Comparing Continuity and Change in American Foreign Policy towards China: An Analysis of the George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump Administrations

China’s rapid economic rise and growing geopolitical assertiveness have posed an escalating strategic challenge for the United States since the turn of the 21st century. How to engage, contain, and compete with a rising China has been a defining issue facing American foreign policymakers across recent administrations.

This article analyzes continuity and change in US foreign policy towards China during the George W. Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017), and Donald Trump (2017-2021) presidencies. It compares their overarching strategies, key policy initiatives, points of cooperation and tension, and organizational priorities regarding China.

The article argues that despite escalating rivalry and anti-China rhetoric under Trump, fundamental bipartisan continuity exists in America’s China strategy based on balancing engagement and containment. But each administration calibrated this balancing act differently based on its strategic diagnosis of China’s trajectory.

Bush Administration: Cooperating with a Rising Partner

President Bush entered office in 2001 viewing China as an emerging “strategic competitor” but also seeking its cooperation on security issues like counterterrorism and North Korea nuclear proliferation. This ambivalence characterized Bush’s China policy of competitive engagement. [1]

Bush hoped expanding economic ties and international integration would channel China’s rise responsibly. He also pressed China diplomatically on human rights, religious freedom, and de-mocratization. However, after the 9/11 attacks fighting terrorism became the overriding priority where China’s assistance was invaluable. [2]

Key areas of Bush policy:

  • Early arms sales to Taiwan and confrontational “hawk” rhetoric alarmed Beijing and stoked tensions in 2001-2002. But this gave way to pragmatism. [3]
  • Major trade disputes erupted over China’s WTO compliance and currency manipulation, but commercial ties still expanded significantly under Bush.
  • The 2005 Joint Statement institutionalized the bilateral Strategic Economic Dialogue for managing growing interdependence. [4]
  • Cooperation with China was crucial in six-party negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program from 2003-2007.
  • Despite frictions, the Sino-American relationship was relatively stable and productive, with a focus on shared interests.

The Bush administration trod a middle path between economic engagement with China and upholding traditional security commitments in Asia like Taiwan. Its strategy aimed to deepen ties and shape China’s trajectory within the US-led liberal order through interdependence and international institutions. [5]

Obama Administration: Refocusing on the Asia-Pacific

President Obama entered office confronting the dramatic impacts of the 2008 global financial crisis, which increased perception of waning American power and ascendant Chinese influence. In response, the Obama administration initiated the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy to reassert US leadership in the Asia-Pacific amid China’s rise. [6]

The Obama approach aimed to distribute diplomatic and military focus more evenly between the Middle East and Asia. It involved strengthening US alliances, expanding regional trade links, and competing firmly but not confrontationally for leadership and influence with Beijing across Asia. [7]

Key aspects of Obama’s policy:

  • Emphasized engagement with China through high-level bilateral forums like the Strategic & Economic Dialogue.
  • Promoted US economic leadership in Asia via the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that excluded China.
  • Increased US naval deployments in the South China Sea to push back against Chinese maritime expansion.
  • Stationed more troops and assets in Australia and Philippines to strengthen regional alliances and power projection.
  • Some controversy over not meeting the Dalai Lama to placate China and secure cooperation on climate change.
  • Strong rhetoric criticizing Chinese cyber-espionage and unfair trade practices.
  • Secured UN sanctions against North Korea with China’s cooperation despite provocative nuclear and missile tests.

