The United States Has Gotten Tough on China. When Will It Get Strategic?

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported the Trump administration is weighing a ban on all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and their families from traveling to the United States. We do not know the full details of the proposal, and we do not need to. The move, however it might eventually be worded or implemented, would be a mistake. 

Several flaws with the plan are immediately obvious:

  • There is no public membership list, so there is no way of knowing for certain who is a CCP member and who is not. How could an individual prove they are not a member of the CCP?

  • There are nearly 92 million CCP members, yet less than 8 million serve in party or government organs, meaning the vast majority of members have no meaningful connection to policy decisions. The single biggest occupational category of party membership is “farmers, fishermen, and cattle workers.”

  • More than 12 million party members are below the age of 30, which means the United States would be cutting off ties and any potential influence over the future leaders of the country.

  • By implicating the family of party members as well, likely more than a third of the entire country would be cut off from travel to the United States. What would this mean for U.S. citizens who want to host their CCP member parents? What would this mean for spouses of U.S. citizens who have party membership?

But beyond the immediate practical and ethical problems, the plan fails the test of basic strategic thinking. 

First, it unnecessarily alienates a large proportion of the Chinese population—many of whom are actual or potential supporters of the United States—for no apparent strategic gain. This remains important, for a post-Xi Jinping era will one day arrive, and when that moment occurs, the more goodwill the United States has engendered with the Chinese people, the better position it will be in to shape future relations. This reality likely motivated the recent change in tone of the administration to criticizing “the CCP” rather than “China,” and while this move was laudable, the complaint should be narrowed even further to the Xi administration. The problem is with senior party leadership, not the bulk of the CCP membership.

Second, it gives political breathing room to Xi Jinping at precisely the moment when his errors and overreach are presenting much needed strategic room to the United States and its allies.  Napoleon is reputed to have said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” This applies in spades to Xi’s recent spate of impatience and intolerance. Yet instead of channeling this misstep to U.S. advantage, by taking on the entire CCP, the Trump administration has allowed Xi to paint a dire picture of a political system under siege by hostile foreign powers. His long-time hardliner instincts now seem prophetic to many in the Chinese government, CCP organs, and, unfortunately, the general public.

But most importantly, the ban is indicative of a recent approach to China that prioritizes tough-appearing tactics over patient, strategic thinking. Some defend the actions by pointing to the failures of previous administrations to confront Beijing’s post-2008 aggressiveness. There is some truth in this, but it only goes so far. From the fixation on naming Covid-19 as “China virus” to the recent moves to limit the number of foreign students studying in the United States, these actions appear on the surface to be “standing up” to China. In reality, they detract from the serious work the United States is doing to lean into strategic competition, and they leave the country impoverished and unmoored all the while doing little to shake or adjust China’s longer-term ambitions. 

All of this leaves the United States ill-prepared to face the very real threats emanating from the Xi administration—challenges that will persist for years, if not decades.

The reality is this: under the leadership of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, China’s political system has veered dangerously in an expansionist and authoritarian direction. There is a good-faith debate on just what type of global power China aims to be. But from the campaign of extraordinary repression in Xinjiang to the dismantling of political freedom in Hong Kong to the insertion of the CCP’s United Front apparatus in democratic systems to the enforcement of ideological red lines in geographies where the CCP has no sovereign authority, there are manifest issues that demand decisive U.S. leadership in the face of China’s current illiberal turn. But while the blunt realities of Xi Jinping’s draconian—and indefinite—rule are impossible to ignore and often demand black and white moral clarity, crafting an effective response is much harder and requires comfort with gray areas and nuance.

Unfortunately, the United States has devolved into the parody of democratic dysfunction the CCP has long portrayed it to be. While the United States should be focused on how it can repair and renovate its basic institutions of governance and public health, which would go a long way to competing with China and protecting our political system from foreign subversion, it squabbles over the politics of face masks.

