Forty years after China embarked on the economic reforms that have helped transform it from an isolated and impoverished communist outpost into an increasingly confident and capable global power, a growing number of observers in the United States have, understandably, concluded that Washington adopted the wrong strategy toward Beijing. Their judgment is largely rooted in two propositions. First, the United States was mistaken to assume, or hope, that China would become more democratic as its economy grew. Second, by persisting with efforts to integrate China into the postwar international order, the United States ultimately enabled the rise of a country that now stands not only as its principal competitor, but also as its putative replacement on the global stage.
It is difficult to dispute the first point, although Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations rightly cautions that “political change is a long game, and the game is not over.” Especially under Xi Jinping, however, Beijing has taken a decisively authoritarian turn—cracking down more aggressively on foreign nongovernmental organizations, more explicitly renouncing Western values and governance, and consolidating what may well be the world’s most intrusive, far-reaching surveillance state. With the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to end presidential term limits, moreover, Xi is poised to preside over China for as long as he lives. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observes that China is “reentering a period in which the fortunes of a fifth of humanity hinge, to an extraordinary degree, on the visions, impulses, and insecurities of a solitary figure.”
But the second point—that the U.S. has aided the rise of its now-chief competitor—is more debatable. Could the U.S. have either stalled China’s progress indefinitely or cultivated a less formidable competitor?