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Since due to Election 2020’s results, the United States may be at a turning point in China policy, a new report from a bunch of supposed experts assembled by the University of California at San Diego that would ordinarily deserve obscurity merits some coverage. Not that any of the analyses or policy recommendations in this blueprint for a post-Trump approach make much sense, or even hang together coherently.

Instead, Meeting the China Challenge is most noteworthy for unwittingly showcasing key reasons why America’s strategy for the People’s Republic failed so dangerously for so many decades until an America First-y President won the White House – and why its recipe for renewed blundering previews much of a likely Biden administration approach.

Right off the bat it needs mentioning that Meeting flunks the important test of accountability. The “Working Group on Science and Technology in U.S.-China Relations” that wrote it is filled with Obama administration veterans and other backers of the pre-Trump strategy. Further, the University’s 21st Century China Center that’s one of two co-sponsors (along with the corporate funded Asia Society) declares that its mission is “enhancing U.S.-China relations.” That’s an appealing goal in the abstract, of course. But in practice, even in the best of circumstances, it’s represented the kind of gauzy globalist hopium that tends to give short shrift to specific, concrete uniquely American interests.

And since this strategy’s long-time pursuit created circumstances not remotely qualifying as “best,” an intellectually honest team of authors would have asked itself why its previous recommendations turned out so badly, what lessons it’s learned, and how they can be applied to the U.S.-China policy landscape today. Since the report addresses none of these questions, readers are fully entitled to ask why this group’s advice should be taken seriously now.

Substance-wise, Meeting the China Challenge sets the stage for permitting it actually to worsen by foundering on one of the biggest policy rocks that have undercut other leading criticisms of the Trump approach.

Specifically, although the report does a surprisingly good job of portraying the China challenge as systemic and genuinely menacing, it generally calls for responses that are piecemeal and subordinate to that overarching objective of “enhancing the relationship” – including preserving opportunities to cooperate on “shared interests in such global issues as economic growth and stability, climate change, and public health.” In fact, the Working Group is convinced that “Permeating every facet of the U.S.-China relationship will be crucial capabilities in science and technology that will feature both intense rivalry and necessary cooperation.”

I’d be the last one to rule out categorically any overlap between U.S. and Chinese interests, or the possibility of threading the above policy needles. But as yesterday’s post explained, international cooperation has content, and if Washington wants to make sure that it unfolds on terms acceptable to Americans, it will need the relative power to wield the needed leverage and drive the necessary bargains.

More fundamentally, though, Meeting the China Challenge‘s optimism on cooperation assumes maintaining a degree of policy compartmentalization that even the authors seem to doubt ultimately can be maintained – as indicated by the following passage:

We recognize that the United States faces real and growing security threats from China. While we hope that radical decoupling will never be necessary, and understand that such a step would have dire consequences for the global and American innovation systems, we would be foolish to ignore the possibility that it may become unavoidable. Unless and until such a decision is made, the role of the scientific and tech community [and presumably the U.S. government] should be to pursue worldwide collaboration in accordance with practices that mitigate the risks from openness.”

The big and obvious problems are that (1) maintaining a (pre-Trump) business-as-usual posture on “worldwide collaboration” risks permitting further Chinese catch up with the United States and (2) even if Washington wakes up to the need for decoupling before it’s too late, does anyone truly believe that American strategy can shift quickly enough to preserve an adequate edge?

The weaknesses of Meeting the China Challenge hardly stop here. The authors, for example – just like ostensible President-elect Biden – also put way too much stock in mobilizing allied support and working through international institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) to manage the China risks it perceived – even though the lucrative economic ties many of these allies have created with Beijing (often at the United States’ expense) will surely keep them firmly on the fence for the foreseeable future. And precisely because they’re so compromised, the international institutions these countries numerically dominate will keep resisting in effect outlawing Chinese transgressions.

Other recommendations are much better – e.g., bolstering “U.S. innovation capabilities through meaures ranging from increased funding for fundamental research to selective upgrading of our production system.” But these are anything but distinctive nowadays.  (See, e.g., the bipartisan support described here for reviving domestic semiconductor manufacturing prowess.)  

But the most insightful observation made by Meeting the China Challenge underscores a challenge that continues to defy the authors themselves and other globalists: the “expert community has serious homework to do if it is to get right…foundational issues for the bilateral relationship….”