Obama aimed to shape China’s rise within an updated US-led order in Asia through a dual-track approach allying engagement with deterrence. But frustration mounted by 2016 as China flouted international law in maritime disputes. [8]

Trump Administration: A More Confrontational Stance

Donald Trump campaigned for president stridently attacking China for unfair trade practices and industrial espionage. Upon taking office in 2017, he instituted combative policies reflecting a darkening view of China as America’s central geopolitical foe. Trump’s National Security Strategy explicitly defined China as a “revisionist power” threatening US primacy. [9]

Trump adopted a unilateral zero-sum approach eschewing multilateral frameworks. He utilized tariffs, export controls, sanctions, and indictments to pressure China economically and technologically. Security competition intensified, especially in the South China Sea. [10]

Major elements of Trump’s hardline turn:

  • Launched extensive tariffs on Chinese imports, sparking a major trade war.
  • Restricted technology access by blacklisting companies like Huawei and TikTok over security risks.
  • Sharply increased Freedom of Navigation Operations challenging Chinese claims in disputed waters.
  • Imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and firms involved in persecuting Uyghur Muslims.
  • Approved expanded arms sales and high-level engagement with Taiwan despite China’s strong objections.
  • Harsh anti-China rhetoric blaming Beijing for the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread internationally.
  • Reduced bilateral dialogues and withdrew from multilateral forums like the WHO seen as dominated by China.

Trump departed radically from previous engagement efforts to confront, contain and condemn China’s policies. But the trade war and technology restrictions had limited impacts on altering China’s trajectory. [11]

Key Sources of Continuity

Despite the shifts between competitive engagement, rebalancing, and confrontation, US strategy under the three presidents shared certain fundamental premises and tools:

  • Maintaining America’s military primacy and extended deterrence in the Asia-Pacific region to prevent Chinese regional hegemony.
  • Upholding alliance commitments to Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan as critical for balancing China.
  • Forward deploying US naval and air assets to uphold freedom of navigation and reassure allies.
  • Criticizing China’s human rights abuses, non-market policies, and technology threats as points of moral and strategic leverage.
  • Imposing WTO cases, legal indictments and targeted sanctions or tariffs to combat Chinese malfeasance.
  • Coordinating with allies like Europe and India to balance and shape Chinese power through ‘congagement’.
  • Cooperating with China selectively on shared priorities like pandemics, climate, or North Korea.

These elements highlight fundamental continuity in America’s China strategy based on sustaining primacy, leveraging alliances, and upholding rules and norms against challenges. But calibration between engagement and containment has fluctuated.

Explaining Policy Change

What accounts for the evolution in US strategy between competitive engagement, rebalancing, and confrontation? Several key factors drove change:

  • Altered assessments of China’s trajectory and objectives as it grew more powerful. Determining whether China could be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ or inherently threatened US dominance remained contested. [12]
  • Shifting domestic politics, especially the rise of economic nationalism and populist anti-China sentiment during the 2016 US election. [13]
  • Changes in the regional power balance as China expanded its military reach and hardened its policies, like in the South China Sea.
  • Frustration with engagement not yielding desired Chinese political and economic reforms.
  • New threats like cyber espionage compelling policy updates to protect US interests.
  • Leadership differences between presidents and advisors, and learning from predecessor experiences.

In summary, altered threat perceptions, frustrations over engagement, negative power shifts, and political pressures at home compelled tactical policy adjustments. But core assumptions about sustaining primacy and a rules-based order endured.

Assessing Policy Effectiveness

How effective were the policies of Bush, Obama and Trump in achieving US objectives towards China? Assessments highlight both accomplishments and limitations:

  • US maintained its regional military preponderance and strengthened alliance deterrence against potential Chinese aggression.
  • Criticism of human rights abuses and unfair trade practices imposed reputational costs on Beijing.
  • Legal indictments and technology restrictions raised the costs and slowed aspects of China’s military modernization and industrial policies. [14]
  • Freedom of navigation patrols reaffirmed international law against China’s maritime claims.
  • Economic decoupling initiatives like the trade war and supply chain reorientation gained domestic support but also carried steep costs. [15]
  • Most efforts failed to fundamentally alter China’s authoritarian governance, state-led economic model, or external assertiveness.
  • Chinese power still expanded significantly, even with US policies aiming to establish red lines and shape trajectories.
  • Rebalancing and confrontational policies damaged US ties with partners urging caution like the EU. [16]

No US administration succeeded in definitively arresting China’s rise or compelling major policy changes externally or internally. But America maintained regional preponderance and imposed penalties on Chinese transgressions.

