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The Return of Congagement?

Coined by Zalmay Khalilzad in the late 1990s, the term “congagement” captures the basic idea that the United States can contain Beijing in military and strategic terms while engaging China on trade, investment, and diplomatic issues.

President Joe Biden, joined by First Lady Jill Biden, delivers remarks on the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
President Joe Biden, joined by First Lady Jill Biden, delivers remarks on the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Congagement is back. 

As a description of U.S. policy toward China, the term never really went away. Now, however, the Biden administration seems to be signaling a return to congagement as an aspiration for how to deal with a rising Beijing. President Joe Biden himself predicts a thaw in U.S.-China relations soon.

In the short term, this is good news — a welcome indication that senior figures in the White House recognize that unalloyed antagonism between the U.S. and China is dangerous.

In the longer term, however, it is far from clear that congagement offers a sustainable formula for managing U.S.-China ties. In due course, a new approach will be needed. 

What Is Congagement?

An explanation of the concept is necessary.

Coined by Zalmay Khalilzad in the late 1990s, the term “congagement” captures the basic idea that the United States can contain Beijing in military and strategic terms while engaging China on trade, investment, and diplomatic issues. To its supporters, congagement is a sophisticated strategy meant to deter Beijing from menacing its neighbors while keeping certain policy areas open to cooperation.

Critics view congagement as short-sighted and self-defeating. Their main objection is that engaging China in the economic sphere cuts against the goal of blunting Beijing’s military power. China hawks reject the notion that economic and diplomatic engagement could ever turn the People’s Republic into a friendly actor. From their point of view, congagement was only ever good at fueling the rise of a hostile peer competitor.

In recent years, the hawks are ascendant in U.S. politics. It is unpopular to argue in favor of close relations with China, so the idea of congagement stays mostly off-limits. By contrast, containing China is an easy position to embrace. From trade and investment to Taiwan and TikTok, it is easy to see that American leaders view China-bashing as good electoral politics.

But no matter how popular anti-China positions might be in domestic politics, a broad strategy of containing Beijing in the military, economic, and diplomatic spheres was never going to be possible in practical terms. Sooner or later, it was inevitable that U.S. foreign policy would have to account for the reality that the relationship with China is too big to fail.

Coordinated Trajectory

It is in acknowledgement of this reality that senior officials such as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Biden himself have started to hint at a return to congagement. Yellen used a recent speech at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies to insist that the U.S.-China economic relationship could and should remain strong.

“My goal is to be clear and honest,” the Treasury Secretary explained. “To cut through the noise and speak to this essential relationship based on sober realities.”

Some of the “sober realities” laid out by Yellen were clearly designed to resonate with China hawks. She acknowledged the national-security threat posed by China, criticized Beijing’s human rights record, reserved the right to limit economic engagement with China in certain areas, and emphasized that economic cooperation with China would depend on Beijing playing within the bounds of a U.S.-centric rules-based order.

But Yellen’s speech also laid down clear signals that the U.S. government wants to keep relations with China from deteriorating. Yellen explicitly rejected the framing of U.S.-China relations as zero-sum, arguing that “the world is big enough for the both of us.” She expressed optimism about the future, declaring that the path ahead “is not preordained, and it is not destined to be costly.”

In a move that suggests some degree of coordination among administration officials, Sullivan followed up Yellen’s speech with one of his own. The national security advisor argued that “we are competing with China on multiple dimensions, but we are not looking for confrontation or conflict. We’re looking to manage competition responsibly and seeking to work together with China where we can.” Earlier this month, Sullivan met with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi.

The framing of U.S.-China competition as compatible with constructive engagement has been a constant theme of Biden’s presidency. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in particular, has articulated a “cooperate, compete, confront” approach to China for the past two years. The administration has shown a notable willingness to do its part to improve ties to Beijing after a period of extremely poor bilateral relations.

Finding the Foreign Policy Balance

But Van Jackson is right: In foreign policy, deeds matter much more than words — and from China’s perspective, there are precious few actions coming from Washington that suggest a serious and sustainable desire for improved relations. This means that while the return to congagement might be a welcome development, its significance should not be overstated.

The key point is that China gets to determine whether congagement can work as a strategy, because Beijing always has the option of withholding its participation in bilateral or multilateral initiatives organized by the United States and its allies. If leaders in Beijing are being told that America’s long-term objective is to contain Chinese influence (as Mike Pompeo’s once said, “ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world”), then why would they ever agree to engage with the United States over anything but the most essential areas of mutual interest?

