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chinese military vehicle Li Chun/China News Service/VCG

The End of America’s China Fantasy

Over the last couple of years, the China-policy debate in the US has begun to reflect more realism, with a growing number of voices recognizing China’s ambition to supplant its American benefactor as the leading global superpower. But is it too late to rein in America's main geopolitical rival?

WASHINGTON – A long-overdue shift in America’s China policy is underway. After decades of “constructive engagement” – an approach that has facilitated China’s rise, even as the country has violated international rules and norms – the United States is now seeking active and concrete counter-measures. But is it too late to rein in a country that has emerged, with US help, as America’s main geopolitical rival?

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, successive US presidents regarded aiding China’s economic rise as a matter of national interest; indeed, Jimmy Carter once issued a presidential memo declaring as much. Even as China defied world trade rules, forced companies to share their intellectual property, and flexed its military muscles, the US held onto the naive hope that, as China became increasingly prosperous, it would naturally pursue economic and even political liberalization.

America’s “China fantasy,” as James Mann calls it, was exemplified by Bill Clinton’s argument in favor of allowing China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. Citing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “free markets, free elections, and free peoples,” Clinton declared that China’s WTO entry would herald “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China.”

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