The Debate over US Policy toward China Heats Up: Doves, Hawks, Superhawks, and the Viability of the Think Tank Middle Ground

The aim of this synopsis is to clarify the debate that has erupted in the early summer of 2019, to differentiate the main schools of thought, to put the debate in historical perspective, and to suggest some tests that lie ahead. On the one hand, any such debate at this juncture has to be a response to Donald Trump’s China policy. On the other, it has unfolded as something more: An exchange between the defenders of the general policy line taken toward China since at least the 1980s—the doves; the advocates of a harsher line—the hawks; the advocates of a harder line yet—the superhawks; and what I call the think tank consensus, which resembles the hawk position on the surface but has potential to find a degree of affinity to the posture of the doves. As in the debate over “Red China” (from “who lost China” to whether the US should establish relations with it) and the debate over the Soviet Union (whether détente should be pursued or the Cold War intensified), the current debate, now fully enjoined, promises to be long-lasting.

The doves won the debate over Red China, but it took a hawk to bring their approach to its successful conclusion in 1972. There is no consensus on which side won the debate over the Soviet Union, as some argue that Ronald Reagan’s hawkish line forced capitulation even as others insist that Reagan shifted away from a hard line, as Nixon had done 15 years earlier, to realize the scenario sought by the doves. It is, of course, much too early to determine how the current debate will conclude. Advocates on all sides acknowledge differences with the scenario of how the Cold War ended. Yet, many of the questions being raised are reminders of the past.
What is the most effective balance between cooperation and confrontation? How important is coordination with allies, whose policy orientation may require adjustments in US policy? What dimensions of US policy should be prioritized: military, economic, or ideological? What lessons should be drawn from the recent record of bilateral relations? These are familiar questions now being raised in regard to US relations with China, answers to which now divide China-watchers.

The background to the current debate

At least four impressions drove the conclusion that the doves toward China had been put on the defensive as Trump took office in 2017. First, China’s image as a country in transition to a reliable partnership based on domestic relaxation of oppression and peaceful coexistence was put in serious doubt. Concentration camps in Xinjiang and sharp power interference in states such as Australia captured widespread attention, as Xi Jinping’s success in ending term limits for China’s top leader reinforced a communist identity. Second, the military build-up by China from fortifying artificial islands in the South China Sea to large joint exercises with Russia defied the expectations that another arms race would not arise four decades after the end of the Cold War. Third, the economic relationship had not only proven troublesome owing to huge trade deficits and China’s increasing encroachment into high-tech sectors vital to the future, but was seen as proof of injustice owing to China’s lack of respect for intellectual property rights and favoritism for state-owned enterprises. A consensus had formed around the urgency to rebalance bilateral trade ties. Finally, the mood has taken root that the United States has been much too passive in responding to the challenge from China, whether from Republicans who attacked Obama as weak toward China, as on other issues, or from Democrats calling for a “pivot 2.0” to double down on pressure. Trump embraced this mood with repeated emphasis on big US trade deficits.

The Republican coalition included both superhawks and doves for whom business cooperation takes precedence. As the business community soured on China’s practices and opposition to the Democrats overwhelmed old notions of bilateral foreign policy, the voices of superhawks as well as hawks grew more dominant. In the tradition of Republicans of the anti-Red China and anti-détente eras, maximalist positions against engagement were loudly trumpeted. Trump’s rhetoric catered to this sentiment, but he added an unusual touch soon after taking office: An impression that he was striking a personal relationship with Xi Jinping of far-reaching salience, which could resolve the toughest challenges with his personal mixture of threats and summitry.

In 2017-2019 Sino-US relations have undergone a roller coast ride from the heights of Trump’s bonhomie with Xi Jinping in their personal meetings to the lows of threats to decouple the two economies through massive tariffs and severe retaliation; tensions over Taiwan with the lifting of US restraints and the possibility that China’s red lines would be crossed just as China’s stand toward Taiwan was hardening; and reprises of Cold War rhetoric from both sides, suggesting that confrontation is replacing cooperation or even competition as the future direction of ties.
In these circumstances, some are blaming Trump. Others are blaming Xi Jinping for decisions that have led to a downward spiral in relations. And still others are tracing the problem back to failures in prior decades to set the Sino-US relationship on a sustainable, long-term course, attributing this to weak US leadership but, most of all, to the nature of the communist regime. The debate has erupted in July 2019 with doves fighting back against a hawkish drift and both hawks and superhawks counterattacking, as the think tank community weighs various options.

