A US Perspective

The New Washington Consensus

Washington DC is a sharply divided city these days. A recent Pew Research Center poll concluded that Americans have increasingly embraced “conflicting partisan priorities for US foreign policy.”1 On most major national security concerns—whether Russia, Iran, North Korea, or Afghanistan—there is little or no bipartisan agreement. On China, however, there is an emerging consensus. Why has Washington come to a new consensus on China, and where will this consensus lead? To answer these questions, we examine how US policymakers’ views are changing on three issues concerning China: security activities, economic impact, and human rights record. In each area, we find that experts on both sides of the aisle (and across other divides) are increasingly in agreement that the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) behavior is deeply problematic and requires a more forceful response.

Protecting this new Washington consensus will require careful navigation by politicians and experts across the political spectrum. With the 2020 presidential campaign just over the horizon, there is a serious risk that China policy could become politicized. On the one hand, US leaders might try to surpass one another by promoting unnecessary confrontation and ultimately ineffective policies. On the other hand, US leaders might ignore or downplay serious concerns, undermining efforts to ensure that China plays by the rules. With this in mind, we offer a set of recommendations intended to support constructive bipartisan China policies in the years ahead.

The emerging consensus in Washington

In an October speech on China policy, Vice President Mike Pence stated that “a new consensus is rising across America… we will not relent until our relationship with China is grounded in fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty.”2 This echoed President Trump’s speech before the United Nations the previous month, during which he decried “China’s market distortions” and warned that “we will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated, and our wealth to be plundered and transferred.”3 In these and other remarks, the Trump administration has embraced a more competitive (even confrontational) approach to China.

Yet, it is not only Republicans who are criticizing China. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has agreed that “China takes total advantage of the United States” and suggested, “what [Trump] did on China is right.”4 The vanguard of the Democratic party’s liberal wing, senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have been equally tough. In November, Warren said that Beijing has “weaponized its economy” and is “using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage.”5 Sanders has called for an effort to “combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism.”6 Meanwhile, a trio of Democratic senators recently wrote a letter to Trump stating, “we appreciate that you have initiated much more aggressive action than past administrations… We urge you to stand firm against China if meaningful concessions are not made.”7

Thus, American political leaders on both sides of the aisle have become increasingly critical of the CPC’s security, economic, and human rights practices. At present, there is growing agreement about these concerns, but not about the optimal policy responses. Furthermore, many leaders in both parties have concluded that the CPC is unlikely to significantly open its political system, reform its economy, or address human rights concerns.8 The stage is set, therefore, for a significant and long-lasting increase in US-China tensions. In the sections that follow, we outline how debates about security, economics, and human rights are feeding Washington’s criticism of Beijing.

China’s security activities

For many policy experts, China’s most concerning behavior is its increasingly assertive conduct in the security sphere. Three aspects have been particularly worrying: the People’s Liberation Army’s rapid development, Beijing’s coercive regional behavior, and China’s growing international influence. American perceptions of each are discussed briefly below.

First, the CPC’s recent military reforms have transformed the PLA into a sophisticated fighting force hardly reminiscent of China’s “ragtag” military under Mao Zedong.9 Along with China’s coast guard and maritime militia, these forces have helped China to push the boundaries of established rules and norms in the South China Sea and beyond. Both US political parties have recognized China’s growing military power and warned of its dangers. In the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration labeled China a “strategic competitor” and called for a “whole of government” approach to counter Chinese activities.10 This sentiment was echoed by many Democratic counterparts, with Senator Chris Coons citing an “intense and ideological competition with China.”11

Second, there is consensus in Congress that the United States needs to respond more effectively to Chinese land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea. China’s assertion of the Nine-Dash Line, in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has drawn bipartisan criticism. Members of the armed services and foreign relations/affairs committees have jointly written numerous letters asking the executive branch to develop more effective policies to address Chinese coercion of US allies and partners. To date, the Trump administration’s South China Sea policies have appeared similar to those of the Obama administration, but there is robust support for a tougher line in Washington. For example, bipartisan support for the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act demonstrates the shared desire for a stronger “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and the rules-based international order.”12

Finally, concern about China’s growing influence abroad has drawn attention from American leaders. The Trump administration has warned about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with senior officials labeling it “predatory economics.” The Obama administration was similarly critical, opposing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other Chinese efforts to become more central to Eurasia’s political and economic development. The recent arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou also highlights growing concerns around Chinese sanction evasion and influence in high-technology areas. Beijing’s expanding political and economic engagement has triggered the National Security Council to incorporate experts on other regions (Latin America, Africa, etc.) into its Asia directorate. Together, China’s growing military capabilities, increasing reliance on coercion, and expanding geopolitical influence have heightened American alarm over China.

