The U.S. Must End Engagement (and Biden’s Neo-Engagement) With the PRC Now

U.S. foreign policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been dominated by the Engagement School since the end of the Cold War. Its logic held that U.S. political and economic engagement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would transform the PRC into a “responsible stakeholder” in the Western economic system and, ideally from the Engagement School’s perspective, a democracy. Of course, none of that happened.

Instead, the Engagement School saved the CCP and ensured that its tyranny continued. The PRC became wealthier and more powerful year-after-year and used that power to re-make the international order to suit the CCP’s interests and to threaten U.S. national security, allies, and partners. The transfer of U.S. manufacturing and investment fueled this growth and continues to weaken U.S. economic might and social stability. If it was not perceived before, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated to Americans the painful costs of depending on the PRC for personal protective pquipment (PPEs), antibiotics, and pharmaceuticals.

Strategic logic is clear: halt engagement to stop aiding the rise of the enemy of the U.S. This fundamental fact was understood during the Trump administration. It began the difficult task of ending Engagement. However, under Biden, it has now returned in a supercharged form that is best labeled as neo-Engagement.

It seems that nothing is going to be allowed to stop this neo-Engagement era. For example, 2023 started off with the humiliation of the PRC’s “Spy Balloon” violating America’s sovereignty. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had announced he was going to the PRC in January 2023 and was only prevented from traveling because of the PRC spy balloon that flew over the U.S. Had it not been revealed by a citizen in Montana, Blinken would have gone on with his visit even as the PRC’s spy balloon was flying over numerous U.S. military installations.

Also in 2023, the Biden administration began in earnest to implement their failed engagement paradigm in order to drive a stake through the Trump policy of confrontation against the PRC. The first step in the Biden “reset” of relations came in May, when CIA Director Nicholas Burns made a secret trip to Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterparts and to emphasize “the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels.” That is the logic and rhetoric of the disastrous engagement paradigm.

Burns’ trip started a cavalcade of visits to the PRC from senior Biden officials. It was a parade seemingly without end. By June, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited the PRC. This was quickly followed up by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Climate Czar John F. Kerry, and former Secretary of State and centenarian “Old Friend” of China, the late Henry Kissinger all of whom traveled to Beijing in the summer months. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo followed in August and was most explicit regarding why nothing could jeopardize the approximately $750 billion per year trade relationship with the PRC. In addition, there were multiple meetings by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with his PRC counterpart Wang Yi in Vienna and Malta in May and September, respectively.

Rounding out last fall’s series of Democrat Party figures heading to Beijing was California Governor Gavin Newsom. Ostensibly, Newsom traveled to Beijing to prepare for Xi’s trip to the U.S. However, the imagery of Xi with Newsom had the appearance of two heads of state meeting. In reality, this was just another demonstration of the kowtowing American political leaders are willing to make in order to continue the façade that engagement has benefited America and its allies.

But the apotheosis of the engagement paradigm was the summit meeting in November between Xi and Biden. The meeting with Biden was just Xi’s doormat to get to what really mattered: the meeting with the 400 business leaders. Never in our history have Americans so openly and brazenly celebrated a communist and murderous dictator. It was an appalling and shameful moment in American history.

In another wave of neo-Engagement on March 27, 2024, Xi hosted a meeting with leaders from the American business, strategic, and academic communities. Their purpose was clear and unambiguous; they were there to stand with Xi and thus participate in Xi’s effort to save the tyranny of the CCP by convincing global investors, especially U.S. investors, that the PRC is a safe place to invest. Their efforts were designed to assure the American business community that the relationship may continue, untroubled by any concerns about the CCP’s tyranny, hyper-aggression in world politics, which likely will soon include Taiwan, gross human rights abuses, support for Russia in its war against Ukraine, and genocide against Muslims.

Then, less than a week later, Biden and Xi conducted a phone call to set the stage for another round of cabinet-level officials of the Biden administration to sojourn to the PRC to present themselves before the Communist dictator Xi. Yellen’s two-day visit to the PRC in early April is a clear indicator that neo-Engagement will be the order of the day as long as Biden is president.