Future Policy Trajectories

Differences have narrowed between US political parties regarding the China challenge. But some potential pathways diverge:

  • Biden could recalibrate Trump’s tariffs and technology controls for a more coordinated allied stance, or double down on decoupling. [17]
  • The US could reconstruct engagement avenues like the Strategic Dialogue, or abandon high-level bilateral forums.
  • A growing congressional voice urges starker competition, even open rivalry beyond engagement or containment. [18]
  • Alternatively, cooperative spheres like climate or global health may expand, compartmentalizing competition.
  • Expanded outreach to developing countries and multilateral frameworks could dilute China’s influence, or prompt counter-balancing coalitions. [19]

US strategy will likely sustain engagement and containment, but the balance could shift based on China’s conduct, US leadership transitions, and domestic opinion. Managing intensifying long-term strategic rivalry underlines future policy complexity.


In conclusion, fundamental continuity exists in America’s competitive balancing strategy towards China since 2001. But tactical policy adjustments have aimed to shape China’s rise amid evolving threat perceptions, power shifts, and US political pressures. Neither extensive high-level engagement nor more confrontational stances have altered China’s ambitions significantly or prevented its ongoing power accretion. As strategic competition intensifies, the US faces difficult choices in calibrating future policies between cooperation and confrontation. Preventing overt conflict while sustaining leadership alongside China’s ascent will define this key foreign policy challenge.


[1] Friedberg, Aaron. “The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” International Security 30:2 (2005).

[2] Kuo, Mercy. “US-China Relations: Terrorist Bedfellows.” Harvard International Review 24:4 (2003).

[3] Yu, Hong. “Sino-U.S. Relations: Conflict Co-operation.” Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies 5:2 (2016).

[4] Kan, Shirley. “China/U.S. Relations: Issues for the 111th Congress.” Congressional Research Service (2009).

[5] Cha, Victor. “Powerplay Origins of the US Alliance System in Asia.” International Security 34:3 (2010).

[6] Clinton, Hillary. “America’s Pacific Century.” Foreign Policy 189 (2011).

[7] Campbell, Kurt and Ratner, Ely. “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations.” Foreign Affairs 97:2 (2018).

[8] Friedberg, Aaron. “The Sources of Chinese Conduct: Explaining Beijing’s Assertiveness.” The Washington Quarterly 37:4 (2015).

[9] White House. National Security Strategy of the United States (2017).

[10] Allen, Kenneth et al. “Assessing the Trump Administration’s China Policy.” Brookings Institute (2020).

[11] Russel, Daniel and Zhu, Jonathan. “After the Blowup with Beijing, Now Comes the Hard Part.” Foreign Policy, 25 August 2022.

[12] Gill, Bates and Huang, Chin-Hao. “Sources and Limits of Chinese ‘Soft Power’.” Survival 51:2 (2009).

[13] Slaughter, Matthew. “How China Went From Server to Superpower in One Crisis.” The New York Times, 17 November 2020.

[14] Laskai, Lorand and Segal, Adam. “A New Old Threat: Countering the Return of Chinese Industrial Cyber Espionage.” Council on Foreign Relations (2018).

[15] Bown, Chad and Kolb, Melina. “Trump’s Trade War Timeline: An Up-to-Date Guide.” Peterson Institute for International Economics (2020).

[16] Shapiro, Jeremy. “The West is Getting China Wrong.” Foreign Affairs, 23 July 2021.

[17] Zenglein, Max and Holzmann, Anna. “Evolving Made in China 2025: China’s industrial policy in the quest for global tech leadership.” Mercator Institute for China Studies (2019).

[18] Bak, Daehee. “US-China Strategic Competition in South Korea: Seoul’s Delicate Position.” International Journal of Korean Studies 23:1 (2019).

[19] Economy, Elizabeth. “The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of China.” Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development 16 (2020).

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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