Shall the US Continue its Mistaken Policy toward China?

Our Response to Open Letter Entitled "China is not an Enemy" published by Washington Post on July 5, 2019


Recently, the Washington Post published an open letter to President Trump and Congress, authored by five China specialists and co-signed by 95 others. Its title: "China is not an Enemy." ( The letter's signatories include a wide range of analysts from the scholarly, foreign policy, military, and business communities who endorse seven propositions that reflect the experts' collective views on China, the problems they see in the U.S. approach to that country, and the basic elements of a more effective U.S. policy.


"Although we are very troubled by Beijing's recent behavior which requires a strong response," these experts write, "we also believe that many U.S. actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations."  As human rights activists who have lived in both China and America for decades, we care deeply for both China, the land of our birth, and the United States, the country we have made our home. We also want to see the U.S.-China relationship--and the citizens in each country--flourish.


In our estimation, the letter's authors have fallen into the same trap that has plagued every generation of the West's Sinologists.  In the process of glossing over the sins of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), these scholars and experts-along with most of the U.S.  foreign policy establishment-have placed the blame for the periodic downturns in U.S.-China relations on the United States. And this despite China's transparency in both its doctrines and intentions. We believe the CCP regime is the biggest threat to the US and the free world and must be treated accordingly.


Let us take the seven propositions one by one and offer a response (in bold) to each.


1."China's troubling behavior in recent years - including its turn toward greater domestic repression, increased state control over private firms, failure to live up to several of its trade commitments, greater efforts to control foreign opinion and more aggressive foreign policy - raises serious challenges for the rest of the world. These challenges require a firm and effective U.S. response, but the current approach to China is fundamentally counterproductive."


Here are just the highlights of recent actions of China's party state:

  • The conversion of the entire country into a hyper police state with Orwellian surveillance

  • The repression of any trace of dissent against the regime

  • The detention of over one million Uyghurs in concentration camps

  • The systematic torture of human rights defense lawyers

  • Aggressive militarization of the South China Sea

  • The violation of its international commitment for self-government in Hong Kong

  • Threats of force against Taiwan; and

  • A global propaganda campaign designed to export its totalitarian model

At every critical point in the history of US-China relations, few U.S. experts have accurately predicted such behavior, not 40 years ago when the US and PRC first established the formal diplomatic ties, not 30 years ago in the "trade-human rights" debate in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, nor 18 years ago when the US allowed China's WTO entry almost without any institutional conditions. In each case, most of the signers of the letter promoted the idea that bringing China into the global economic order would change its behavior and that "normal" trade would lead to more political freedom.


After the massacre at Tiananmen Square, we came to Washington telling policy makers that establishing normal trade relations with China, without linking that relationship to human rights, would be like offering a blood transfusion to the CCP regime, making it more aggressive and harming the interests of both the American and Chinese people. Unfortunately, our warning largely fell on the deaf ears. 


By contrast, the China policy shift the US is undertaking is creating a new internal dynamic that has the potential to bring about some positive changes in China while protecting American interests. Despite President Xi's determination to keep a tight lid on any opposition, many Chinese believe that President Trump's strongman approach might help bring changes to the Chinese Communist Party.


2. "We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere; nor is China a monolith, or the views of its leaders set in stone. Although its rapid economic and military growth has led Beijing toward a more assertive international role, many Chinese officials and other elites know that a moderate, pragmatic and genuinely cooperative approach with the West serves China's interests. Washington's adversarial stance toward Beijing weakens the influence of those voices in favor of assertive nationalists. With the right balance of competition and cooperation, U.S. actions can strengthen those Chinese leaders who want China to play a constructive role in world affairs."


It is the Communist party-state--not the United States--that has put China and America on a confrontational footing. Even during the best of times in US-China relations, China's official rhetoric included sayings like "the US Imperialists always want to destroy us  (美帝亡我之心不死)." Deng Xiaoping's famous saying, for example, "hide our capabilities and bide our time" says as much.


The Tiananmen Square massacre ripped away the façade of the CCP's "moderation." Over the subsequent 30 years, the CCP has relied on two sources of legitimacy: nationalism and high-speed economic development. Nationalism requires enemies. Internally, minorities such as Uyghurs and Tibetans have fallen prey to the CCP's Han chauvinistic nationalism while, externally, America has been steadily projected as the most staunch and profound enemy.  Beijing has not for a moment been willing to help America with North Korea, for example, and the UNSC voting record clearly shows China rarely sides with the U.S. on any issues. And while the U.S. was busy appeasing China's interest, the party-state has been stealing tens of billions worth of US intellectual property and trade secrets through cyberattacks and large-scale industrial espionage, rewriting WTO rules, and launching "Made in China 2025," that employs dirty tricks to surpass the US in global high-tech manufacturing.


