The End of Engagement: China Experts and Sino-U.S. Relations, 1972 to the Present

David McCourt, University of California, Davis

Sino-US relations have taken a marked downturn recently. The long-standing policy of engagement is seemingly at an end. Most explanations center on shifts in the balance of power, which has led to an acknowledgment in Washington that China is not going to join the American-led world order, but challenge it possible. Evidence abounds: from Xi Jinping’s robust foreign policy statements, to the ongoing militarization of the South China Seas, to China’s economic expansion, including the creation of the Belt and Road Initiative. I argue that the end of engagement cannot be explained by such objective factors alone and that the answer lies also in part with shifts in the process by which expert knowledge on China is communicated to the American government. Assessing changes among so-called “China watchers” since the opening to China in the early 1970s, I detail a historical shift is leading pro-engagement voices to lose their grip on U.S.-China policy to a diverse group tougher on China. Based on original interviews, I locate shifts in American attitudes toward China within the social dynamics of expertise-production in the China watching community, with important implications for assessing China’s challenge to American hegemony.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 188. Expertise III: The Politics of Policy Ideas