The Case for a New Engagement Consensus

In October 2014, I hosted an American friend who has extensive policy experience and is considered a leading China hand. Over dinner in Beijing, I asked him, “Do you think the ‘engagement consensus’ still holds in Washington?” My question was laced with a sense of hidden anxiety, given the rather animated debate surrounding China that was then unfolding in U.S. policy circles. “Of course!” he answered unequivocally.

My friend’s assurance allayed the apprehensions I harbored about the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Neither of us would have thought at the time that in just a few years, the consensus that successive U.S. administrations adopted after normalization—the belief that as the United States engaged China comprehensively, China would liberalize not only economically but also politically—would vanish altogether. It turns out that we are not the only ones who were mistaken. In a visit to Peking University in November 2019, Henry Kissinger, one of the principal architects of U.S. engagement with China, acknowledged that he, too, was surprised by the precipitous deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations.

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