During the same period, the US diplomatic establishment largely harbored the illusion that economic growth would bring about political reform. While dealing with China, U.S. Presidents and other senior officials largely avoided dealing with human rights, deeming them inconvenient. Faced with a rising China, the U.S. gradually lost leverage. Now, the Chinese leadership cares little about pressure from Western public opinion as politicians and businessmen from around the world salivate at China's immense purchasing power, investment and markets.

It's no exaggeration to say that today, Chinese leaders are the most well-received, honored guests in a majority of countries worldwide. In turn, they know they can cut off Google and Yahoo, refuse visas for New York Times journalists and critical scholars, and block access to Twitter and Facebook-all without impunity. At the same time, they are busy cultivating and even creating favorable media in the U.S. while virtually all American media and American movies are censored in China. In the U.S. today, the Chinese government and its surrogates have wide access to universities, think tanks, and broadcast studios through which they can advance their opinions and rationalize their actions.


3. "U.S. efforts to treat China as an enemy and decouple it from the global economy will damage the United States' international role and reputation and undermine the economic interests of all nations. U.S. opposition will not prevent the continued expansion of the Chinese economy, a greater global market share for Chinese companies and an increase in China's role in world affairs. Moreover, the United States cannot significantly slow China's rise without damaging itself. If the United States presses its allies to treat China as an economic and political enemy, it will weaken its relations with those allies and could end up isolating itself rather than Beijing."


The China policy shift on trade the U.S. is currently undertaking is a right and necessary reaction to China's gross violations of international norms. If unchecked, its predatory economic exploitation and expansion will continue to harm American interests as well as those of other nations. The new policy is not intended to contain China's development but rather to level the playing field on trade and to make sure its economic and military catch-up should not be like what some observers describe as "corner overtaking". 


Given its historical role in establishing the international order and the size of its stake in it, America should take the lead in confronting China.  Although we have concerns about how President Trump has dealt with U.S. allies, none of the differences between America and its allies is rooted in value conflict and, therefore, they can be resolved through negotiations.  When America first pressed Canada and its European allies on China, there was some reluctance to immediately side with America. But in a departure from its traditionally soft approach on Beijing, the European Commission in March called China "an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance."


In fact, the conflict with China is about more than simply trade, encompassing values as well. Otherwise, it would be inexplicable as to why Canada, which is also involved in a trade conflict with America, is siding with it in this so called "New Cold War." In recent months, both Canada and France have joined the U.S. in sending ships through the Taiwan Strait and Germany is considering doing so as well. But in the end, the U.S. is the only country that can contain China's predatory rise because it needs the American market and American technology.


4. "The fear that Beijing will replace the United States as the global leader is exaggerated. Most other countries have no interest in such an outcome, and it is not clear that Beijing itself sees this goal as necessary or feasible. Moreover, a government intent on limiting the information and opportunities available to its own citizens and harshly repressing its ethnic minorities will not garner meaningful international support nor succeed in attracting global talent. The best American response to these practices is to work with our allies and partners to create a more open and prosperous world in which China is offered the opportunity to participate. Efforts to isolate China will simply weaken those Chinese intent on developing a more humane and tolerant society."


Why do we continue to believe the rhetoric that China does not want to replace the U.S. as a superpower? The party-state is using the economic power it has gained with the help of the West to build a formidable, modern military that can reach every corner of the earth. China wants to create a new international order while putting itself at the center of the Asia-Pacific region. Its global military expansion, in South China Sea, Africa, and other parts of the world clearly targets American interests.


China's primary strategic goal remains to replace the U.S. has the world's leading superpower. By its own admission, the party-state wants to replace capitalism with socialism with Chinese characteristics and replace western civilization with Chinese communist civilization. The evidence is overwhelming, and we ignore it at our peril.


Let's assume the authors of the letter are right in saying the Beijing's ambition is exaggerated. Does that imply the US should not contain China's unfair, exploitative and aggressive behavior?  Over the past 40 years, the US has never tried to isolate China but, instead, welcomed it into the international community with open arms. China has been afforded many opportunities to be a responsible stakeholder, but it has refused to act responsibly by observing rules and norms associated with such a position.  What the signers refer to as "a government intent on limiting the information and opportunities available to its own citizens and harshly repressing its ethnic minorities" is partly the result of U.S. appeasement policy toward the Chinese Communist Party.  The capability to repress internally is positively related to the ambition and ability to expand externally. This is very true of the CCP regime.


