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Effect of US Foreign Policy on China

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 3388 words Published: 3rd Apr 2019

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What does US foreign policy mean for the PRC’s global interest?


U.S. foreign policy is a conflation of competing interests within the US and not a unified policy objective even though it may appear to be that way when reported by the mainstream media. But when it comes to US foreign policy and China, the messaging seems to be consistent; in part due to the threat that China poses to the US’ superpower status. This essay will look at how US foreign policy is defined and the examine its recent past with respect to China. It will examine foreign policy in the 21st century and show how China and the US share very common objectives in their foreign policy. This essay will also look at US foreign policy and Taiwan as it conflicts with China’s global interests. Finally, it will explain US foreign policy as a countermeasure to the ascendancy of China’s meteoric rise and question if there is an inevitability that these two superpower’s interests will eventually converge.

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How is US foreign policy defined?

U.S foreign policy is orchestrated by the National Security Council and that in itself comprises of offices that report to the Executive; the President. The Office of the President directs U.S. foreign policy with advice from the following; the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor to the President, the Secretary of Defence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of Central Intelligence. Their combined role is to apprise the Office of the President with information concerning the U.S. national interests overseas (Sobel, 2011).

However, the direction of foreign affairs is managed by the President and the Secretary of State; whom the President appoints. In other words, depending on the agenda of the President and his/her election promises, the U.S. national interests are what the President determines to be the U.S. national interest. This may be aligned with a political party, U.S. allies’ interests or exigent circumstances and the interests of the Deep State (Sobel, 2011). 

Apart from the National Security Council, Congress has an input into U.S. foreign policy for two reasons. First, Congress needs to be aware of foreign policy considerations because it has to deliberate the policy issues and implications and its effects on the nation. The views of individual members of Congress, regardless of their leanings or party affiliation, have an input in policy moulding. Secondly, Congress has to approve the funding for all foreign policy initiatives as part of the government’s annual budget and through additional appropriations. With the agenda of the President and potential moderation from Congress, U.S. national interests are shaped by a multitude of influences and it cannot be identified as realists, neoliberal etc. However, in practice, U.S. foreign policy seems to move in one direction regardless of which President controls the White House or which party controls Congress. This notion of the Deep State has been the consensus for over 30 years but it would appear that the election of Donald Trump as president has challenged the power f the so-called ‘Deep State’.

Foreign policy in the 21st century

Foreign policy in the 21st century isn’t just about national interests anymore; most liberal economies share the same foreign policy. Most countries now have a foreign policy that includes initiatives on cybercrime from overseas non-state actors, international terrorism, climate change and environment, international health concerns such as AIDS, refugee and international settlement, international trade agreements etc (Mitchell, 2017). All these are now core issues of foreign policy for almost every nation; this is the same for the US and China. In fact, one would argue that they largely share the same global interests. Except for to the traditional U.S. concerns such as Middle East policies, threats from Russia, obligations of NATO, economic threats to the U.S. dollar, dealing with crises, settling disputes and preventing the outbreak of conflicts and maintaining a peaceful world, the US and China have similar global interests (Andrews, 1994). 

In fact, in a multipolar world, global interests are no longer the remit of individual nation states but multilateral bodies which are both regional and international. Some of these global interests are increasing in scope and technical complexity; a good example is combating cyber attacks and cyber warfare from non-state actors. As nations become more interconnected and borders melt away because of the communication revolution and the 4th industrial revolution, international diplomacy is no longer hierarchical but convoluted; a matrix of relationships and dependencies.

Multilateral institutions play a very important role in both the US and China’s foreign policies. Good examples of the conflation of China’s and US’ global interests are the recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change, regulations on airspace and control, cross-border transactions, border security, international agreements on food safety, collaboration with health, medicine and pharmaceutical standards. In a multipolar world with ever decreasing national borders, and greater telecommunications connectivity, it is increasingly becoming harder to see where the US and China’s global interests start and stop (Holsti, 2009).

China, Taiwan and the US

When it comes to China’s global interest, Taiwan and the Cross-Strait relations plays an important part because it conflates with US foreign policy. The Cross-Strait relations are a tripartite relationship between Taiwan, China and the United States. Over the last three decades, the relationship has been somewhat stable but punctuated with threats of use of force and appeasement. On the one hand, China has always stressed that Taiwan is part of its ‘One China’ policy but always threatening that it would use force if Taiwan ever decided to secede and declare independence. Taiwan has been smart and refrained from actually declaring formal independence but continually threatening to do so yet maintaining a close economic relationship with China for its own benefit (Hsieh, 2016). On occasion, Taiwan threatens China with talks of breaking the ‘One China’ policy. The United States has been involved in the tripartite relationship by acting an independent referee or umpire over the last three decades.

The US foreign policy faces several important challenges in the region least of which would be the fact that if there was a dispute or escalation of tensions or outright war between China and Taiwan, the US would inevitably be dragged into a war it must win on two fronts; militarily because of its might and economically because of its position in world trade. China rightly sees it as a war on two fronts which would be counterproductive to its aims of modernization and its national interests. The US deterrence and China’s economic reform has by and large kept the extended peace; additionally, Taiwan’s refrain from declaring independence has subdued the confrontation (Wu, 2005). That is not to say that there is no such desire for independence but that there are political and economic constraints to doing so at this point in time. At least that was before the 2016 elections in Taiwan.

