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On Dealing with China

A Self-Confident China

Ever since China’s economic reforms began in 1978, the goal of US foreign policy has been to “manage” China’s rise so that it might become a worthy member of the community of nations dominated by the US and its allies. Republic and Democratic administrations alike have sent Beijing essentially the same message: The US supports a “peaceful, stable, and prosperous” China that will play by the rules internationally while reforming internally so as to become less autocratic if not democratic.

For a time, especially in the early decades of reform under Deng Xiaoping, China did seem to conform to Western expectations. It made no attempt to challenge US predominance in the Pacific (or anywhere else), its military modernization was of modest proportions, and its singular focus was on rapid economic development. Granted, the crackdown at Tiananmen in 1989 showed that political liberalization was not in the cards for China for some time. But overall, China’s behavior gave US and other leaders cause for optimism, particularly as the economic reforms opened China up to international trade and then investment, and as China began joining various regional and international organizations.

What foreign leaders failed to perceive was that China’s rise was not going to embrace liberalizing political changes—that actually China would instead seek to become a major economic player while sustaining the party-state system and preventing the equivalent of an Arab Spring. China’s growing wealth, founded on a distinctive “market socialism,” would also present a new model of development for Third World countries to follow, alternative to the Washington Consensus and its insistence on “structural adjustment.” The notion that prevailed in the US, for example in 2005, that China could be a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs, meaning it would support US policy priorities, simply did not wash in Beijing. The stronger China became, the stronger the drive for influence, power, and an equal seat at the table: a “new type of great-power relationship,” as Xi Jinping would later tell Barack Obama.

Trump and China

That is China’s world that Donald Trump stumbled into. He was far from ready to “manage” China’s emergence. Far from it, he had no idea about China, his only experience having been as landlord of a Chinese bank with an office in Trump Tower. Inexperience and an emerging “America First” mentality led Trump to cast China as a villain as far back as 2011, when he told CNN that China was an “enemy” and needed to be punished for its unfair trade practices. He also held China responsible for a climate change “hoax,” lost US jobs, and currency manipulation. Shift to the present and we can see that Trump’s approach to China hasn’t changed: China remains the villain, preventing North Korea’s denuclearization, stealing US intellectual property, building up its military, and still refusing to level the playing field on trade. His national security and intelligence community may be focused on Russia, but Trump is riveted on China, notwithstanding his supposed friendship with Xi Jinping.

Thus we have the National Security Council, in its 2017 strategy paper, casting both China and Russia as the leading threats to the US. What that assessment is doing is giving Beijing and Moscow incentives to tighten their relationship. Militarily, Russian sales of sophisticated arms are increasing, as are large-scale joint exercises. Economically, their trade has greatly expanded. Clearly, they are sending Trump a message even though Sino-Russian cooperation is well short of an alliance.

Meanwhile, the US-China trade war seems to be providing China with another gift: new diplomatic successes. China’s relationship with Japan has suddenly warmed; Prime Minister Abe Shinzo will be visiting Beijing in October, after he and Xi issued a joint statement in defense of the World Trade Organization and globalization, both of which Trump detests. Economic ties with Germany and South Korea have also improved in the wake of US-China differences. The “China threat” narrative is also harming US businesses and consumers, undermining any prospect of a nuclear deal with North Korea, ceding Asia-Pacific commercial opportunities to China, and preventing cooperation on climate change.

The difficult task of promoting improved human rights conditions in China is now even more difficult. On the rare occasion when Washington raises its voice to defend human rights, it is more easily ignored by Beijing. An example is the US threat of sanctions in response to the incarceration and “reeducation” of as many as one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province. The threat is hardly likely to register with Beijing while a trade war is going on. And it puts the onus on the Europeans to prioritize human rights over another hefty trade package with China. So far they don’t seem anxious to sacrifice profits for Muslims.

Coming to Grips with China

China’s role in world politics is changing dramatically. It no longer seeks to “hide its profile and bide its time,” as Deng Xiaoping had advised. To the contrary, many Chinese foreign policy specialists speak of a post-American world, one that is not merely multipolar but in which China is the US’s equal. Some Chinese specialists maintain that China will soon eclipse the US in the Asia-Pacific balance of power. In this new Asia order, China has the ability to defend its territorial claims in nearby waters, and possibly even deter the US from protecting Taiwan. China can step in when US relations with longtime allies fray (e.g., South Korea and Turkey), challenge US policy on high-profile issues (e.g., Iran and North Korea), be the lead voice on globalization, have the financial resources to buy economic dominance and strategic access in developing countries, and be a global leader in energy conservation.

America’s China problem is therefore no longer about “managing China’s rise.” It is about finding ways to more deeply engage China on common problems, such as climate change and energy, while also establishing rules of the road to avoid military confrontations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Neither of these paths excludes standing up for human rights (by either side, it should be added), negotiating better trade and investment terms, and confronting aggressive behavior in or beyond East Asia. What they do exclude is treatment of the other as an enemy. Inevitably, China is going to be a global military power to match its widening economic reach, which now extends to Latin America. The US will have to adjust to that new reality and invest more in common security than in containment and trade wars. And that adjustment, as two former US officials and Asia analysts have recently written, starts with “a new degree of humility about the United States’ ability to change China” (Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning,” Foreign Affairs, March-April 2018.)

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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