A Professor Who Challenges the Washington Consensus on China

Two years ago, Jessica Chen Weiss made a phone call to her mother that changed her career. Her mother, a cancer researcher who lives in Seattle, told her that rising violence against Asian Americans was making her fearful of going outside.

“She just didn’t want to walk around the streets,” Weiss said. “I was just shocked. It’s still something on her mind when she weighs whether to walk around downtown.”

Weiss wondered what was happening to her own country. “Growing up in Seattle, half Asian and half white, I never felt that my ethnicity or her ethnicity were an issue,” she said. A political scientist and professor of government at Cornell, Weiss had previously studied how China had risen in prominence as a campaign topic in the 2010 midterm elections, especially in terms of blue-collar jobs leaving the U.S. But she felt that this new wave of concern about China was of a different quality: it had become an obsession that could warp U.S. society.

“We can’t agree on what we stand for; that’s part of the problem,” she said. “We are risking our vibrancy as a democracy and our ability to attract talent.”

That was the beginning of Weiss’s new role as a public intellectual. She wrote for the mass media and spoke out in public. She was due a sabbatical year and sought out a fellowship that would allow her to spend it as a senior adviser on the policy-planning staff at the U.S. Department of State in the Biden Administration, helping to shape U.S. policy toward China.

She is quick to say that the twelve months were a terrific learning experience, and that the Administration was open to her ideas. “The words are there, and the instinct is there,” she said. “But there is the outcompete-and-beat-China muscle and the what-do-we-stand-for muscle. I think that second muscle is weaker in this Administration.”

In August, the forty-one-year-old published her concerns in a Foreign Affairs article that catapulted her to the front ranks of the growing number of China experts concerned that U.S. foreign policy suffers from an unhealthy focus on China as a threat. Called “The China Trap,” her piece details her worries that every interaction with China is now seen as a zero-sum game. Part of this is driven by China’s own actions, for example, in militarizing the South China Sea, threatening the democratic island of Taiwan, and failing to open its economy. “But a complete account,” she wrote, “must also acknowledge corresponding changes in U.S. politics and policy.”

That includes a barrage of punitive measures that grows by the year, including tariffs, sanctions on Chinese officials, and restrictions on cultural exchanges. Some of those policies began in the Trump Administration, but few have been changed under the Biden Administration, which has added new restrictions.

Most worrying to Weiss, President Biden also appears to be drifting away from a decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, which many in both parties now see as deserving almost unreserved U.S. support. On four occasions, Biden has spoken of the U.S. responsibility to defend it, which has been explicit U.S. policy since relations were normalized with China in 1979. Each statement was walked back by the White House, which has said that U.S. policy has not changed, but the repetition has made it hard to believe that Biden is simply misspeaking. “I think we are in an action-reaction spiral,” Weiss told me, with each side feeling the need for ever-tougher measures to signal its seriousness. “We’re heading toward a crisis and a catastrophe that will devastate the global economy.”

Weiss has emerged as a kind of loyal and measured opposition to a rare case of bipartisan consensus in Washington—that China must be countered at all costs. Just a decade ago, this view was limited to a small number of right-wing commentators and analysts, but, in one of the most dramatic about-faces in U.S. foreign policy, it is now the dominant way of seeing China. As Weiss noted in her Foreign Affairs article, “ever more vehement opposition to China may be the sole thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on.”

In many ways, the shift is understandable. China has militarized the South China Sea. It is building up a blue-water navy. It is flooding global institutions with its diplomats. It is threatening Taiwan. It has launched coercive campaigns to assimilate ethnic minorities, such as through brutal reëducation camps in the western region of Xinjiang. And it has cracked down on peaceful protesters seeking an end to nearly three years of coronavirus lockdowns.

Many other countries have also downgraded relations with China, suggesting that the problem is not a creation of Washington groupthink. But the explanation that China has changed isn’t entirely persuasive. As Susan L. Shirk documents in her meticulously researched new book, “Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise,” China’s aggressive foreign policy and domestic crackdown can be traced to 2006, when it began militarizing islands and implementing what became a permanent stifling of dissent, but the change in U.S. policy took flight only more than a decade later.

As Weiss points out in her Foreign Affairs article, the United States began to react in the Obama Administration, which in 2011 announced a “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia. Still, relations with China remained largely unchanged even after Trump took office. He used extreme language to describe China—saying it was out to “rape” the United States—but didn’t unleash truly hawkish policies until after he took a drubbing in the 2018 midterms.

Trump’s measures intensified when the coronavirus threatened his reëlection. After initially praising Xi Jinping’s handling of the virus, Trump turned on China, using crude language that seemed to drive anti-Asian hate. His Administration also took steps to cut points of contact with China, such as killing the Fulbright academic-exchange program and the Peace Corps program in China, reducing the number of Chinese journalists, and closing a Chinese consulate. All invited retaliatory actions. “In speeches,” Weiss has noted, “senior U.S. officials hinted at regime change, calling for steps to ‘empower the Chinese people’ to seek a different form of government and stressing that ‘Chinese history contains another path for China’s people.’ ”

Many thought that Biden’s election would change U.S. policy, but two things torpedoed that. One was China’s own belligerence. In 2020 and 2021, China became embroiled in renewed disputes with its neighbors: border skirmishes with India, incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, and the sending of armed ships into Japanese territorial waters. But the Biden Administration also shunned direct contacts, preferring to restore U.S. alliances before talking substantively with China. The new Administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials was a seemingly stage-managed spat between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in Anchorage, Alaska—Blinken launched a verbal attack on China, which prompted a furious response, all in front of the international media.

“There is an ebb and flow of global enemies,” Weiss said. “This Administration came out of the gate saying it was China but then had to revise National Security Strategy to reflect Ukraine. So now we have an acute and a long-term threat.”

The harder line isn’t entirely surprising given the team that Biden assembled. These include Kurt M. Campbell, the National Security Council’s coördinator for the Indo-Pacific, who has argued that competition with China could help avert U.S. decline. Campbell and Ely Ratner, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, in 2018 co-authored an article arguing that engagement with China was a flawed strategy. Another key member of the team is Rush Doshi, the National Security Council’s China director, who authored an influential book arguing that China has been plotting to overtake the United States for decades.

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