Where the United States should be focused on the expansive operations of Chinese state-owned enterprises that are quietly dominating the global commanding heights of infrastructure, telecommunications, transportation, energy, and financial services, the U.S. political system appears fixated on precisely two Chinese firms: TikTok and Huawei. While these companies undoubtedly raise clear and important concerns, the United States would be demonstrating more strategic maturity if it was equally, if not more, focused on the operations of China Communications Construction Company, COSCO Shipping, and State Grid.

Where the United States does pay attention to global architecture of China’s rise, such as the Belt and Road Initiative or the Digital Silk Road, it learns the wrong lessons, immediately lapsing into conversations of how to “match” China’s efforts. The United States will never be able to replicate China’s ability to deliver the entire value chain of financing, construction, labor, and technology to nations in Africa and Latin America at the scale and speed they demand, so why try when the United States would just be a poor imitation? China’s global influence, while widespread, is fundamentally thin, relying primarily on its checkbook and its ability to apply targeted pressure. Instead of simply mirroring China, a better approach would be to play to the United States’ own significant strengths, which are far more robust and enduring.

The United States alternates between two formulations of Chinese power—it is either on the verge of collapse or poised for global domination. Both of these conceptions are misleading and self-defeating. The CCP’s endurance is often underestimated when looked at solely on the risk side of the ledger—its rising debt, labor protests, declining productivity, or Xi’s over-centralization of power. These are real challenges, but they have to be balanced with the institutional resiliency, which combines repression, cooption, suasion, and governance innovation. Yet China’s abilities are also frequently overestimated, painting it as a 10-foot tall colossus that is capable of seemingly impossible feats owing to the efficiencies of its autocratic political system. By again only looking at the other side of the ledger, one can create a sense of inevitability of China’s rise and regional domination, which affects how many countries estimate the future balance of power. Rather than being 2 feet tall or 10 feet tall, China is six-foot-nine. That is a size that poses significant challenges but does not—or should not—overwhelm our ability to conceive of strategy.

But most importantly, the United States needs to articulate a vision—a grand strategy—that looks beyond the narrower (albeit important) issue of China to depict the type of global order the United States aims to help realize and protect. To be sure, Xi is not making the same mistake, and under his rule, the CCP has clearly articulated a vision of global leadership—an illiberal one for sure—but Beijing understands that narrowing its grand strategy to a “U.S. strategy” is both short term and necessarily limiting. Here, the United States is holding most of the cards, in terms of global appeal, thickness of allies, robustness of technological capabilities, and military power. Why, in the face of all these obvious strengths, is the United States not capitalizing on them? Imagine if the United States took leadership over the litany of challenges—some existential—that now face the planet: climate change, inequality, racial injustice, poverty, and global pandemics. Few expect, or want, Beijing to lead on any of these. Many are hoping the United States eventually will.

There remains a robust debate over whether the analogy of a “new Cold War” is appropriate in describing the U.S.-China relationship. It’s an important discussion and one that demands seriousness and nuance. Yet historical analogies are not prisons, and while detractors point out just how different the Soviet Union is from current-day China, there remain important historical and strategic parallels that can and should guide us in the coming years as the two countries square off. At a minimum, a “cold war” framing begins from the hopeful starting position that the two nations will attempt to manage tensions so as to avoid a hot conflict. Further, the Cold War encompassed by the Berlin Blockade but also a joint effort by the United States and the Soviet Union to eradicate smallpox. 

It is also from Cold War writings that some of the most trenchant advice for the United States at this current moment can be found. NSC 68, written in 1950 under the leadership of Paul Nitze, articulates a more aggressive approach to dealing with the Soviet Union, yet in an early passage, it proclaims: “We must lead in building a successfully functioning political and economic system in the free world. It is only by practical affirmation, abroad as well as at home, of our essential values, that we can preserve our own integrity, in which lies the real frustration of the Kremlin design.”

But most enduring are the final sentences of George Kennan’s “long telegram,” which remain as important as they were when penned on February 22, 1946: “We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Unfortunately, the United States is failing to live up to both Kennan and Nitze’s admonitions. Beijing could not be happier.

Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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