As the 2016 U.S. presidential election edges closer, China sits prominently on the short list of America’s biggest problems for millions of voters heading to the polls. Both the Democratic and the Republican candidates have promised to stand up to China, among others, to prosecute China’s unfair competition and bring jobs back to the United States.
It’s not the first time China featured in a U.S. presidential election. Yet talks are tougher this time from both sides of the political spectrum. Election tactics aside, for some Americans, China’s steadily rising economic prowess and growing political ambitions represent a real threat to their vision of the world and, in particular, America’s place in it.
So, how does the United States stand up to China when the high emotions of the election subdues? Will the next U.S. president appoint a special trade prosecutor or step up naval patrols in the South China Sea? The candidates seem to be trapped in the dominant story of an imminent Chinese threat to U.S. security and prosperity. Whether the winner of this election would be able to formulate policies toward China independent of public sentiment, and whether those policies are meant to “counter” or “contain” China’s influence, China is en route to expand its economic and political engagements on the global stage. It will do so on its own terms.
It is futile for Washington to contain China’s rise. The next administration should instead focus on incorporating China into a rule-based international order as a responsible stakeholder. Issues ranging from cyber security to bilateral investment will require continuous efforts from the United States to engage China. To achieve that goal, the new administration will find a good partner in Europe, especially Germany.
Although Sino-German relations have been defined largely by close economic ties between the two countries, Germany has a fundamental interest in maintaining a rule-based international order, as well as the international institutions that serve that purpose. Moreover, Germany’s perception toward China has evolved. Growing takeovers of German companies by Chinese investment have raised alarms about safeguarding Germany’s technological competitiveness. German companies in China increasingly complain about the lack of reciprocity for a leveled playing field. Crises in Ukraine and elsewhere have propelled Germany to adopt a more critical stance on China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Aside from Germany’s close bilateral relations with China, its amplified leadership position in a post-Brexit European Union is crucial to formulating a coherent European policy toward China. To ensure that China’s rise will translate into positive contributions to a rule-based international order, the next president of the United States will be well advised to seek closer coordination with the EU on issues of vital importance for both national interests as well as the preservation of the rule-based international order.
There are opportunities for the next administration to advance such an agenda. A push for a coordinate approach to trade and investment, such as advancement in negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), would strengthen the United States’ position in its negotiation for trade and investment treaties with China. Maintaining secure and free cyber space against cyber attacks, cyber espionage, and the rising threat of cyber sovereignty from China, as well as countries such as Russia and Iran, would benefit greatly from coordinated transatlantic policy approaches. Dialogues and consultations between the United States and the EU on Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa to monitor China’s increasing economic and political engagement in these regions would contribute to the mission of shaping China into a responsible stakeholder.
For the next U.S. president, the road to China presents many challenges. However the goal is clear. China’s rise should be made positive for the rule-based international order. The new president has a great opportunity to engage Germany and the EU in this pursuit. Above all, it will take a positive vision and great determination.
Yixiang Xu is the New Research Initiative Fellow at AICGS.