The U.S. has nothing to show in return for all these meetings, except for the loss of face and its own national power—again, year-after-year. It is stunning that so few Americans have asked what good has America received from the Engagement School. The elite have gotten wealthier, so they and the CCP are the winners. But the Chinese and American people bear the costs. The Engagement School has extracted a terrible cost in terms of American lives, their social and economic prosperity and political birthright, and their national security.

For the CCP, the Engagement School is the goose that laid the golden eggs. While it is undeniably clear that the CCP wants Biden to win in order to continue neo-Engagement, these same pro-PRC engagers are now promoting a thesis that Xi and the CCP actually want Trump to win the presidential contest on November 5, 2024. Americans should see this bait-and-switch for what it is—a big lie—and a classic and obviously deliberate misinformation campaign, which is a major pillar of their larger political warfare campaign.

The facts are clear: Xi and the Party will do all that they can to aid the re-election of Biden, or the Democrat Party’s candidate. A Biden, Newsom, or Obama nominee will be welcomed by Xi. If Biden steps aside, either Newsom or Obama would continue—in large measure—Biden’s policies and keep the disastrous policy of engagement with the PRC. From the PRC’s perspective, this is precisely what it wants. This will ensure the U.S. never works to defeat the PRC but sustains neo-Engagement. U.S. investment, trade, and knowledge and technology transfer continue to flow to the PRC, and Xi and the CCP will stay in power with the best chance of weathering the PRC’s dramatic economic downturn.

A Trump victory is Xi’s nightmare, as a second Trump administration would immediately confront the PRC, drawing a page from Ronald Reagan’s strategy to defeat the Soviet Union. A second Trump administration would undeniably, as it did during the first administration, put pressure on the CCP and wage an all-azimuth economic and political war against the PRC. By taking this kind of action, a Trump administration would be remembered by history for being responsible for consigning the CCP to the “ash heap of history,” just as Reagan is remembered for doing the same against the Soviet Communist Party.

Accordingly, Xi’s viewpoint is clear: he cannot allow a Trump victory. The survival of the CCP regime depends upon it. Those are the great, indeed, existential stakes for the CCP.

The PRC’s interference in the U.S. 2024 presidential election will be massive, multifaceted, and sustained. They include political warfare strategies employed on TikTok, other apps, and social and legacy media to hurt the Trump campaign and favor Biden, Newsom, or Obama. AI and deepfakes will be employed to deceive and suppress Trump voters while promoting the Democrat candidate. Cyber offers another major avenue to hurt Trump. Other tools at Xi’s disposal might include flooding states with fake ballots, aiding illegal forms of ballot harvesting, and other tricks known to those who practice the dark art of election interference.

No doubt, the PRC will do its utmost to sow confusion before, during, and after election day. The cadre of likely People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Ministry of State Security (MSS), and other PRC agents that have already infiltrated the U.S. southern border are certain to play a nefarious role. These men will be able to add real muscle to election interference, to say nothing, of course, of the countless other ways that this Fifth Column of PRC agents threatens U.S. national security, from political assassinations to sabotage.

The Biden administration’s neo-Engagement is the exact opposite of what Americans must do. Ending trade, investment, and all forms of cooperation with the PRC is what is needed. Focusing on the center of gravity and the illegitimacy of the CCP to eject it from power is what is needed. This compels us to ask: Why are the billionaires and other elites meeting with the dictator Xi to sustain the CCP’s tyranny rather than meeting with Americans to aid the American people? Likewise, American national security experts should be asked to advance American national security and to end the PRC threat to America and its allies. But they are not. By continuing neo-Engagement—a cancer on American national security and the American people—they weaken America, aid its enemy, and betray the American people.

James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are authors of Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.

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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: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with U.S. President Joe Biden at Filoli Estate in the U.S. state of California, Nov. 15, 2023. (Photo by Rao Aimin/Xinhua via Getty Images)

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