The state of the debate in July 2019

The Asia Society in February issued a task force report on US policy toward China called “Course Correction: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy.” This offered what I call a “think tank” approach of toughening the US posture (hawkish) while expecting to find room for some common ground to maintain cooperation even as competition intensified. Amid uncertainty on how trade talks would proceed, no lively debate ensued in the US in the following months. On July 3, however, an “Open Letter” on China policy in The Washington Post aroused an intense response. It eschewed the middle of the road approach for a decidedly dovish position critical of the emerging hawkish orientation in the Trump administration and Congress. This provoked hawkish responses, some superhawk criticisms, and a full-scale debate, which began to clarify the positions of all sides, including the “think tank” mainstream actively debating policy options.  

One challenge in the debate was to separate Trump’s individual approach from an ideal, new approach to China, regardless of what that approach should be. Some argued that Trump is on the right track, for the most part, but there was concern that he was not proceeding in a way that optimized the prospects for success or was even counterproductive in how he operated. Ultimately, the debate pivoted around two fundamental questions: 1) how much to emphasize one country or the other in assigning blame, as commentators tended to single out one of their choice to score points; and 2) how to weigh contrasting approaches to dealing with the differences that exist, as confrontational ones appeared necessary to some, while others preferred seeking common ground and accommodations. Trump’s rhetoric distracted from the focus on such questions, but much of the debate ignored Trump in search of the answers. The doves seized the initiative with the letter on July 3; it is reasonable to start with them.

The case from the doves

The challenge from China is limited, unlike in the Cold War. While it is seeking to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order, it is not seeking to overturn vital economic and other components of that order. The response should be proportionate to the challenge; treating China as an enemy—whether in economics, security, or ideology—is just a formula for an unnecessary and dangerous downward spiral. The problem has been overblown.

The US lacks an accurate assessment of China’s intentions and interests. If it understood what China wants and is doing, it could adopt policies suited to the challenge. The Open Letter does not omit mention of “troubling behavior’ and “serious challenges,” but it warns against failure to put these matters in the appropriate context, arousing a “fundamentally counterproductive” response. Assumptions about China’s behavior and thinking are central to the doves’ argument.

In comparison to the other groups, the doves offer scant self-criticism of past US policy toward China. There is little sign of reflection about when and how US policy went awry. Indeed, much of the thrust of the doves’ evaluation is to sustain the momentum of a successful approach with modest adjustments to which China can be persuaded. Stay the course is the likely implication.

A central point in the dovish position is that a powerful reform and peaceful coexistence group is present within the Chinese leadership, which can be either boosted or undermined by the US approach to China. A zero-sum approach undercuts their influence; an accommodating stance is favorable for them to shape policy toward economic reform, international cooperation, and social tolerance. China can be steered in a constructive direction by US encouragement rather than pressure. Earlier China followed a moderate course and US policy is able to revive that.

The Open Letter is a call to multilateralism with allies and partners, who are nervous about a confrontational approach toward China. While deterrence should be enhanced in ways that make clear to China the high costs of aggressive behavior, concerns of other countries about the US taking a tough stance toward China should also be prioritized. The thrust of calls for multilateralism is to temper US assertiveness, while also making a persuasive case to China.

The Open Letter is optimistic about the prospects of forging a new or modified world regime, which could be welcomed by China, giving it a “greater voice.” The assumption is that China is seeking modest reform in the world order, not some sort of fundamental change, and there is room to accommodate its aims. Renewed outreach to China’s leaders, thus, is the right path.

There is little indication in the dovish position of China’s missed opportunities to improve ties to the United States, of the pattern of its foreign relations beyond the United States, and of failure in previous diplomacy to produce the intended effects of what is being advocated. The focus is kept on US policy and options for bilateral negotiations with China combined with multilateral coordination with partners to tweak the existing balance between cooperation and competition.

As for Trump’s impact, the warnings implied in the Open Letter are: he is isolating the US instead of China; he is damaging the US ability to serve as a model; he is provoking an arms race with stress on offensive weapons and containment; and policy is inconsistent and incoherent. Concern extends beyond Trump to a growing consensus in favor of a harder line toward China. Specific criticisms against Trump are avoided, but the doves are nervous about present policy.  They are also visibly alarmed about how the national debate has been shifting to a harder line.

The case from the superhawks

The Republican Party since the beginning of the Cold War has nurtured a strain of extremism against cooperation with countries viewed as the “evil empire.” Support for Taiwan, rejecting the arrangements of 1972, served as a galvanizing symbol for this cause. The expectation that the Chinese Communist Party was doomed⁠—either through transformation of China’s economy and polity or, more likely, through popular discontent leading to opposition on a mass scale—fueled a degree of optimism. Yet, unlike optimism in modernization theory, this was laced with warnings against extensive cooperation with China. More pressure needed to be applied. Thus, regime collapse was long seen as more likely than regime transformation. That the Soviet Union had collapsed under what was assumed to be Reagan’s intensified pressure was taken as proof that its communist twin would suffer a similar fate; US policy mattered as the decisive variable.

