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OPINION: China is our major foreign-policy challenge

By Lee Hamilton


Several decades ago, I noticed the rise of China coming up in international discussions with increasing frequency. It was, at the time, a startling change. We gradually realized we had a new great power in the world. 

It had become obvious that China was not going to fade away. Everyone seemed to be noticing this; but, very importantly, the United States foreign policy began to focus on it. The rise of China became the topic of the day for American foreign policy. Almost overnight, attention was paid to two questions. What was U.S. foreign policy toward China? And what was China’s policy toward the U.S. and the world? 

Those questions led to discussions of what actions the U.S. should be taking to deal with China. Obviously, we had to strengthen our alliances, especially in the Asia Pacific region. We had to firm up our national defense. And we had to increase investment in our strategic capabilities, especially in the critical technologies that would impact our ability to shape the global balance of military and political power. 

Beyond that, it became clear that we would need to engage with China where possible — to find areas of agreement where we could work together. And there are several areas, including climate change, pollution, terrorism, commerce, and technology. Also, we would need to manage areas of disagreement with China, and there are several of these as well. They include China’s disregard of human rights and the freedom of its own people, its threatening behavior toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, its assertiveness in the South China Sea, and its rejection of international norms of trade and intellectual property. 

In recent months, Russia’s war against Ukraine has pushed China out of the headlines. American leaders are focused on aiding Ukraine and doing what they can to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s outrageous aggression. Much of the world is united behind this effort. Significantly, however, China is not. 

Recent news reports from China have called attention to COVID-19 outbreaks that undermine the government’s ambitious “zero COVID” policy. A weeks-long lockdown in Shanghai led to chaos and anger. In Beijing, residents waited in long lines for COVID-19 testing, hoping to avoid a Shanghai-style lockdown. Critics of the government used social media to stay a step ahead of Chinese censors. 

There was a time, as China became more engaged in the world economy, when we could hope it would join the liberal world order and adopt a more open society and democratic government. But under President Xi Jinping, China has cracked down on dissent and become more assertive in the international arena. 

The Chinese people may be frustrated with COVID controls, but Xi still controls the government and is expected to win a third term as the nation’s leader this fall. Xi has made no secret of his desire to strengthen China’s influence in the world. 

President Joe Biden [is visiting] Japan and South Korea [May 20-24] to emphasize America’s support of free trade and its “rock-solid commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to the White House. Biden will meet with leaders of the “Quad” group, including Australia, Japan, and India, on how to check the growing threat from China and North Korea. 

These are important meetings. We need to work with our allies to counter China’s aggression. But it’s also important to keep the channels of communication open and to avoid giving China reasons to ramp up its hostility to America and to the West. Dealing with China has become a major foreign-policy challenge for the United States, and it will remain so for years to come.        

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.

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