Consider that the United States and its allies in the G7, the Quad, and NATO continue to label China as a geopolitical threat, a systemic challenger, or an outright competitor. It is now U.S. economic policy to deprive China of access to advanced technologies such as high-end microchips. Meanwhile, the United States continues to augment its military deployments in the Western Pacific.

These efforts at balancing are only the beginning. The Department of Defense describes China as the pacing challenge for the U.S. military. If taken literally, this means that the United States will try to match Beijing’s growing economic and military power in the Indo-Pacific for the foreseeable future. That requires stronger and tighter alliances, additional forward-deployments, and an arms race with no end in sight. 

In this context, what reason does China have to view congagement as anything but a more polite form of containment? The rational response from Chinese leaders will be to circumvent America’s attempts at containment, not to play along with suspect invitations to collaborate.

There is some irony here. In the past, the engagement half of congagement was blamed for undermining the effectiveness of containment. These days, it is perhaps more accurate to say that U.S. efforts at containment are dampening Chinese enthusiasm for engagement.

The return to congagement is welcome only when juxtaposed against all-out confrontation. But this is a low bar. Judged on its own merits, congagement is an unimaginative approach from a bygone era that might not suit new international conditions. It is not a terrible strategy, but it is far from the best set of ideas that the United States could implement in service of rescuing one of the most important bilateral relationships in world history.

Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive. Follow him on Twitter, @PeterHarrisCSU.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.



  1. Gary Jacobs

    May 24, 2023 at 9:43 am

    An interesting perspective to add to a much needed session that brings in critical thinking on China policy going forward.

    However, what this article fails to take into account is that quite often China is its own worst enemy with the way it conducts its policy.

    From its manipulation of the WTO, WHO, etc… and its absurd insistence on the 9-dash line to coerce its neighbors and steal their resources; as well as its mistreatment of Taiwan, and China ignoring its promises to respect the system in Hong Kong…China has proven itself to be untrustworthy.

    And all of that is before we even get to the Belt and Road initiative.

    A dozen+ poor countries are facing economic instability and even collapse under the weight of hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign loans, much of them from the world’s biggest and most unforgiving government lender, China.

    An Associated Press [AP] analysis of a dozen countries most indebted to China — including Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia, Laos and Mongolia — found paying back that debt is consuming an ever greater amount of the tax revenue needed to keep schools open, provide electricity and pay for food and fuel. And it’s draining foreign currency reserves these countries use to pay interest on those loans, leaving some with just months before that money is gone.

    Behind the scenes is China’s reluctance to forgive debt and its extreme secrecy about how much money it has loaned and on what terms, which has kept other major lenders from stepping in to help. On top of that is the recent discovery that borrowers have been required to put cash in hidden escrow accounts that push China to the front of the line of creditors to be paid.

    Countries in AP’s analysis had as much as 50% of their foreign loans from China and most were devoting more than a third of government revenue to paying off foreign debt.

    Two of them, Zambia and Sri Lanka, have already gone into default, unable to make even interest payments on loans financing the construction of ports, mines and power plants.

    In Pakistan, millions of textile workers have been laid off because the country has too much foreign debt and can’t afford to keep the electricity on and machines running.

    And Pakistan is supposed to be China’s ally in the region. Especially against India. If this is how China treats its friends, what can countries with lesser relations with China really expect from them?

    In Kenya, the government has held back paychecks to thousands of civil service workers to save cash to pay foreign loans. The president’s chief economic adviser tweeted last month, ‘Salaries or default? Take your pick.’

    Since Sri Lanka defaulted a year ago, a half million industrial jobs have vanished, inflation has pierced 50% and more than half the population in many parts of the country has fallen into poverty.

    Experts predict that unless China begins to soften its stance on its loans to poor countries, there could be a wave of more defaults and political upheavals.

    The absurd nature of Chinese policy has created a window of opportunity for the US aligned countries
    to step in and be better than China. Of course Ukraine has rightfully taken up a lot of the diplomatic energy and relief efforts.

    That said, while The G7’s B3W initiative is not really enough to fully compete…the fact that there are a lot more grants involved than the way China is lending makes the terms more attractive.