If at times over the preceding four decades the focus was put on internal factors promising for the collapse of communism in China, it had shifted by the Trump era to what the US policy has to be to defeat a formidable rival with no collapse in the near future likely. “Collapsists” rarely had delved deeply into the internal conditions of their targets; instead, they concentrated on the alleged weakness of their own country’s policies and the short-sightedness of those who did not share their reasoning. Superhawks were ready to push Trump to harden the US stance.

The challenge from China is existential, even more serious than in the Cold War. China seeks to establish a fundamentally different world order, marginalizing the US in the Western Pacific and displacing the security, economic, and ideological principles guiding the US and its partners. If there is no all-out response to this enemy, the US will be in great trouble. The problem has not been taken seriously to date. It must now be faced with urgency and all available measures.

The academic and expert community has failed to grasp China’s real intentions and ultimate interests. They have been lulled into acquiescence by deceptions emanating from China as well as personal benefits that accrued from cooperating with Chinese. If China were understood for what it really is, policies toward it would be hardened to face a rapidly gathering threat. There is ample evidence, superhawks insist, to demonstrate the need for an uncompromising posture.

The superhawks offer scathing criticisms of past US policy toward China and of those who are guilty of defending it. They do not point to just a few mistakes, but to a worldview derived from a fundamental misunderstanding of international relations and what makes the United States strong. The past approach to China has badly misfired and must be drastically transformed.

The arguments of “collapsists” perpetually deny the existence of a reform faction that could be a force for far-reaching change, while assuming the presence of social forces that would react to outside pressure by forcing change at the top. Contrary to the doves, superhawks perceive a monolithic leadership with no serious impulse for reform. US weakness does not empower the forces of economic reform and international cooperation but serves as proof the US will yield to more assertive policies, enabling China’s leaders to double down on what they really seek to do. In response to such weakness, it is argued, China has become more oppressive at home as well as more aggressive abroad. The only way to alter this mindset is to make clear its high costs.

In response to calls for greater multilateralism, the superhawk response is three-fold. First, the US must show leadership. It is the superpower, which others expect to lead. Second, countries that really matter are more concerned about US abandonment and passivity before China than a confrontational stance toward China. Third, the US has the wherewithal to alter the equation by making the case to others and forcing decisions that some may find uncomfortable. China is alienating many states with its debt traps and repression of ethnic and religious minorities; it is not in a position to compete effectively and will have to back down in case of a showdown.

Chinese and US objectives are irreconcilable, argue the superhawks. No common agenda could be found for shared leadership in a world order. Ceding more space for China to shape the new order is a recipe for undermining the existing order and creating illusions favorable to China’s goal of replacing that order altogether. China is seeking fundamental change antagonistic to the bedrock principles for which the US stands, and search for common ground will be unsuccessful.

Even more than the doves, the superhawks are prone to ignore ups and downs, details about how China has proceeded over the years, and the potential pitfalls of following one course of action without adjustments. The focus is even more heavily centered on US policy with an eye to making it more consistent. While doves have long engaged in dialogue with hawks over how to improve policy outcomes, the superhawks have repeated their mantra with few exchanges to test their arguments in specific time and place. A new cold war is inevitable sooner or later, and the US side must steel itself to prevail without illusions certain to weaken resolve at home.

Trump has heartened the superhawks but kept them off guard. He is the first president to stand up to China in rhetoric, tariffs, and Taiwan. Rather than damaging the US as a model, he is the one leader willing to reassert US leadership, sharply changing the debate about China and how the US will respond. Superhawks are pleased that the national debate has hardened toward China. Yet, they have trouble making sense of Trump’s personal warmth toward Xi Jinping and are not in unison about the value of how Trump waxes and wanes over whether a deal is near.

The case from the hawks

The Open Letter has aroused a rebuttal from many who favor a harder line toward China but foresee continued coexistence between the world’s two foremost powers even as competition often overshadows cooperation. Current troubles in the relationship are due overwhelmingly to China’s behavior. US restraint must be premised on strength beyond that shown in recent years. US policy can make a difference given divisions in China over how to manage relations, but the approach needs to be more assertive and urgent, given the current circumstances. Unlike the superhawks, the hawks hold out hope that a balance between cooperation and competition can be found, even if one should expect a largely adversarial relationship to prevail. The approach taken by Trump is too unilateral and inconsistent to serve as the strategy going forward. The Open Letter is unbalanced, blaming the US side for the current crisis in relations, and the superhawks offer a dead-end strategy not suitable to international conditions and oblivious to possibilities that exist. A course correction is possible without choosing either of the extremes.