China’s economic impact

When it comes to the US-China bilateral relationship, “business has been the ballast” (as former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson frequently stated).13 Recently, however, the economic relationship has been causing tension rather than diminishing it. For example, Pence has criticized China for “taking steps to exploit its economic leverage, and the allure of China’s large domestic market, to advance its influence…”14 Even those Americans most supportive of deepening the economic relationship have become alarmed. Paulson, for instance, remarked in November: “our divergence of views [between Washington and Beijing], even in the economic area, are much broader,” and advised that unless these issues are addressed, “we are in for a long winter in US-China relations.”15

What has triggered this wholesale reassessment of China’s economic behavior? First, China’s theft of intellectual property and trade secrets has drawn increased attention. The 2017 US National Security Strategy states that “Every year, competitors such as China steal US intellectual property valued at hundreds of billions of dollars.”16 As early as 2011, the National Counterintelligence Executive concluded that “Chinese actors are the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage.”17 Indeed, Obama cautioned in 2015, “this is not just a matter of us being mildly upset, but is something that will put significant strains on the bilateral relationship if not resolved.”18 With China catching up to the United States in various high-technology sectors, the CPC’s malicious economic espionage has drawn more attention from both policymakers and business leaders.

Second, American firms are increasingly frustrated by China’s restrictions on market access and its embrace of state capitalism. A recent Wall Street Journal story found that the same American businesses that had originally “flocked” to China are now “heading home disillusioned,” due to “soaring costs, creeping taxation, tightening political control and capricious regulation.”19 Whereas many American companies once saw China as a potentially valuable market, 81% of respondents in a recent American Chamber of Commerce survey said that foreign businesses are less welcome in China than before.20 The expansion of unfavorable joint ventures, restrictions on information and communications technology, and embrace of state-driven industrial policies have undermined China’s attractiveness as a potential market. As one report concludes, “The Chinese government has expressed its rhetorical commitment to further market liberalization, yet continues to open its markets at a snail’s pace.”21 Angered by China’s lack of reform, White House advisor Peter Navarro and others have promoted tariffs as a response.

Third, China has been more willing to use coercive economic leverage, not just in Asia but also elsewhere around the world. As scholars have recently found, “Beijing’s use of coercive measures is growing in frequency and evolving in scope.”22 In the last decade, the CPC has employed economic coercion against neighbors in the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, among others. Warning of the dangers of China’s growing economic influence, Pence has criticized the BRI as representing a “constricting belt” and “one-way road.”23 These worries have led to bipartisan support for more effective US responses, resulting in passage of the BUILD Act. Thus, China’s economic behavior has become a source, rather than a dissipator, of tension.

China’s human rights record

The emerging consensus on the security and economic fronts is bolstered by increasingly vocal criticism of the CPC’s violations of human rights. While human rights issues have often taken a backseat to other concerns—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously suggested “pressing on those issues can’t interfere” with more important topics—the severity of recent Chinese actions has made it difficult for US leaders to remain quiet.24 Beijing often paints human rights as a “red line,” but its human rights abuses have emboldened some Americans to test this proposition.

Human rights concerns play directly into the administration’s overarching narrative surrounding Sino-American ideological competition.25 Pence has criticized China for taking a “sharp U-turn toward control and oppression of its own people.”26 Similarly, incoming Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also often denounced China’s human rights record from Tiananmen to today.27 This unity allows for more bipartisan pushback on specific human rights issues, including China’s internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Tibet, and its coercive political practices in Hong Kong.