The best American response to these practices is to work with our allies to create a more open and prosperous world in which China is offered the opportunity to participate but also be held accountable to rules and norms in its behavior both at home and abroad. We won't strengthen China's moderates by coddling China's dictator.


5. "Although China has set a goal of becoming a world-class military by midcentury, it faces immense hurdles to operating as a globally dominant military power. However, Beijing's growing military capabilities have already eroded the United States' long-standing military preeminence in the Western Pacific. The best way to respond to this is not to engage in an open-ended arms race centered on offensive, deep-strike weapons and the virtually impossible goal of reasserting full-spectrum U.S. dominance up to China's borders. A wiser policy is to work with allies to maintain deterrence, emphasizing defensive-oriented, area denial capabilities, resiliency and the ability to frustrate attacks on U.S. or allied territory, while strengthening crisis-management efforts with Beijing."


While It is certainly true that China faces immense hurdles to becoming a military superpower, it cannot be doubted that it can achieve this goal if not contained.  The U.S. has worked with its allies to deter China's military expansion and aggression. At the same time, the U.S. has not stopped its engagement with the Chinese military. And we must recognize that this engagement has not stopped the expansion of China's military. Xi Jinping is determined to have his modern military " built to fight," and "able to win wars," a goal stated in his speech at the Nineteenth Party Congress. Superior strength is the only way to dissuade aggression. China is racing to build its fighting capability, including deep-strike weapons. The U.S. must maintain its own superior power in response.


The bottom line is the US should not tolerate the fact the CCP is taking a blood transfusion from the U.S. to beef itself up both economically and militarily, and in turn threatening the security of America and its allies. 


6. "Beijing is seeking to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order. But it is not seeking to overturn vital economic and other components of that order from which China itself has benefited for decades. Indeed, China's engagement in the international system is essential to the system's survival and to effective action on common problems such as climate change. The United States should encourage Chinese participation in new or modified global regimes in which rising powers have a greater voice. A zero-sum approach to China's role would only encourage Beijing to either disengage from the system or sponsor a divided global order that would be damaging to Western interests."


The authors of the letter argue naively that Beijing doesn't want to overturn the Western economic order because China has benefited from the system. China has never been, and does not plan to be, a good-faith actor in the Western-dominated economic and political system. It has consistently used and twisted the rules of the system to its own benefit. Defeating capitalism remains the long-standing goal for the party-state. It is actively creating its own system and rapidly changing the current system to fit its own ideals.


If Beijing, seeking to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order, has itself benefited from that order for decades, it is the time for the US and other democracies to work together to find ways to change Beijing's behavior and defend democratic norms. Playing nice with the CCP as a means of bringing them into the international community is a sure-fire way to undermine those norms.


7. "In conclusion, a successful U.S. approach to China must focus on creating enduring coalitions with other countries in support of economic and security objectives. It must be based on a realistic appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behavior; an accurate match of U.S. and allied resources with policy goals and interests; and a rededication of U.S. efforts to strengthen its own capacity to serve as a model for others. Ultimately, the United States' interests are best served by restoring its ability to compete effectively in a changing world and by working alongside other nations and international organizations rather than by promoting a counterproductive effort to undermine and contain China's engagement with the world."


We find this last proposition puzzling. After arguing that the U.S. can cajole China into cooperation and that it isn't really a threat, we finally get to the point that the U.S. needs friends to contain China.


No one can disagree that a successful U.S. approach to China must focus on creating enduring coalitions with other countries or that it should be based on realistic assessments of China's interests and behavior. Nevertheless, the authors' appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behavior were wrong two decades ago and, unfortunately, remains the same today. The fundamental point here is that the propositions offered by the experts have misread China's strategic intent, resulting in dangerous advocacy of continuing our failed policies.


In conclusion, we believe the following: first, that there is no such thing as free trade between a free society and a closed one; second, that a regime that treats its own people harshly won't treat other people with decency; and third, that China's human rights deficit has contributed largely to America's trade deficit with that country.


The authors and signers of the letter call for more of the old-school China engagement--the type of engagement that resulted in the powerhouse military and economy that China enjoys today with absolutely no hint of democratic development. No thanks--we have ample evidence of where that has taken us. It's time to engage China with moral and strategic Clarity. The struggle for our economic and political future is real. Yes, there has never been single Washington consensus toward China. But the big question is: How many Americans want to continue the mistakes of the past forty years?


(Dr. Jianli Yang, Founder and President of Citizen Power Initiatives for China

Dr.Lianchao Han, Vice President of Citizen Power Initiatives for China)

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© 2018 by Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

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