Hawks put little store in a collapse scenario. They combine a rather negative assessment of past US policies toward China—although far from a sweeping condemnation—with a recognition of some successes in negotiations and awareness of lessons to be learned about what is likelier to work. They assess the challenge from China as more serious than the doves do—with the global order under more of a threat—and they treat China as a potential threat, requiring an urgent toughening for the US posture, but they foresee opportunities to manage the relationship even if an impasse might arise. Their persistent pursuit of ways to improve ties differs from the loss of hope and reliance exclusively on pressure in the superhawk approach to this relationship.

The hawks view recent assessments of China’s intentions and interests as more accurate than many made just a few years ago. They can trace back the debate over China’s aspirations to the 1990s and point to several turning points when those called doves were too sanguine about the shifts occurring in Chinese strategic thinking and the implications of new Chinese internal policy. While superhawks and doves have mostly been insisting on the same arguments over decades, some of the hawks have gravitated from more dovish positions in response to changes in China.

For hawks, past US policy deserves criticism, with much to be learned for adjusting policies. The prior approaches are not viewed as so wildly mistaken, as the superhawks argue, or as positive, as the doves contend. Substantial adjustments are necessary. They may not persuade China; so further hardening of policies may be in order. The task at present is to show greater resolve.

Hawks doubt the existence of a powerful group in China’s leadership in favor of reform—apart from some limited economic reforms—and genuine peaceful coexistence. They doubt too that US policy has much chance to transform China’s internal political dynamics. Yet, they calculate that the calculus of China’s leadership under Xi Jinping could be modified in stages primarily by a more hardline US posture with room for accommodation when China responds with flexibility.

Multilateralism is a high priority for hawks, but it poses difficult challenges. The ideal response is not to relent in the face of countries who allow their economic dependency on China to dull their resistance and hedge or to run roughshod over those who resist US leadership, but to seek coordination in support of more US assertiveness, assuaging fears that it will get out of hand.

Disagreeing with the doves on China’s pursuit of a radically different world order, the hawks can envision a temporary truce during which China’s challenge may be manageable, while a competition for shaping the regional and world order unfolds. This transitional phenomenon does not require acquiescence to Chinese demands that could undermine the existing order or refusal to accept any changes, making the prospects of early confrontation much greater. The fact that China has benefited greatly from the existing order is reason to hope that pushback against China’s efforts to make major, destabilizing changes in it could prove acceptable.

The hawkish position puts the blame squarely on China for deterioration in relations not only with the United States but with many US allies and partners. The focus is on China’s policy more than on failures of US policy. There is further need to put the spotlight on the myriad ways that China is behaving in a negative manner at home and abroad. The need for a shift in US policy is to be explained in reference to China’s behavior; the US pushback is a response that could be tempered to the degree that China changed, both in its behavior and in its narrative for internal and external distribution. Squeezing China should be conditional and adjusted as an incentive.

The state of think tank analysis

As befits a democracy, US think tanks convey the full range of the above views on policy toward China. Yet the mainstream, arguably, has been shifting toward a hawkish position. They have exposed China’s rising use of sharp power, expressed alarm at its mass incarceration of Moslem minorities, warned about its aggressive moves toward neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, and India, and clarified what is driving Chinese policies toward Russia, North Korea, and others. On the economic ledger, much has been revealed about stealing commercial secrets and taking a more lopsided approach in support of one-sided advantage. US pushback is clearly justified. 

Trump’s increased pressure on China is, on the whole, supported for putting its leaders on notice, showcasing the costs of the non-market drift in their economic policies, and making clear that the burden is on China to show that it is serious about peaceful coexistence. While the communist nature of the regime and its reversion to ideological narratives are obscured by Trump’s idiosyncratic approach and Western ethnocentrism, the fact that there is a clash of civilizations is worth underscoring. If the doves tend to ignore the communist nature of this regime and the superhawks revert to the trope of an existentialist clash between systems, the hawks foresee a pathway to controlled competition, which has potential to reshape Chinese behavior in ways that sustain cooperation. The emphasis is on how changes in US policy hold the potential to create a more level playing field for long-term competition reminiscent of the Cold War but with distinctive elements allowing for greater cooperation. The arms race will intensify, as in the Cold War. Ideology will become a battlefield, but less blatantly than in the Cold War. There will be some decoupling of economic ties, but nothing like the Cold War divide.

