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.
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.