    As well, there are a lot of sustainable renewable energy projects that feel ambitious. If they succeed, they go a long way to proving that we have better intentions than China.

    IF the US and the west are successful in making our own transition into things like Green Hydrogen for baseload energy to supplement a mix of renewables…and fossil fuels are phased out…AND we can export that tech to poor countries to help them with a foundation of energy to support further development… then We are in a much better position than China to determine how the next 100+ years play out on the world stage.

  2. Commentar

    May 24, 2023 at 9:54 am

    Congagement against china boosted by big huge steoid dose of wokeness (latest religio-political practice) will eventually lead to an unavoidable repeat of the most famous 1900 expedition.

    Today, great western political pundits or gurus like biden, stoltenberg and others are of the strong belief the rest of the world greatly owe them a living debt due to them stubbornly refusing to recognize the inalienable & inborn rights of the west to rule over them.

    That most particular woke ideology segment thus leads to today’s things or events like sanctions, deliberate slow starvation, proxy wars, powerful regime change exercises AND congagement.

    Congagement directly lays the future ground for any type of casus belli to arise, from violations of human rights to magnitsky acts and to economic espionage to cyber intrusions to drug exports to EP-3 collisions, sub fender bender imcifents/offences plus a thousand and one others.

    That allows any single one violation to give full green light for punishment as woke policy or woke ideology demands punishment for any clear & established transgression of the world’s newest religion.

    Note the memo from mike minihan that stressed on punishment (possibly coming as soon as 2025) which ny his measure is dishing out nothing less than unrepentant lethality.

    Thus to confront and fight wokeness or latest religio-political policy, countries that appreciate and value their freedom and sovereignty must now enlarge their nuke arsenals and also start deploying part of them in space or in low earth orbit.

    So long as the gurus or pundits of the congagement-woke combo are aware of ‘that thing’ circling overhead, or hovering just above in low earth orbit, they will prefer to keep the peace and not want to be reckless !

  3. HarvyWarlock

    May 24, 2023 at 10:26 am

    The US has a incontinent half-wit for a president. China has nothing to fear for at least a 18 months. Maybe longer if this half wit continues to burn the country down from the inside.

  4. len

    May 24, 2023 at 11:42 am

    To its supporters, Congagement (connection and engagement) is an sophisticated non-strategy meant to deter Beijing from menacing its neighbors while keeping certain policy areas open to cooperation.

    Congagement is a Neocon interventionist delusion, likely stolen from John Bolton’s desk drawer. Who’s menacing who in the world today?
    Unfortunately, militarily the United States would have no chance to hold back China from invading Taiwan without the use of nuclear arms.

    Confusing statements and military actions reinforce the US ambiguity with China policy. Leaving one to wonder if the US even has a clear China policy? The lack of tactful statements “bounds of a U.S. centric rules-based order”, “ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world” as though the US empire thinks it still rules the world as it once thought Pre 1970’s.
    But lets piss more money away showing who is boss of the blue planet. China’s interpretation, ‘consider the source’. More US mindless chatter by its current US officials.

    China will China, and the US will continue to threaten on all fronts in protest.

  5. GhostTomahawk

    May 24, 2023 at 1:53 pm

    So basically what our “leaders” are telling us is, they’re cucked sell outs. They are afraid to tell us that with trillions dumped into our military, the military is ill equipped to fight a war it’s supposed to be able to win. AND because these cucked leaders sold out to corporations, big pharma and big tech, they’re unwilling to put the boy on the neck of China via trade. Allowing US citizens to be targeted and exploited by the Chinese.

    We need a purge. This ain’t working

  6. Jim

    May 24, 2023 at 4:57 pm

    Trade with them and contain them.


    Hasn’t that been happening already? Look at a map… lots of military bases (some small some large) ringing the periphery of China.

    Okay… never went away.

    How’s it going?

    Diplomatic relations with China are in a rough patch… for awhile no calls, no meetings… although recently, a meeting was held in Europe.

    Let’s not drive China and Russia together, shall we.

    Pointing out China’s most flagrant violation of International Law, building military airstrips on coral atolls and claiming sovereign territory rights by Right of Conquest, is the best place to start.

    China claims to respect International Law… but regarding the South China Sea, the International Court at the Hague has found China was in violation of International Law.

    China rejected the finding of the court.

    Time to enforce the Judgement.