The US should prepare for the struggle ahead, the think tank world has been suggesting, but it would be counterproductive to ignore the cooperative elements of the relationship, given room for influencing China’s policies and the necessity to maximize multilateralism in the US strategy. The conditional application of increased pressure can be coupled with readiness to relax such pressure without going from one extreme to the other in awareness of the long-term nature of the fundamentally competitive nature of the relationship. The think tank community unlike the Open Letter puts blame overwhelmingly on China for failure to sustain a positive relationship. Compared to the superhawks, it attaches importance to striving to sustain cooperation, as the US side did with the Soviet Union, but much more so given the value of current economic ties.

Missing in the think tank world is an informed exchange of ideas with empowered officials in the administration. The press, most think tanks, and many officials are treated as if they are the enemy by the top ranks of the Trump leadership. This abnormal environment is not fruitful for articulating a full-fledged strategy. That has led to a debate about fundamental positions rather than a focused discussion of specific policy options, which is what has unfolded in July 2019. 

Comparisons to two prior debates

The debate over “Red China” to 1972 and over the Soviet Union to 1992 also involved groups that fit the labels doves, hawks, and superhawks. Many of the same questions were being posed. When the superhawks were bypassed and the hawks were suddenly faced with an opening for far-reaching cooperation, the dovish call for comprehensive engagement won the day. Yet, it followed a time of sharper confrontation and close US cooperation with allies, who had agreed to a joint strategy of pressure. The US military position was strong, agreeing to some arms control with the Soviet Union but not shying away from an arms race. The economic position of the US was strong, holding back from giving the other side what it sought unless certain conditions were met. The ideological position of the US was strong as well, but without reinforcing the superhawk worldview when an opening materialized. Of course, there are many differences between Sino-US relations today and Soviet-US or Sino-US relations in the Cold War era. Nonetheless, the common denominator appears to be that the doves have reason to keep hope for a breakthrough alive, but the hawks have the upper hand in creating the conditions for a breakthrough as long as they resist the reasoning of the superhawks or lose track of the goal of applying pressure and gaining leverage with widespread support in order to change behavior and eventually reach an accommodation, even if that takes a long time and may be elusive.             

The North Korean debate in the United States is marked by parallels too. Superhawks have a strong hold on the Republican Party when it is in opposition, as they did in the 1960s when the “Red China” debate was targeted against Democrats in office and in the Jimmy Carter years of accusations against softness toward Moscow as well as Beijing. Republicans take office intent on satisfying superhawk agendas—Nixon in 1969-70, Reagan in 1981-82, George W. Bush in 2001-02, and Trump in 2017. After calling North Korea the “evil empire,” however, Bush in his second term opted for diplomacy, and after unleashing tirades against “rocket man,” Trump grew enamored of diplomacy. Democrats lack consistency too, but Clinton and Obama sought talks with North Korea without accepting the superhawk worldview. The doves have failed to gain a strong foothold in thinking about the North, leaving the hawks dominant at most times. Yet, as soon as diplomacy takes wing, the debate over the hawk-dove balance accelerates. In times of diplomacy, security rises to the fore, and human rights or ideology can be marginalized.

What today’s debate over US policy toward China has in common with these three debates is its rise to the center of attention over foreign policy and its salience for differentiating thinking about US national identity. Superhawks perceive weakness in defense of American principles, while narrowly defining those principles. Doves perceive bellicosity in overreacting to rivalry, while downplaying the real threat involved. Hawks perceive strategic incoherence laced with wishful thinking, but they often fail to make clear how they differ from superhawks and how, in time, they could find common ground with doves. In the Cold War era, bipartisanship toward the Soviet Union and, eventually, toward China predominated. Finding a strategy to bridge the gap between hawks and doves on China policy is a challenge that will test bipartisanship anew. A more divided polity and less self-confident public leave doubt that any such bridge is possible.  

Much depends on China, and the debate over US policy choices is disturbingly incomplete in the absence of a complementary debate about China’s evolving record and intentions. Assumptions differ about China, but there is a dearth of clarity on what tests of these differences should be used in weighing preferences for one or another school of thought. This was the case in prior debates as well. Mao in 1971 and Gorbachev in 1986 abruptly brought discussion of such tests of the grounds for cooperation to center stage. Most doubt that Xi Jinping would make a similar about-face. The hawks are likely to have the edge in the US debate until a Chinese leader shifts direction in an unmistakable manner. This does not relieve the US side of responsibility to make such a shift easier, not through soft policies but through pressure while keeping the door open. That is my takeaway from think tank discussions in this period of intensifying American debate.