The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

While the Biden administration spent the fall nurturing alliances in the Indo-Pacific, China has been preparing to gather the world in Beijing for the Olympics this winter. In September, President Joe Biden announced the AUKUS security pact. Soon after, Washington hosted the first in-person Quad meeting. However, while Biden deepens and extends the U.S. security alliance, China continues to advance its own interests in the region. Sun Tzu said that in battle, there are two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect. To respond to China’s rise more effectively, it is time to engage China directly and invite Beijing into multilateral conversations.

There is an excess of mistrust and a lack of communication in the U.S.-China relationship. A modern “arms race” is worsening. This is highlighted by China’s purported launch of a hypersonic missile. U.S. pressure is not deescalating Beijing’s aggression toward Taiwan; it is not hindering Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) advancements; and, it is not stopping human rights violations against the Uyghurs. To defuse escalating tensions, the Biden administration must bring China into the conversation.

China is a rival, not an enemy. To maintain stability, the U.S. must balance its competitive strategy against China with multilateral conversations to keep the peace. The U.S. must invite China into the conversation on economic growth in the Indo-Pacific without enabling Beijing to dictate how to foster it. Talks of regional security must include China. When the U.S. opens the door to discussions, China can see there is no developing Cold War mentality. When China enters Indo-Pacific conversations, the U.S. can check its expansionary ambitions and find clarity in China’s position.

To protect against aggression, the United States should invite China to the table. When China is included in conversations about keeping the peace, it becomes more difficult to rationalize China’s naval exercises in the South China Sea. It gives the U.S. and its allies a strong basis to criticize and justify actions against China’s unrelenting air incursions in Taiwan.

To prevent its economic dominance, China belongs in regional trade talks and new economic growth initiatives. There is pressure on the U.S. to propose a multilateral economic agenda as the Quad adopts a non-security orientation. Including China in this agenda may counter some of its economic influence in the region. This is also an opportunity for the U.S. to gain insight into China’s BRI interests and how to sway them.

To promote peace in the region, China must participate in the conversation. The U.S. damages its relationship with China by leaving China to speculate about the expanding U.S. alliance network and the intentions behind security and non-security. Secluded from the international community, Beijing calculates alone in the dark where suspicion intensifies. Perhaps it is due to Beijing’s isolation that Indo-Pacific tensions escalate.

The prospect of involving China in multilateral discourse is unpredictable. However, an Indo-Pacific with an isolated China is unsafe, and U.S. allies are not yet prepared for conflict. Japan is focused on adjusting to its new leadership while South Korea is preoccupied with recent North Korean missile drills. Meanwhile, Taiwan fears a Chinese invasion as aircraft continue to enter its airspace. The U.S. allies are engrossed in their individual issues and are not ready for conflict. To diffuse escalating tensions and avoid conflict, the U.S. needs more information on China’s plans and position. To obtain this information, the U.S.’ best approach is the direct one.

Extending an invitation to China is not a demonstration of U.S. complacency but maturity. Without conversations with China, we have limited information. We need insight into China’s interests and intentions with respect to Taiwan and human rights in Xinjiang. To obtain this insight and diffuse tensions, we need direct communication with China. Despite the discomfort of inviting a rival to the table, it was President Kennedy who said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Mimi MacKilligan graduated from Trinity College with a BA in International Studies with a regional concentration in East Asia. She is currently a graduate student at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs studying International Security and Asia. Her research interests include Indo-Pacific geopolitics, Asian security, and U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.