The Great Restoration: The Return to Engagement with Communist China

About 20 years ago, before Xi Jinping assumed control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would often refer to the “restoration” of China as a strategic objective. The meaning of the word signified the CCP’s intent to “restore” all territory the CCP believed was theirs, from the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Nansei Shoto, and border areas with India. Since Xi has taken power the term “restoration” has fallen out of the CCP’s propaganda lexicon and has been replaced by “rejuvenation.”  More specifically, Xi’s “Great Rejuvenation” aims to return the PRC to what CCP propagandists assert is China’s natural position as the world’s most dominate and powerful nation.

So, it is not without some irony that the Biden Administration is now unambiguously pursuing its own form of a “Great Restoration”—theirs is the return to the pro-PRC policies of unconstrained and unaccountable engagement with the CCP.

The following three statements from Biden officials in the month of September are the clearest and most unambiguous evidence to date of the implementation of the Biden “Great Restoration.”

First, during President Biden’s press conference in Vietnam on September 10, he made the following statements regarding his view of the PRC:  “I don’t want to contain China. I just want to make sure that we have a relationship with China that is on the up and up, squared away, everybody knows what it’s all about;” “It’s not about containing China; it’s about having a stable base — a stable base in the Indo-Pacific;” ”It’s not about isolating China;” “I want to see China succeed economically;” “I’m not — we’re not looking to hurt China, sincerely. We’re all better off if China does well;” “We’re not trying to hurt China.”

While the President states that he wanted to ensure the PRC would abide by the “rules of the road” of international politics, overall, his press conference was dominated by statements that reveal his belief that the policy of engagement with the CCP will result in the PRC changing its behavior—and thus making the world a safer place.

Given all we know after 40 years of such engagement, it is hard to understand how a President could hold such beliefs, especially given the very dire nature of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific, one that is more dangerous than at anytime since the CCP came to power in 1949.

Additionally, how is it possible a U.S. President could say that they want to see the PRC’s economy to succeed when 30 years of PRC economic growth, funded by the U.S. in large part, has resulted in the world’s largest navy, missile force, and the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific. Does the President, and his team, not realize that supporting the PRC’s economic growth has not only destroyed American jobs, but has built the very military force that is poised to destroy Taiwan and America?

Second, following National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s September 16-17 clandestine trip to Malta to meet with PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the official readout of Sullivan’s trip was reported as such: “This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the relationship. The two sides had candid, substantive, and constructive discussions, building on the engagements between President Biden and President Xi in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022…The two sides committed to maintain this strategic channel of communication and to pursue additional high-level engagement and consultations in key areas between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in the coming months.”

This was Sullivan’s second meeting with the PRC foreign minister; the prior one was in Vienna in May 2023. Whilethis all sounds good and honorable, a deeper look reveals an administration that is more concerned about engagement for engagement’s sake than in deterring the CCP and their stated goals. Again, the emphasis from the Yi-Sullivan meetings is that the Biden administration has placed the restoration of engagement with the CCP as its top policy objective.

Most alarming from this post meeting statement is the lack of awareness regarding the failure of the policy of engagement. At a minimum, the National Security Advisor should at least make mention of the objective metrics the administration will use for assessing whether or not this “open line of strategic communication” is actually reducing tensions in the region or is increasing our own national security. Unfortunately, the assumption is made that diplomacy lead by a policy of engagement with the CCP will automatically lead to a better and safer world. This simply is untrue and is not supported by objective facts.

Third, on September 19, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner made this statement: “Importantly, we do not believe that conflict is imminent or inevitable, because we believe that deterrence across the Strait is real and strong today.” Then, rather remarkably, Mr. Ratner asserted the policy of “strategic ambiguity” has been responsible for deterring the PRC. When questioned on this he stated, “We believe that sustaining that policy is critically important” and that “changing that policy could drive Beijing to initiate military action even when it was not ready to do so.”

If Mr. Ratner were being fully honest, then he could not make such boldly erroneous assertions, so we are left with only one conclusion—that the Biden administration seeks the restoration of engagement with the CCP versus the Trump era policy of “strategic competition” against them.

These statements combined with the recent rash of high-level engagements by senior Biden Administration officials, including Secretary Blinken, Secretary Yellen, Special Envoy Kerry, Secretary Raimondo, and their CCP counterparts in Beijing over the past three months make it unmistakably clear—the Biden Administration is now fully committed to the “great restoration” of the Obama Era policy of pretending to play tough with the PRC, while at the same time pursuing uninhibited engagement with the CCP.

While such a feckless approach to dealing with totalitarian regimes has historically proven to be a disaster, the worse is yet to come as the world begins to realize the Biden administration has not deterred the CCP but is in fact empowering it. The results of such empowerment will impact  lives of millions as an invasion of Taiwan would surely kill not just Taiwan citizens, but Americans and other allies in the region.

This issue of the Biden administration’s “Great Restoration” of the failed policy of unbridled engagement with the PRC must not be allowed to fly under the radar with the American people. This is particularly the case as we head into the 2024 Presidential election campaign season. All candidates for the nation’s highest office need to be pressed on their stance on this so-called “Great Restoration” and what it is that they will do to get the nation back on the right course, the course of unambiguous actions that will stop the spread of the Chinese Communist Party’s “Great Rejuvenation.”

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.  He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat


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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images