Prof Joseph Fewsmith, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the RSIS, gave a public lecture on “Engaging Engagement” on 27 February 2019. During the lecture, Prof Fewsmith challenged the existing notion in Washington DC that engagement with China is futile.
Citing former US President Richard Nixon’s engagement strategy with China some 40 years ago that ushered in a sustained era of peace, Prof Fewsmith believes engagement was critical in ending China’s support for communist revolutions around the world and jumpstarting the People’s Republic’s integration into the global community. Individuals who favor engagement with China are not naïve dreamers who sought to democratise China. Rather, the world has benefited enormously with China as a stakeholder.
Still, a rising China seeking to reshape the international order is causing concerns among US leaders. Beijing’s championing of new global institutions and alliances threatens the US and the two countries continue to cross swords over a number of issues. The trade war is the result of Washington’s long-term frustrations with the US-China trade imbalance, market access, and cyber-theft of intellectual property—in addition to the economic challenges “Made in China 2025” poses to US enterprises. Moreover, China’s assertive policy in the East and South China Sea challenges regional status quo, freedom of navigation, and US military presence in the Asia Pacific. Worse yet, deteriorating human rights situation in China, epitomised by the mass arrests of human rights activists and burgeoning detention camps in Xinjiang, has a powerful influence on how US lawmakers perceive China.
With that being said, there is a lack of consensus in Washington on what the right policy combination should be with regards to China. Prof Fewsmith believes that instead of confrontation, US should invest more domestically to match Chinese capabilities, especially in the field of research and development and cybersecurity. Engagement with China must continue in conjunction with US partners and allies through international frameworks to ensure that engagements will have a lasting impact on a worldwide scale.