sanctions, the use of the ‘national security’ doctrine and…

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