Playing hardball with China works – the west is right to move to a ‘constrainment’ strategy

Global attitudes towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are hardening. In 2019, the European Union declared the PRC a “systemic rival” amid rising trade tensions.

In May 2020, the White House published a paper that described the US’s competitive approach to the PRC based on “principled realism”. One of the report’s key passages stated that the US government will: “Respond in kind to Beijing’s transactional approach with timely incentives and costs, or credible threats thereof.”

And on June 5, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) was formed. Lawmakers from 11 countries, including the US, UK, Australia, Japan and Canada are now working “towards reform on how democratic countries approach China”. They seek to safeguard the rules-based international order, uphold human rights, promote trade fairness, strengthen security and protect national integrity.

All of these developments suggest that western China policy is rapidly changing. What remains unclear, however, is what exact form it will take.

In the past, western policy towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was informed by two opposing camps. One group called for engagement with China, typified by German chancellor Angela Merkel. She has argued for continued dialogue and cooperation, regardless of President Xi Jinping’s increasingly totalitarian approach to governance.

The other group demanded China containment. The former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, for example, has called for the overthrow of the CCP.

But foreign and security policy regarding China should not be reduced to such overly binary and reductionist choices.

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