An ‘affirmative vision’ for U.S.-China relations

Foreign Affairs

Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University political scientist and recent advisor to the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, discusses how U.S.-China relations can be more than zero sum.

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Jessica Chen Weiss.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get, well, access. Access to, not only our great daily newsletter, but all the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Jessica Chen Weiss is one of those rare academics who has shown herself again and again, to be unafraid of addressing the truly big issues. What drives Chinese nationalism and how does nationalism impact the decisions that Chinese leadership makes at home and internationally? What really are China’s ambitions in the world? And most recently, how can the U.S. craft a wiser and more effective policy towards China? This last question is one that she tackles in a tour de force essay in the latest foreign affairs. The essay is titled “The China Trap: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Perilous Logic of Zero-Sum Competition.” I cannot recommend it enough to listeners. If you notice that there are a lot of the ideas, kind of align with what I’ve said on this show over the years, that is not a coincidence.

It’s because Jessica is absolutely one of the people whose perspectives have had a major influence on mine. And I’ve always found her arguments to be very, very persuasive. Jessica Chen Weiss is a political scientist at Cornell University, and she’s been on the show a couple of times already. Jessica, I am so delighted to have you back on Sinica, and congratulations on this essay, which I understand is being widely read and discussed.

Jessica Chen Weiss: Thanks so much, Kaiser, for those kind words. It’s great to be back.

Kaiser: It’s wonderful to have you. Jessica, you’ve just finished a year working at the State Department in policy planning as a CFR International Affairs Fellow. Can you tell us a bit about that gig, how you were selected for it, what was involved in your day-to-day? And if you are at liberty to say, some of the things, the topics that you worked on while you were there?

Jessica: Well, I was really fortunate to get one of these Council on Foreign Relations fellowships for tenured international relations scholars, which allowed me to spend my sabbatical from Cornell at a position in government. I was lucky enough that the folks in policy planning were interested in bringing me on for a year to really, to learn and to contribute where I could. And the issues that I worked on really ranged the gamut, but covered a number of the issues that the essay talks to, including U.S. leadership in the multilateral system, tensions over Taiwan, and some of the domestic challenges we face in remaining, sort of, a magnet for international talent and innovation.

Kaiser: Fantastic. You clearly, though, you have concerns and critiques about the present direction that the country is taking in its policy toward China, or maybe you wouldn’t have written this essay, but there are also things that you believe the administration is doing right. So, why don’t we start with that. What do you agree with broadly in the administration’s approach right now toward the region and specifically towards China?

Jessica: Well, look, I think the Biden administration came into office at a time when the U.S.-China relationship was, more or less, in a very sharp free fall. And I think the Biden administration really took seriously the effort to put a floor under that relationship while also really working to rebuild U.S. strengths, particularly the alliances and partnerships that the Trump administration had disparaged and weakened. I think that the Biden administration has really done well to first, rejoin international organizations, repair those alliance relationships, and really to try to rebuild our domestic strength and to show again, that democracy can deliver. And we’ve seen that with the recent CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. That has really been, I think, in the first year and a half, the focus of the Biden administration is really to, as was perhaps, unfortunately, stated in anchorage, to rebuild the United States to speak from a position of strength. That certainly has been the emphasis. And I think it has delivered.

Kaiser: But some of these things, unfortunately, though, also have a countervailing effect. For example, rebuilding alliance systems gives China the sense that containment is back, that there’s this effort to sort of constrain China’s rise, to box it in. And even things like that you point to in American renewal, when they’re couched in terms of competition with China, often, China sees those as sort of targeted at it. So, as I said, you have concerns and critiques.

Jessica: Yeah. So, I think that the theory here has been that by shaping the environment around China, you then can change Chinese behavior for the better. That’s the essence of deterrents. It’s the idea that drove, I think, the pivot, or the rebalance to Asia under the Obama administration. And I think, to a point, it has put the United States in a somewhat stronger position, but the challenge is that, if not accompanied by an equal effort to continue to integrate China or bring China into an inclusive vision of an international system where China can continue to play a role, it ends up, I think, accelerating the kind of escalatory spiral that we now find ourselves in. Possibly, a somewhat stronger position. But also, a much more dangerous one is I think the risk of competition turning toward confrontation being really pressing at the moment.

Kaiser: So, Jessica, what would you identify as the core assumptions about China and the region that underpin the Biden administration’s current policy toward China? And by that, I mean, assumptions about things like China’s intentions, which you’ve written about its capabilities, and maybe most of all, about what the U.S.s’ role in the region really ought to be. Ideally.

Jessica: So, I think that one of the core driving assumptions here is that this is an unfolding multi-decade struggle for global predominance. I don’t necessarily agree that that either ought to be the chief objective of U.S. strategy, nor is it clear to me that the Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping is hellbent on becoming the sole superpower. But those, I think, are increasingly in the public conversation, the sort of axioms, sometimes stated, sometimes unstated, that are driving what is becoming, in many ways, a zero-sum competition, where each side, even though they claim to want to avoid a cold war, it still engaged in an, kind of, all-out effort to counter and undermine each other around the world.

Kaiser: Yeah. I’m afraid you’re right. The overall thrust of your argument though is one that we’ve heard people making more and more, I think, in recent years. Ryan Hass, for example, in his book, Stronger, which I’ve talked to him about on the show, and Ali Wyne, who was on the show quite recently about his book, America’s Great Power Opportunity, this argument that we should focus on domestic renewal and restore the power of example. That we shouldn’t form policy about China just in reaction to things that China does. That we should really set our own course, play to our own strengths, and try not to out-China China. What this suggests to me, the fact that so many of us are feeling this urgent need to say it is that we’re just not doing that right now — that, at present, we aren’t focused nearly enough on renewal, that we are just reacting to China and not setting our own course. That, I think, is kind of an assumption in your essay. Is that your sense of things right now? Is that where we are?

Jessica: So, I think that, compared to the Trump administration, we are moved much further in the direction of trying to offer an affirmative vision, what we want the world to look like. But I would say that, despite that emphasis, the balance of effort, overall, across U.S. foreign policy, including the pressure from Congress and in the public is really to beat China, is to outdo them. The problem with that framing is that it makes it difficult to keep an eye on what our priorities ought to be. What kinds of initiatives? What actions by Beijing require a kind of like no holds barred position? Where might we, not necessarily like, but still could live with what Beijing is doing? And where would we actually want China to play a role, and on what terms? Those, I think, conversations don’t happen as often in the context of a framing and public conversation that is all about beating China.

Kaiser: Yeah. And that is really the crux of your essay and the reason that you wrote it up. You argue that the U.S. itself, and not China, should define what success should mean for America. And you write, “Fleshing out an inclusive, affirmative vision of the world it seeks would be a first step toward clarifying the conditions under which the United States would welcome or accept Chinese initiatives rather than reflexively opposing them.” I think that’s really well put. Now, this is a big ask, I understand, but what are some examples of just some of the facets of that affirmative vision and what those might be, and how we should define success, and the kinds of Chinese initiatives that we might then welcome or accept, as you say, under such a definition as we pursue that vision?

Jessica: Let me start by saying that this isn’t just about a vision where we just give things to Beijing. This is not just about conceding that, oh, here’s what they’re doing right now is just fine. This is really about envisioning a world that doesn’t quite yet exist or is actually I think at risk. It preserves components of the existing order, but I think reaffirms pieces that are under duress. In particular, I think the avoidance of armed conflict and aggression being a quintessential piece of that affirmative vision. I think the second would be allowing for political space and will to dedicate ourselves collectively to addressing shared challenges, including pandemics and climate change.

I think a third would be the freedom to pursue the kind of political system that we respectively and individually want to protect and preserve and renew. I think that means a world that is safe for democracy, but it’s also probably going to have to involve a world that is safe for autocracy as well. Otherwise, I see the ideological dimension of competition escalating in ways that we’ve seen that are really detrimental to this sort of sense of political security academic freedom, all these things that we cherish. This is the concept of sovereignty and non-interference. It’s already enshrined in the UN Charter. it just hasn’t been discussed in this kind of dimension of freedom from political interference and influenced efforts by outside powers.

Kaiser: Our influence operations as well as theirs.

Jessica: We probably wouldn’t call them influence operations. But yes, there are many ways in which, I think, despite the fact that the Biden administration has, I think, made an important distinction, where we’ve talked about, and Jake Sullivan has said explicitly, “We don’t seek to change China system. And Secretary Blinken repeated that in his May 26th speech. It was a very important statement of U.S. policy. But there are still a lot of things that we continue to do, I think, that are certainly perceived in Beijing as an effort to change their system and undermine the CCP, including sanctions on CCP officials and things like that.

Kaiser: What about in the developing world? One thing where I’ve seen that kind of reflexive response to Chinese initiatives that maybe we’d be better off allowing to live and let live, things like, of course, The Belt and Road Initiative, or even AIIB, where we have had this kind of… I mean, I think it’s sort of a poster child for kind of, well, not well thought through reactive responses. Is this the sort of initiative that we should allow space for in this affirmative vision that you have in mind?

Jessica: Certainly. I think that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is one of those, I think, quintessential examples of something that there was a kind of instinctive, a desire to marginalize and encourage others, allies and partners to avoid. And that ended up obviously not working. And, in fact, the AIIB has been, I think, most would say much more… The practices have been much more consistent with those of other development banks and norms. So, the fear I think is widely recognized as having been a little bit overblown. The Belt and Road Initiative is, of course, evolving. I’m not saying that this is like God’s gift to the world, but nonetheless, I don’t think it’s something where there has been a great, well-thought-through alternative yet that’s been resourced adequately to provide an effective competitor.

In the absence of that, it’s hard to see that effort to cast dispersions on it, certainly under the… With the notion of debt-trap diplomacy, etc., as having been particularly effective, and in some cases having been misplaced. Far more now agree that the BRI or China’s loans in general provide more of as much of a creditor trap challenge for Beijing as for the country that took out those loans in the first place. That said, there is reasonable to view with concern some of the problems emanating from corruption or lack of transparency oversight. And I think encouraging those things is, and dedicating resources to supporting local efforts to stand up, that kind of civil society scrutiny of these projects, that is totally legitimate. It just doesn’t have to be necessarily framed as an effort to defeat the BRI.

I think that there are components of that being undertaken today, but I think that every time one of these new initiatives comes up, there’s a sort of instinctive, I think, desire to block it, rather than to think about, okay, in what ways can we best shape it so that it really delivers for the common good?

Kaiser: Jessica, you’ve warned about trying to out China, China, and you’ve talked about the kind of mirroring that often happens in this kind of zero-sum competition. Can you talk about some of the pernicious things that have happened domestically in America as a result of our so-called great power competition with China, things that concern you?

Jessica: This is, I think, one of the areas where I am just really concerned that we’re continuing to head in a bad direction. There are, of course, I think, reasonable concerns about Chinese espionage and IP theft, but the protective efforts, the efforts to screen for these kinds of threats to research security and such, I think, have had, along with the rise in anti-Asian hate, that I think really spiked at the beginning of the pandemic and have continued on, in part, fed by the kind of political rhetoric that the previous administration engaged in during the pandemic. And politicians continue to, particularly I think during campaign season, this kind of stuff can get pretty ugly.

That combination of policy and rhetoric, despite the administration’s efforts to say that there’s no place for xenophobia, and we’re really lucky to have students and scholars come to the United States from everywhere, and including from China. Despite that, I think we’re in a really, I think, bad place. Some of the surveys that I have cited in the essay suggest that majority of, or really career scientists of Chinese origin, and even a plurality of, or other career scientists from anywhere around the world, who are here in the United States, feel that the United States is no longer a welcoming place and that many of them have considered moving abroad.

That is, I think, directly to the detriment of what has once been our comparative advantage as being a magnet for international talent and innovation. I’m concerned that this extends, even beyond the question of science and innovation. It also has to do with the quality of our democracy and the kind of dynamism that has really made us the kind of once attractive model that we were. I fear that, that, along with so many other things in the political realm, has really been dimmed of late.

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, it’s encouraging, of course, that the China initiative has been at least rebranded if not shut down, but yeah, there’s still a lot of this. And I think recognizing that, as you say, the political rhetoric and broader Sinophobia has been a driver of anti-AAPI hate. That it’s not carrying water for the CCP. It’s not just repeating one of their talking points. In fact, I think that if you insist that that is so, you are, in fact, illustrating the kind of zero-sum mentality. If you’re so worked up about letting the CCP score a point by suggesting that Sinophobia has anything to do with anti-AAPI hate, then you’re just proving the point that the zero-sum condition is bad.

You’ve warned us against this mirroring and out-China’ing China, but aren’t some aspects of the Chinese approach maybe worthy of emulation here, or things that even if we aren’t inclined to adopt them naturally are maybe necessary for us to take up if we do want to compete effectively? I’m thinking about certain aspects of industrial policy. You just cited the CHIPS Act approvingly. Do you think that there are things that we ought to be actively trying to learn from the Chinese approach?

Jessica: Here I’d say that clearly, the ship has sailed on moving toward some kind of 21st century industrial policy. That said, I think that those who really specialize in these areas recognize that what we’re doing doesn’t really look anything like what China is doing. I think that those who are really deeply versed in this area point out that, just building fabs in the United States isn’t going to, even remotely address the problem. It remains critically an issue of human talent and innovation. And so, even as we attempt to, of course, we should be building out our domestic administration and doing the things that China is doing well. I’m not sure we’ll ever get to high-speed rail. But nonetheless, I think that, just because China’s doing something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

I just think that when we use the phrase, like let’s not out-China, China, we need to be very clear what have been and what will continue to be the sources of our comparative or asymmetric advantage and not feel that, just because China is doing this well that that is necessarily the grounds on which we should also compete. By keeping that in mind, who we are and who we want to be, that we are then able to discipline the sort of lines of competition so that the means remain constructive rather than potentially destructive to that vision.

Kaiser: Jessica, your essay is really refreshing in its candid call for actual diplomacy, and not, as you say, just crisis communication and risk reduction, but really the hard stuff about plausible terms of coexistence in the future of the international system, as you put it. Can we get to a point, though, right now in our politics, where we are ready to do this without some massive crisis first sort of catalyzing it?

Jessica: A lot of people will say that this is too pie in this sky, but I think that the alternative, which is a continuing spiral toward confrontation and conflict, I think could be far more disastrous. I think that both United States and China face incredibly challenging domestic problems, and that both governments really, I think, should see an interest in stabilizing the relationship. This isn’t going to settle for all time how the United States and China are going to get along, but I think lowering the temperature would provide a bit of breathing room that would be certainly in our best interest. And so, one of the suggestions that I make is to see this as a process of making reciprocal steps to lower the temperature. This is not about making unilateral concessions, but putting on the table for discussion, through whatever means, various issues that we feel very strongly about in terms of needing to change in China’s behavior.

But not just identifying what China needs to do, but what we are also willing to contemplate doing in reciprocal fashion to begin to take baby steps back, I think, from the brink.

Kaiser: I don’t know if you’ve read Lyle Goldstein’s book from a few years ago called Meeting China Halfway, but he actually talks about and lays out, I think it’s 10 different issue areas, and actually puts down on paper the kind of reciprocal steps, the escalating spiral of trust or something. I think that he calls it something like that, escalating trust spirals, where we do this and then the expectation is Beijing does that. And then, after that, we do this and that. So, it’s actually very much worth reading. I would check it out. We interviewed him many, many years ago, I think it was probably 2016, about that book. It’s worth revisiting because what you’ve just said really echoes, not in the specifics necessarily, but this general approach of expectation of reciprocity when concessions are made.

But what we’re talking about in the end is really the challenges of imagining terms of coexistence with an authoritarian power or a superpower. I know that even it suggests such things right now, and I’m sure you’re very aware of this. It exposes you to charges of capitulationism or appeasement. You’ve said that this isn’t about just giving stuff away. There’s an expectation of reciprocity.

Jessica: Let me also say, if I can.

Kaiser: Oh yeah.

Jessica: It’s really important for me to make clear that this is not just about reassurances, but this is also about threats, right? The essence of deterrence, really, is the ability to make the punishments that China can expect conditional on their behavior. And if they don’t act in whatever provocative ways, then they can expect a different outcome. I think that right now, when you have this sort of unilateral, they do this, then we do that, and then you have this sort of tit for tat escalatory spiral, is that there’s no… Nothing made explicit that the punishments that China can expect are in that way conditional. So, this is not just about, like, if they behave better, then we’ll behave better. This is also, if they behave badly, we’ll hit them in this way, and we will match and counter.

The challenge really is, I think, for U.S. policy is avoiding unconditional punishments or unconditional assurances. Because then that doesn’t give the other side any incentive to moderate.

Kaiser: But I feel like right now we’re in this situation where we are hypersensitive to any bad behavior by Beijing. And we tend to sort of blow it a little bit out of proportion. This is something that comes up again and again in conversations I have with people who I know and I trust in China over the last few years. What they would diagnose as the heart of the problem is kind of this psychological discomfiture. I have to say, I believe in it too, and I’m not surprised that it should happen. Because we are in a situation where there is a pervasive sense of, at least relative decline. There is an anxiety we’re experiencing at seeing China rise, and as it does, it’s doing so just by violating all these things that we believe were axiomatic truths about how states develop and how economies grow.

You weren’t supposed to be able to innovate if you’re in authoritarian system. You’re not supposed to be able to, even have a flourishing market economy, if you’re not a full-fledged democracy. But obviously, China too, has not handled so gracefully its own decline from its historical apogee in the 19th century. It’s not like China handled it with total grace and equanimity, and it lost heart. But I really feel like we are… I mean, I think there’s something to this that, because we have this underlying kind of anxiety about China’s rise, it’s made us magnify China’s behavior. Now, it hasn’t helped things, obviously, that some of that behavior is truly egregious. Just independently of that, that whole underlying kind of psychological discomfiture to side, we would find Xinjiang to be… Maybe some people would include Hong Kong as something where our response hasn’t been out of proportion.

This makes it just really hard for those of us who are urging a less hardline approach to China to gain any traction. It makes it even harder for us to reckon with the emotional or psychological components of this, and harder for us to right-size China’s actual challenges. I bring this up in the context of we, sure, we should have those, as you described, threats as well, and they should be credible, but I’m worried that right now, we’re in a mind where we take everything that China does as a threat, and we tend to blow it way out of proportion. Is this something that you wrestle with at all?

Jessica: Kaiser, I think it’s first important to recognize that a lot of Beijing’s behavior is threatening. It is also repugnant on human rights grounds and such from the perspective of democratic values, but it’s threatening for a purpose. And it’s threatening because paging has concluded that to act otherwise is to be bullied and to be pushed around. I want to draw a distinction between what is a threat and the causes of that threat. I think that there’s this question about, if you look at Beijing’s behavior, whether it’s harassing foreign military aircraft or aligning with Putin on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, and then afterwards, amplifying Russian disinformation, trying to reshape international norms, all of those things are a challenge. I don’t want to say that that threat has been blown out of proportion.

Although, of course, certainly, sometimes it has been, and certainly was, I think, under the previous administration. But I think the question is, so why, and what can we do about it? And can it be changed? I think the line that’s drawn between Chinese behavior and China’s intentions, that’s where we, I think, get into a lot more of the overconfident assumptions about what China ultimately wants, and whether or not that is, in any way, susceptible to being shaped by the balance, again, as I’ve said, of deterrence as well, which involves both credible threats, but also credible assurances.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think you do a really, really great job in exploring sort of the reasons why some of these behaviors that we perceive as threatening are actually, well, they still are threatening, I mean, it can be true at the same time, but they are in response to perceived threats or challenges by the United States as well. I think that’s one of the real strengths of this essay. You do a very good job in exploring that whole story. You put this so succinctly, and you capture what I’ve long believed to be this dynamic that’s led us to where we are right now in a passage that I think it’s worth quoting at some length. You wrote, “American policy-makers knew well that their Chinese counterparts were committed to defending CCP rule, but Washington calculated that the world would be less dangerous with China inside rather than outside the system.”

That is a great encapsulation, I think, of the logic of engagement from Kissinger and on, really, through the Obama administration. Then you go on, you write, “That bet largely succeeded and is still better than the alternative. Yet, many in Washington always hoped for, and to varying degrees, sought to promote China’s liberal evolution as well.” Here again, Jessica, I totally agree. It did succeed in great measure. It’s far better than the alternative. And I don’t even fault any Americans who did cherish this kind of hope for liberal evolution in China. I would totally own up to it myself. I confess I want it. I suspect that you had those hopes too. And why wouldn’t we? I mean, who doesn’t want a more open, and tolerant, and deliberative, and participatory China, right?

But here’s the kicker. I think it gets it just right is that you wrote, “China’s growing authoritarianism has thus fed the narrative of a comprehensive U.S. policy failure. And the focus on correcting that failure has entrenched Beijing’s insecurity and belief that the United States and its allies will not accept China as a superpower.” That’s so well put. That’s the essence of the dynamic in the relationship right now. This leads me to wonder, did we fight hard enough? I mean, and by we, I mean like people like you and me, did we fight hard enough in defense of engagement of big E engagement? And why did so many, who ought to have known better, just accept the simplistic argument that China’s authoritarian turn meant simply that engagement was a failure?

Jessica: Well, Kaiser, I think a number of people, I didn’t, but a number of people did push back. I think very reasonably characterized the objectives of those decades of engagement as being fundamentally driven by this strategic imperative and interest in first, grappling with the Soviet Union, and then recognizing that to have a power, a rising power of China’s size, and influence outside of the system would be a recipe for just a catastrophic conflict, and effort earlier on to not just reshape norms inside of that system. But also contribute to that system through peacekeeping and other kinds of major contributions that China’s made, but really to try to overturn the whole system.

The counterfactual, I think, really would’ve been much worse. And that’s, I think, was the essence of the argument. I think that there was a sense that a recalibration was overdue. Unfortunately, I think that the recalibration under the Trump administration went so far in the other direction from engagement to confrontation that we lost a lot of the, kind of, the muscle memory of what it means to just do diplomacy, which is like the small E engagement, that I think that Biden administration is really committed to reopening and pursuing in a diplomatic fashion, but without the expectation of liberalizing China.

Kaiser: But diplomacy under the Biden administration still hasn’t resembled what it was back when there was the S&DD, when there was engagement, diplomatic engagement at all levels. Right now, it’s only happening at the very top. There’s basically Yang Jiechi meeting with Jake Sullivan or Wang Yi meeting with Secretary Blinken, and occasionally a phone call between Xi and Biden. That’s not the same kind of diplomacy that we had. There’s a really great interview with Susan Thornton, and I recommend everyone read in The Wire, this week. She’s talked about the dearth of sort of multi-level diplomatic engagement as well. So, while yeah, we should certainly be glad to see that it’s better than it was during the Trump administration, that’s a pretty low goddam bar.

Anyway, Jessica, you, toward the end of your essay, talk about the work of Andrew Chubb, who was on our show some years ago to talk specifically about the very research that you reference. And for those who are listeners, who might not remember that show, what Andrew argues basically, is something about the relationship between the domestic challenges that the Chinese leadership faces and assertiveness when it comes to international issues. And it really goes against what has become kind of a conventional wisdom about the relationship between those two things. Jessica, you are kind of one of our leading experts on Chinese nationalism and its impact on policy as well. And you cite Andrew Chubb and Taylor Fravel’s work in this area approvingly. Can you talk a little bit about what the reality is? How nationalism, because in the wake of Pelosi’s visit, this is a very live issue, if anyone who pays any attention to China’s social media space especially, and what should U.S. policymakers take away from this?

Jessica: I think the punchline really is that, historically, the research has shown that domestic unrest and challenges that China faces inside don’t translate into increased aggression or use of force abroad. In fact, it’s the opposite, that domestic challenges have tended to encourage Chinese leaders to be a bit more moderate abroad as they have grappled with their problems at home. So, Taylor Fravel’s work bears this out, Phill Saunders and Erica Downs have a piece on this. And then Andrew Chubb’s research more recently on the east and south China seas. I think that this is really important because I think that there’s too often a tendency to draw a straight line between either current or projected challenges that China faces at home and willingness to act more aggressively. So, there are two challenges, I think, with the argument about domestic challenges in China.

One argument says that domestic challenges lead to more aggressive behavior abroad, which we haven’t seen in the research. And the other is that domestic challenges in China create incentives for stability, which I think is true to a point, but the problem is when that argument gets interpreted as a window of opportunity for outside powers, the United States or others, to take more confrontational actions that would be relatively safe to pursue in a particular period because Beijing is unlikely to react as strongly. I think that that idea was one that was percolating in the public conversation a bit, leading up to the 20th Party Congress, but I think has really had to be revised following Xi’s support for Putin before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And then, of course, in the wake of the recent visit by speaker Pelosi to Taiwan, we saw China take unprecedentedly threatening actions in terms of military exercises and missile tests around Taiwan.

But I think, interestingly, threading that needle, taking the actions to show resolve, advance China’s interest, but in a way that reduced or mitigated the risk of a kinetic conflict.

Kaiser:This is going to be a year where both sides on that argument are going to be looking at this data point, because inarguably, we have a situation where Xi does have what Andrew would’ve maybe called a legitimacy deficit, where it’s certainly facing a lot of domestic challenges right now. We have potentially collapsing real estate market right now, which is such a major load-bearing wall in the Chinese economy in the way that local governments fund themselves. We’re seeing all the fallout from the persistent COVID Zero policy, where the Chinese economy has grew slower in the second quarter than any time in recent memory. Any time since 2009, anyway. Yeah, it’s definitely gonna be a year of challenges.

And, of course, the 20th Party Congress, which is now set for mid-October. And we will be talking to you about this and see how you think this all shakes out, whether this leads to more belligerent posturing and even action in the east or South China seas or on the border with India. Or whether Xi kind of curbs adventurism in the interest of focusing on domestic policy. Yeah, that should be really fascinating to watch.

Jessica: Yeah, I’ll just say, I think that the short version is that we don’t know, and I think that we would be foolish to take either as a prescription for action. Because Xi may emerge more embolden, but he also will face less immediate pressure to deliver. And so, that could create, I think, more opportunity for this kind of more creative steps could move away from the dynamic Zero COVID policy. A lot of things could change or loosen up as well. And so, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that he will decide to act more aggressively in, for example, against Taiwan.

Kaiser: Yeah. Jessica Chen Weiss, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s always such a pleasure to have you on.

Jessica: Thanks so much, Kaiser. Always a pleasure.

Kaiser: Again, the essay is titled The China Trap: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Perilous Logic of ZeroSum Competition. And it’s in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. It’s such refreshing good sense, and I would die happy if even half of the recommendations were heeded by this and coming U.S. administrations. Onto recommendations, but first, a quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by The China project. And if you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica and the other shows in the network, all the way to support that work is by becoming an Access subscriber. That gets you all the good stuff behind the paywall and, of course, the daily Access Newsletter, which is really worth the price of admission. So, help us keep the lights on so I can continue to interview thoughtful people like Jessica and bring you all the important network shows. Okay. Recommendations, Jessica, what do you have for us?

Jessica: So, I have two recommendations. First, you asked me a lot about what the affirmative or inclusive vision of future order might look like. There is a, also in the same issue of foreign affairs, I think a really excellent piece by Dani Rodrik and Stephen Walt talking about what that could look like, and what are the principles by which you might arrive at a future order that we could agree to, that would serve our interests, but also make room for those of others. So, I recommend that piece for more on this theme. The other recommendation I would have is for a new volume called After Engagement: Dilemmas in U.S.-China Security Relations edited by Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein. Full disclosure, I contributed a chapter on ideological competition in U.S.-China relations, but the volume is really, I think, an outstanding survey of various issues in U.S.-China relations across many different domains from the security competition to ideology, to the South China Sea, to looking at Japan and the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and the tech competition.

Kaiser: Wow. That’s the whole 360. Who are some of the contributors?

Jessica: So, we have Adam Segal and Elsa Kania, Phill Saunders, Scott Kastner, Victor Cha, Michael Green, Taylor Fravel, Ian Johnston, Charlie Glaser, and Avery Goldstein and Jacques deLisle.

Kaiser: Wow. All right. Great recommendations, both. I haven’t read the Rodrik and Walt piece yet, but I’m going to get on that right away. I have that thing mailed to me, and often, I read it in hard cover, and it hasn’t come out yet, so I’ll…

Jessica: I think that’s right. I think I’ve gotten the hard copy and I read it a couple nights ago, but I don’t think it’s been released online yet. But it should be in the next day or two.

Kaiser: Okay. Yeah. You mean I’ll be getting it in the mail, like in the next day or two?

Jessica:I think so.

Kaiser: Oh yeah. Good, good, good. Okay. So, I want to recommend the new audiobook versions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy read by the amazingly talented Andy Serkis, who, of course, played Gollum, Sméagol, in the Peter Jackson films. Not everybody is going to love the fact that the voices are really very much based on the Peter Jackson film trilogy. So, you’ve got Andy Serkis doing Legolas, kind of in the voice of Orlando Bloom, and definitely doing Gimli in the voice of John Rhys-Davies, who has solidified, I think, in the minds of everybody, that dwarves are supposed to have kind of Scottish accents, which is a weird thing. Anyway, I listen to about half of the two towers while driving from Chapel Hill to Madison, with my Tolkien nerd daughter.

One thing I would warn people about, if you happen to be crossing the farmlands of Indiana after a pretty big lunch, try not to listen to the Treebeard Fangorn forest sections, because he does Treebeard, he speaks very slowly. Never taking too much haste. And it was very hard to… I mean, that’s kind of soporific, but it’s great. Otherwise, it’s just fantastic. I will probably get the others. I haven’t listened to his versions of The Fellowship or Return of the King, and I haven’t even finished the Two Towers one, but it was great. We just got it for the road trip and it really served us in good stead. So, check it out. Andy Serkis is just a delight.

Anyway, Jessica, thanks once again. It’s such a great essay. Definitely check it out, folks, and let me know what you think.

Jessica: Thanks so much, Kaiser.

Kaiser: Thank you. The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project. It is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at, or just give us a rating and a review on apple podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at our new handle is @thechinaproj. So, be sure to follow us there, and check out all the shows at the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.