The emerging bipartisan response to repression in Xinjiang exhibits US concern regarding human rights in China. Investigative journalists, human rights advocates, and others have highlighted the Uyghurs worsening situation. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s annual report concluded that the camps are “the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority population since World War II.”28 In response, leaders from both sides of the aisle have sponsored a bill in each chamber of Congress calling on the United States to “levy financial sanctions or deny US entry visas” to Chinese officials tied to these abuses.29

This consensus also extends to another longstanding issue in US-China relations: Tibet. In September 2018, the House of Representatives passed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by representatives James McGovern and Randy Hultgren. This bill would promote access to Tibet for US officials and journalists while preventing Chinese officials from entering the United States, if they deny reciprocal entry to Tibet. The effort to shed light on human rights abuses in Tibet is intended to send “a clear message that [the United States] will not let Beijing’s immoral, unjust and destabilizing treatment of the Tibetan people go unaddressed.”30

A final issue of concern is China’s pressure on Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and expression appear increasingly under threat. China has used various forms of repression in an effort to quash the Hong Kong democracy movement, ranging from alleged torture of pro-democracy activists to kidnapping authors who have been critical of the CPC.31 This behavior has also fed fears about what would happen if Beijing were to gain control over Taiwan in the future. Concerns about Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong have sometimes been combined with worries about China’s development of a “social credit system,” feeding alarm that Beijing is developing a repressive, high-tech model that could spread to other authoritarian governments.


Unfortunately, the growing consensus regarding US concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s actions has not been accompanied by consensus on the ideal policy responses. For example, although leaders on both sides of the aisle remain worried about Chinese economic practices, the Trump administration’s reliance on tariffs has triggered widespread criticism. There is a danger, therefore, that the lack of agreement on policy solutions will undermine the hard-fought agreement on policy problems.

The national security community must guard against the politicization of China policy. There are dangers from all sides. On the one hand, Trump might strike a short-term deal with Xi Jinping to reduce the bilateral trade deficit without addressing the underlying political, economic, and human rights issues discussed above. On the other, renewed support for isolationism could reduce US engagement throughout Asia, leaving allies and partners with little choice but to bandwagon with Beijing. Conversely, overly combative rhetoric without substantive and effective policies would increase the temperature of US-China relations without providing an outlet for productive policy change. Guarding against these risks will require that the United States execute a coherent and consistent set of policies across administrations.

What principles should US leaders follow as they debate China policy? We suggest five basic ground rules that could sustain and broaden the emerging bipartisan consensus. First, leaders should support an open, transparent, and factual debate, because those principles lie at the heart of the American political system. Second, leaders should avoid Cold War rhetoric and comparisons, because modern-day China shares little in common with yesterday’s Soviet Union. Third, leaders should make clear that they seek the friendship of the Chinese people—and support their aspirations—even as they criticize certain aspects of the CPC’s behavior. Fourth, leaders should explicitly discuss their long-term objectives, not just for US-China relations, but for the Indo-Pacific region more broadly. Finally, American leaders should always keep in mind that effective China policies will require the support of US allies and partners and should be developed and executed in concert with friends in Asia and beyond.

As the 2020 election looms, there will be plenty of incentives for leaders to score short-term political points by invoking differences on China policy. These principles can help to ensure that the debate remains constructive and that it ultimately leads to effective bipartisan China policies.

1. Caroll Doherty, Jocelyn Kiley, and Bridget Johnson, “Conflicting Partisan Priorities for U.S. Foreign Policy,” Pew Research Center, November 29, 2018, http://www.people-press.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2018/11/11-29-18-Foreign-Policy-release-UPDATED.pdf

2. "Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy towards China,” Hudson Institute, October 4, 2018, https://www.hudson.org/events/1610-vice-president-mike-pence-s-remarks-on-the-administration-s-policy-towards-china102018

3. Alex Ward, “Read Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly,” VOX, September 25, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/9/25/17901082/trump-un-2018-speech-full-text

4. Luis Sanchez, “Schumer praises Trump for China tariffs,” The Hill, June 17, 2018, https://thehill.com/policy/international/392636-schumer-on-china-tariffs-china-needs-us-more-than-we-need-them

5. Elizabeth Warren, “A Foreign Policy for All,” Foreign Affairs, November 29, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-11-29/foreign-policy-all

6. Bernie Sanders, “Sanders Speech at SAIS: Building a Global Democratic Movement to Counter Authoritarianism,” October 9, 2018, https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sanders-speech-at-sais-building-a-global-democratic-movement-to-counter-authoritarianism

7. Sean Higgins, “Senate Democrats urge Trump not to back off China in meeting with Xi Jinping,” Washington Examiner, November 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/economy/senate-democrats-urge-trump-not-to-back-off-china-in-meeting-with-xi-jinping

