When publisher Henry Luce famously declared in his well-read and well-remembered 1941 Life magazine essay that the unfolding era would hence be known as the “American Century,” he made a bold prediction at a crucial time in global history, even before the United States had entered World War II. After the war, American power and influence validated Luce’s claim, as Europe lay prostrate and much of the world reeled from the effects of that enormously destabilizing and destructive conflict. In the decades that followed, as new problems and opportunities emerged, the century, in many ways, resounded with a distinct American accent. Now, almost 80 years after Luce’s essay, there is a new major challenger to an America that no longer bestrides the world as it once did. Emerging from its own self-declared “century of humiliation,” China has risen to the rank of a great power and — given its rapid economic development, growing military might, and global reach — has become the United States’ primary “peer competitor.” During the Cold War, the United States faced a Soviet Union with a comparable nuclear arsenal and a Mao-led China driven by aggressive revolutionary fervor, but it never faced a challenge from another great power, like today’s People’s Republic of China, whose economic strength rivals its own.
Although this rising power has factored into Carnegie Corporation of New York’s programming in various ways over the past decades, it has really only been since the mid-2000s that the International Peace and Security (IPS) program has focused on China in earnest. During a trip I made to China in 2005, I encountered a wide range of Chinese officials and scholars who had benefited from Corporation-funded programs at various grantee institutions. Building on this base, with board and senior leadership approval, our subsequent initial efforts involved major support to what would become the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s (CEIP) Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, on the campus of the prestigious Beijing-based Tsinghua University. Later, after commissioning a needs assessment of China studies programs at U.S. universities and think tanks and convening a group of experts on China, the program set out to address some key identified needs: nurturing a new generation of American experts on China; supporting empirically based, analytically rigorous, policy-relevant research to better understand and assess China-related developments; and promoting dialogues involving experts and officials from China on a range of IPS-related issues, from regional security to the global economy.
When the Asia Society’s Orville Schell and University of California San Diego’s Susan Shirk approached the Corporation in 2016 with the idea of organizing a Task Force on U.S.-China Policy with some of the country’s most renowned China hands, they argued that American relations with its peer competitor had reached an inflection point. The once cherished assumptions driving American and Western approaches to China since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic outreach in the early 1970s — that integrating China into a world capitalist system would temper its more aggressive instincts and positively shape its internal and external behavior — have proven flawed. China has resisted being “tamed” and has cleverly used — or, some would argue, exploited — its engagement with the West to assert its own model of great-power development.
The first Task Force report, published in February 2017, US Policy Toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration, described the nature of the challenge in its broad multiplicity and proposed policies that might mitigate its most adverse aspects while leaving open the possibility of constructive engagement. As the report underscored, the “US-China relationship has always entailed elements of both cooperation and competition, but since the global financial crisis in 2008, the mix began to shift,” and the relationship has grown decidedly more contentious. The report highlighted immediate and urgent priorities for the new administration, from reaffirming U.S. commitments to Asia, to working with China to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, to deploying effective tools to address the lack of reciprocity in U.S trade and investment relations with China, to responding to Chinese civil society policy that harms U.S. organizations and citizens. At the heart of the report was the still open question as to whether China is amenable to accepting the rules-based strictures of the so-called liberal international order, or whether it is intent on upending the status quo, however flawed and in need of revision.
At the halfway point in the current Trump administration, the Task Force’s second report takes stock of the progress — or, in some important cases, lack thereof — on the policies recommended in the 2017 report. The new report, Course Correction: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy, also describes the new and ever-evolving challenges posed by China, in light of the tightening domestic grip and expanding international ambitions of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. The urgency of efforts to deal with these developments is underscored in the report’s opening line, which ominously warns: “The United States and China are on a collision course.” The subsequent pages lay out a detailed, informed, and clear-eyed diagnosis of the problems at hand, as well as a set of updated policy prescriptions to address them. Importantly, it again highlights opportunities for cooperation to avoid the worst outcomes. Taken together, the analysis and recommendations in this report and the words of the project’s cochairs reflect sentiments and actions that Andrew Carnegie would have heartily endorsed, and that now command the attention of his philanthropic progeny.