The close ties the United States has with Taiwan is crucial despite the fact that they do not have any diplomatic ties or arrangement even though the United States has a huge economic trade with Taiwan. In fact, Taiwan ranks as the 9th largest trading partner of the United States; a surprising fact given its relative size. The United States still has political links with Taiwan as it does with any fledgeling democracy; which Taiwan has clearly demonstrated it is. As such the United States might feel obliged to come to its aid given the democratic values it shares and the economic relationship it has fostered over the years (Rowen, 2015). On the contrary, there is the view that when one considers the geopolitics of the region, it is crucial for the United States to have as many allies as possible given the meteoric rise of China and the possibility that it will threaten the US as the world’s hyperpower. Having Taiwan as a buffer to China’s geopolitical expansion serves the interest of the United States. At the same time, many draw the point that China is the largest trading partner of the United States so it needs to be careful how it manages the Cross-Strait relations; it does not want to alienate is largest trading partner but at the same time it needs to keep a close eye on its political rival (Schubert, 2010). In addition to this dilemma is the case of North Korea which is still technically at war with the United States. The war on terror has a front in parts of South East Asia which means the United States has a vested interest in the region and given its rapid spread, needs the support of China. Given the competing interests, the United States has to prevent a war between Taiwan and China meaning that it is in its interest to prevent Taiwanese independence and assert the ‘One China’ policy (Andrews, 1994). If for any reason a war did break out between China and Taiwan over the issue of independence, the United States will certainly be between a rock and a hard place.

China’s rise; America’s decline

Every aspect of China’s ascendency almost invariably challenges the hegemony of the United States. In geopolitics, power abhors a vacuum and where one sees China flexing its economic and political might, it is surreptitiously coming into conflict with American interests. China’s rise does imply American decline and will ultimately lead to a confrontation between the two powers (Financial Times, 2016).

 It is easy to forget that in 1820, Greece had revolted against the Ottoman Empire, Britain had opened the first modern railway and was on its way to an exploding industrial revolution, Brazil had nervously declared independence from Portugal and that China was the world’s superpower with the largest share of global GDP. History has been written specifically to gloss over these facts. Western academia has repeatedly highlighted China as a collective of starved, dispossessed and slaughtered people and not a prosperous, dynamic and global power from 1100 – 1820. From 1078, China was the world’s major producer of steel, the world’s leader in technical innovations, the world’s leading trading nation, possessed the largest commercial ships and these are just to mention a few.

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Few academics would now dispute that China was the world’s hyperpower for 800 years before the rise of British imperialism in the 19th century. Western imperialism and China’s decline has been documented in detail which this essay cannot do justice to. The rise of Chinese economic and political strength is unquestionably due to the Communist Party of China which began when the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of Communist Party of China adopted a reform policy triggering the private sector[1].

One example of where a Chinese ascendency will conflict with US dominance is in the sphere of international banking where the U.S. has had complete control since the Second World War. With the criticism that the World Bank is an instrument of American foreign policy (the World Bank Group president has always been a U.S. citizen nominated by the US), China has nurtured the desire to exert itself unto the world stage. In addition, the reforms repeatedly called for by China at the World Bank, IMF and ADB have been unheeded. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a China-led financial institution designed to lend to development of infrastructure and other productive sectors in Asia. Examples of the sort of investments would be projects on water and sanitation, land and environmental development, telecommunications, technology and innovation, agriculture and rural development etc. The original 10-member nation-state signatories ratified the AIIB articles on 25th December 2015 and began with a capital of US$100 billion. AIIB is headquartered in Beijing, China with a current membership of 57 and an Asian and Oceania outlook. All G8 members have joined the AIIB except the United States and Japan. If the last 30 years of Chinese ambitions are anything to go by, the AIIB will surpass the dominance and output of the World Bank sometime in the second half of this century (Eckart, 2016).

Another area where China’s ascendancy will directly challenge the U.S. is international trade. The One Belt, One Road Initiative is seen as the next frontier in which China will dominate international trade at the expense of the U.S.  In Imperial China, ‘the Silk Road’ served as a vast trade network across Asia reaching Europe on land (and from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean Sea). Originally derived from the trade of silk, it grew to include other goods as well as act as a conduit for technology, philosophies, art and cultural influences. Used by the Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Indians and of course the Chinese, it survived for centuries. Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated the policy in 2013 with the view to building an economic link between China, Asia, Africa and Europe via road links and seaports. The plan is so audacious that it will attempt to cover countries that represent 55% of the world’s GDP, 70% of the world’s population and three-quarters of the world’s known energy reserves.

One Belt, One Road initiative is not only an economic offensive but a geopolitical and diplomatic offensive causing considerable consternation amongst political observers who argue that China risks stirring opposition from its neighbours. The ‘Belt’ is land-based while the ‘Road’ is sea-based. A series of planned and future infrastructure projects are expected to build or link ports, maritime passages such as rivers and canals, roads, airports, railways, oil and gas pipelines, power plants, refineries, Free Trade Zones with the express purpose of creating a connectivity to enable Chinese expansion. Another way of looking at this initiative is to cast one’s mind back to the U.S.’ Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WWII although one must note that the Marshall Plan was a series of grants and not loans. What do these both spell for China’s future and America’s decline? At this point, there are certainly more questions than answers (MOFCOM, 2017).


The United States and China have a lot in common because foreign policy in the 21st century has more commonalities than it did in the 19th-century world of realpolitik. Their national interests converge more than they diverge. But where they do diverge, it seems they have managed to find a workable alliance. Whether it’s on issues about Taiwan, international trade or the One Belt One Road Initiative, US foreign policy and China’s global interest are aligned in many ways.


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[1] From December 18 to 22, 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of Communist Party of China was held in Beijing. The party decided that China should start shift its economic focus from “class struggle-oriented” to “economic construction-oriented”, from “semi-rigid/rigid” to comprehensive reform, and, from “semi-closed/closed” to “opening up.” (People’s Daily Online, 2008)


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