8. James Lindsay, “A Blue Wave Won’t Rescue China,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 2, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/blog/blue-wave-wont-rescue-china

9. Michael Riccards, The Presidency and the Middle Kingdom (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 2000), 116

10. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,” Department of Defense, accessed December 10, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf; “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

11. “The Trump administration is right to redefine relations with China,” The Economist, October 11, 2018, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/10/11/the-trump-administration-is-right-to-redefine-relations-with-china

12. Walter Lohman and Jeff Smith, “Congress is Standing United on the Indo-Pacific,” The Daily Signal, December 6, 2018, https://www.dailysignal.com/2018/12/06/congress-is-standing-united-on-the-indo-pacific/

13. Scott Cendrowski, “How Henry Paulson Plans to Improve U.S.-China Ties,” Fortune, November 16, 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/11/16/hank-paulson-us-china-green-project/

14. "Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy towards China.”

15. Wendy Wu, “US-China divisions could lead to an economic Iron Curtain, Henry Paulson warns,” South China Morning Post, November 8, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2172086/us-china-divisions-could-lead-economic-iron-curtain-henry

16. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

17. “Foreign Spies Stealing US Economics Secrets in Cyberspace,” Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, accessed December 10, 2018.

18. “Remarks to the Business Roundtable and a Question-and-Answer Session,” The American Presidency Project, accessed September 16, 2015, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=110816

19. James T. Arredy, “American Entrepreneurs Who Flocked to China are Heading Home, Disillusioned,” The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/american-entrepreneurs-who-flocked-to-china-are-heading-home-disillusioned-1544197068

20. “China-Market Challenge,” Export.gov, accessed April 5, 2018, https://www.export.gov/article?id=China-Market-Challenges

21. “Market Access Challenges in China,” The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.amcham-shanghai.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/Market%20Access%20Challenges%20in%20China%20Final.pdf

22. Peter Harrell, Elizabeth Rosenberg, and Edoardo Saravalle. "China’s Use of Coercive Economic Measures,” Center for a New American Security, June 4, 2018,  https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/China_Use_FINAL-1.pdf?mtime=20180604161240

23. Gerry Shih, “Pence and Xi deliver dueling speeches despite signs of trade détente,” The Washington Post, November 17, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/pence-and-xi-deliver-dueling-speeches-despite-signs-of-trade-detente/2018/11/17/68e9926e-ea5f-11e8-bd89-eecf3b178206_story.html

24. “Clinton: Chinese human rights can’t interfere with other crises,” CNN Politics, accessed February 22, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/21/clinton.china.asia/

25. Josh Rogin, “China threatens U.S. Congress for crossing its ‘red line’ on Taiwan,” The Washington Post, October 12, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2017/10/12/china-threatens-u-s-congress-for-crossing-its-red-line-on-taiwan/?utm_term=.bfa248684478; Stuart Lau, “President Xi Jinping marks ‘red line’ in warning to Hong Kong on national sovereignty,” South China Morning Post, July 2, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2100895/president-xi-jinping-marks-red-line-warning-hong-kong

26. “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy towards China.”

27. Ashley Etienne and Henry Connelly, “Pelosi Statement on 29th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre,” June 4, 2018, https://pelosi.house.gov/news/press-releases/pelosi-statement-on-29th-anniversary-of-tiananmen-square-massacre

28. “Xinjiang,” Congressional-Executive Commission on China, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.cecc.gov/issues/xinjiang

29. “A Bill,” Congressional Executive Commission on China, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.cecc.gov/sites/chinacommission.house.gov/files/docum,ents/Xinjiang%20Uyghur%20Human%20Rights%20Act_0.pdf

30. Roseanne Gerin, “US Congress Passes Bill on Reciprocal Travel to Tibet,” Radio Free Asia, September 26, 2018, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/us-congress-passes-bill-on-reciprocal-travel-09262018121113.html 

31. Nicola Smith. “Hong Kong bookseller abducted by China vows to reopen shop in Taiwan,” The Guardian, May 8, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/08/hong-kong-bookseller-abducted-by-china-vows-to-reopen-shop-in-taiwan; Austin Ramzy and Alan Wong, “Hong Kong Activist Says Chinese Agents Stapled His Legs over Messi Photo,” The New York Time, August 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/11/world/asia/hong-kong-democracy-activist-attack-china-.html