    You can’t consider China without considering the overall Eurasian Land Mass.

    That’s part of Mackinder 101, don’t let the Eurasian land mass fall under control of one country or power.

    And, United States policy has been to prevent a rival to challenge for control… of that land mass or anywhere else.

    But here we are and now we face two rival adversaries rising in Eurasia. Recent policy has forced Russia & China together… falling to heed the Mackinder dictum… actually, exasperating the situation.

    America’s current foreign policy trajectory is like the Titanic heading straight for the Iceberg.

    Can the foreign policy establishment point to one successful foreign policy in the last twenty years, beyond the Abraham Accords?

    Re-treading the same old, failed policy won’t work anymore.

    America must be creative in its foreign policy in a way it hasn’t been for a long time… we can’t keep up this track record of failure.

  7. Gary Jacobs

    May 25, 2023 at 11:29 am


    In your rush to doom and gloom you failed to notice several things.

    Not least of which is the fact that China has refused to supply Russia with weapons to fight in Ukraine.

    Russia has been forced to bring back equipment from Syria, make deals with Iran and N. Korea, as well as utterly fail to fulfill its contracts to sell weapons to India.

    Furthermore, Russia was excluded from the recent meeting of central asian countries…which was led by China.

    China is angling for greater influence in Central Asia as Russia remains focused on its grinding war in Ukraine. Chinese state media have echoed that.

    ‘The countries of Central Asia have realized that Russia is having so much difficulty in its fight against Ukraine that it is not wise to completely rely on Russia — they must find a way out,’ read a commentary in the nationalist paper Defense Times.

    If you’re sitting in Kazakhstan, it’s very easy to look at the narratives that Putin used to justify invading Ukraine — there’s a population that speak Russian — and he could make exactly the same case there, among other places.

    Xi presented himself as a partner for countries that were once part of the Soviet Union but which have become increasingly alarmed by Russia’s efforts to take back control of Ukraine, another former Soviet Republic.

    This approach exposes a rift in China & and Russia’s ‘no limits’ friendship.

    You were wondering what foreign policy success the US can point to besides the Abraham Accords. I can give you several that range from success in progress, to some success with lots more potential:

    The Quad
    Three Seas Initiative [TSI]
    War in Ukraine

    Two are meant to keep China in check, the Quad and AUKUS. And the other two keep Russia in check.

    The Quad is especially helpful for China. as a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US. Even if those other countries would not ful engage in a war with Taiwan, China will always have to keep a force on its border with India. All India has to do is increase its force posture along the border to force China to do the same.

    There is also some overlap as we Russia fails to complete its weapons contracts with India. Now The US and our allies get to step into that breech.

    It’s also ironic that you mention the Abraham Accords because the NatGas cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea between Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus has been joined by UAE.

    They will collectively send gas to Egypt’s LNG facility. That gas can then be sent to the regasification terminal being built in northern Greece at the port of Alexandroupolis, which will be connected through the Three Seas Initiative into eastern Europe via Bulgaria.

    Until 2022, Greece had one LNG terminal off Athens. With the new Alexandroupolis terminal and other projects in the pipeline, it is expected to triple its regasification capacity by the end of 2023.

    At this point Russia’s attempt to use energy as a weapon against Europe has utterly failed, largely due to the Foreign Policy of the US and our ability to both step up with LNG deliveries ourselves, but also to rally other supplies to replace Russian gas to the Eu and wider market. Now gas is even below the prewar price again, and the restrictions on Russian gas have held firm.

    As well, the war in Ukraine has only served to strengthen the resolve on the countries involved in the TSI to work out their remaining issues and make progress on future elements of the plan to strengthen their countries collective work to protect themselves against future Russian aggression as well as to strengthen their economies through interconnected energy, infrastructure, and other economic programs.

    There’s a lot more than this, but for now I digress.

  8. Ben d'Mydogtags

    May 27, 2023 at 11:44 am

    You cannot fill in a hole using dirt you dig-up OUT OF THE SAME HOLE! Engaging with China economically only arms China with greater resources to build up their military strength: more money, more technology, more manufacturing capacity, more binding-ties to coerce trade partners, more ships, more transportation infrastructure, more influence in international organizations etc.

  9. Ben d'Mydogtags

    May 27, 2023 at 11:48 am

    “Congagement” is an alibi told by traitors to explain why their selling out the US was excusable.

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