Recent speeches by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the Trump administration’s China-related grievances, yet they also revealed a new openness to engaging with China. Paul Haenle spoke with Michael Swaine, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about how a more thoughtful approach to the bilateral relationship might look, as well as what recent changes in the Trump administration’s rhetoric about Beijing reveal.

Swaine said Beijing’s transformation into a more ideological, party-driven, assertive, and capable power has raised questions in the United States over the efficacy of engagement. The Trump administration, however, has been too simplistic in its assessment of China and presented a one-dimensional, “cartoonish” picture of Beijing. In doing so, it has failed to articulate a nuanced approach that addresses the real challenges China poses. Recent polls highlight that most Americans still prefer positive relations with Beijing but are concerned about China’s more assertive behavior at home and abroad. Different definitions of human rights, among other issues, limit the possibility of future cooperation. Swaine argued, however, that recent speeches by senior Trump administration officials may indicate a new attitude toward Beijing–one that does not completely reject engagement. He said this shift in tone is due to the administration’s realization that American allies and partners have serious misgivings about its zero-sum view of its relationship with China. Swaine cautioned, however, that U.S.-China relations are unlikely to improve substantially in the near future, especially if Beijing continues to be unwilling to take greater responsibility to address growing international concern about its rise.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Michael Swaine

Michael Swaine is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies.