News | June 22, 2021

How to Engage with China

By A Panel of Experts INSS/PRISM Speaker Series

Although consensus appears to have been reached in the United States on the adversarial nature of our relationship with China, opinions on how to engage—or disengage—with China are diverse. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. – China relationship will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” Is that a viable approach, or is it naïve?


On June 22, 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) program hosted a panel discussion with Ms. Anna Ashton (Vice President of Government Affairs, US-China Business Council), Dr. Rachel Esplin Odell (Research Fellow, East Asia Program, The Quincy Institute), and Dr. Kori Schake (Director of China Policy, The American Enterprise Institute) as a part of its SMA INSS/PRISM Speaker Series.

Dr. Ashton began by commenting that for many of the largest US corporations who cooperate with the US-China Business Council, China is one of their three largest market spaces. China is a great market for many US companies because of its rapidly growing middle class. In response to growing Chinese influence over US corporations, US lawmakers have increased the amount of proposed legislation restricting China’s ability to self-censor by way of leveraging US companies in return for access to Chinese markets. Issues such as access to resources and the United States’ dependence on rare earth elements(REEs) from China have also been common talking points for US lawmakers. Ms. Ashton emphasized that these are not issues that will be able to be solved overnight; however, they have revealed a rare spot of bipartisanship in the US government during recent years.

Dr. Odell then focused on the USG’s larger security issues in Southeast Asia. She argued that the USG’s current strategy is placing countries in a position where they must choose between the USG and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a zero-sum geopolitical competition. This approach is alienating countries in the region from the US and subsequently jeopardizing the USG’s regional interests. Instead of competing with China for dominance in the region, Dr. Odell argued that the USG should instead look to reprioritize economic engagement with countries and defuse conflict where it can. If the USG can increase its political engagement in the region through economic means, then it will likely be able to reduce its military commitments to Southeast Asian countries as well. If the USG is able to lessen countries’ dependency on US military support, then those countries’ ability to defend themselves will increase, and consequently, the financial cost for the US will be reduced.

Dr. Schake provided a dissenting viewpoint and argued that the current view of US-China relations does not consider how China’s actions have changed over several decades. For several decades, the US gave China access to organizations and resources with the assumption that China would democratize as it modernized. However, China has instead become more oppressive at home and more aggressive throughout Southeast Asia. This has caused the USG to realize that a more liberal, westernized democracy might not be what the CCP and/or its people want. Dr. Schake commented that while the US was one of the first countries to become alarmist about the geopolitical implications of China’s rise, many of the United States’ allies have since become alarmed by China’s actions as well. Like Ms. Ashton and Dr. Odell, Dr. Schake believes that using soft power and collaborating with allies are the best ways to shield other nations from China’s autocratic influence and force China to act as a responsible global power. 


Anna Ashton is vice president of government affairs, at the US-China Business Council, developing and implementing USCBC’s advocacy on behalf of member companies. She previously served as the director of business advisory services, leading staff across USCBC’s three offices in providing member companies with analysis of China’s commercial policies, business operating environment, and best practices. She began her career as an intelligence officer for the Department of Defense, and at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission where she developed a strategy for Chinese trade delegations and investment.

Rachel Esplin Odell is a Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute and an expert in U.S. strategy toward Asia, Chinese foreign policy, and maritime disputes. Prior to joining the Quincy Institute, she was an International Security Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Odell also previously worked as a Research Analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, co-authoring several policy reports and organizing numerous public forums, government briefings, and Track II workshops. She has served in the China Affairs bureau of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and received her Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Before joining AEI, Dr. Schake was the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. She has had a distinguished career in government, working at the US State Department, the US Department of Defense, and the National Security Council at the White House. Dr. Schake is the author of five books, among them “Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony” (Harvard University Press, 2017). She is also the coeditor, along with former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, of “Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military” (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).