Only China can untie its own knot in US relations: William Stanton

Donald Trump (left) and Xi Jinping (AP photo)

Donald Trump (left) and Xi Jinping (AP photo)

The joint opinion letter “China Is Not the Enemy” published in the Washington Post on July 3 may turn out to be one of the last ideological gasps of those 100 signatories – largely American officials, academics, lobbyists, and business people -- who helped create and are still trying to sustain accommodating U.S. policies toward China. The letter in one sense was not surprising since many of the signatories made their careers and in some cases lucrative livelihoods by shaping and promoting policies to strengthen the U.S. relationship with China.

The Trump Administration is now challenging those policies that have largely prevailed since the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué. While I personally do not support many of President Trump’s policies, I do support the stronger and more realistic approach his administration is taking toward the PRC, as do almost all Democrats as well as Republicans in the U.S. Congress.

As someone who has lived in both China and Taiwan for seventeen years of my life, I certainly agree that “Chinese people are not the enemy.” Nonetheless, the People’s Republic of China as currently constituted clearly is. Many others share this view, including, of course, the Trump administration officials who authorized the 2018 National Defense Strategy in which the U.S. Department of Defense publicly identified China as a “strategic competitor” that “seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

In an insightful July 6 commentary in Taiwan News titled “Dear Washington, Do Not Seek to Appease the Chinese Communist Party,” Duncan DeAeth identified a key problem with the July 3 letter: while briefly acknowledging the challenges China poses to the United States, the solution the letter offers is little more than appeasement. The signatories all agree that they are “very troubled by Beijing’s recent behavior.” Surely, however, the PRC’s problematic behavior is not merely “recent” in view of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, not to mention the earlier self-inflicted tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to cite only the most blatant examples of the cruel authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party even before Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012.ascension of Xi to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party In November 2012.

The China problems that the letter does cite are described in bland and brief terms, including “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.” Unfortunately, this hardly does justice to continuing violence and abuse against Tibetans, Muslims, and Christians; “cultural genocide” concentration camps intended to destroy the language and religion of the Uyghurs; the militarization of the South China Sea and the sinking of foreign fishing vessels; the erosion of Hong Kong’s promised separate legal system; increasing public threats to use force against Taiwan; and massive IPR theft from the United States. In fact, the letter does not even mention Taiwan or Hong Kong, as if the fate of the some 30 million people facing existential threats from the PRC makes no difference to their argument.

The letter states that “these challenges require a firm and effective U.S. response,” but it first downplays these challenges, asserting, for example, that “The fear that Beijing will replace the United States as the global leader is exaggerated.” While agreeing that “Beijing is seeking to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order,” the letter asserts that China “does not seek to overturn vital economic and other components of that order from which China itself has benefited” as if we should praise China for acting in its own self-interest.

The basis of the signatories’ confidence that there is no China threat remains unexplained. The letter, in any case, cites few specific “firm and effective” responses beyond conciliatory gestures such as cooperation with “our allies and partners to create a more open and prosperous world in which China is offered the opportunity to participate.” I am all for improving cooperation with allies and partners, and almost everyone would agree that not doing so has been a Trump Administration failing. Nonetheless, China has shown it is quite capable on its own of seizing its own opportunities for global participation.

Another astute riposte to the July 3 letter was China watcher John Pomfret’s excellent commentary in the Washington Post on July 10 on “Why the United States Doesn’t Need to Return to a Gentler China Policy.” Pomfret correctly observed that the Chinese Communist Party “is far more responsible for … the current crisis with the United States … than any American” and that the “main fruit of a generally cooperative policy from Washington … has been an emboldened China eager to reach for more.”

A third, impressive response has been the July 18 letter “Stay the Course on China: An Open Letter to President Trump” written by U.S. Naval Captain (ret.) James Fanell, published in the Journal of Political Risk (, and signed by some 140 China watchers, including me. The letter reads in part: “The Chinese Communists’ stated ambitions are antithetical to America’s strategic interests, and the PRC is increasingly taking actions that imperil the United States and our allies. The past forty years during which America pursued an open policy of ‘engagement’ with the PRC have contributed materially to the incremental erosion of U.S. national security. This cannot be permitted to continue.”

U.S. Attitudes toward China Started Changing Years Ago

Although these exchanges of views over U.S. policy toward China are recent, U.S. concern about China has been growing for years. On June 7, 2013, Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, argued in The Diplomat that "China and the U.S. have irreconcilable differences over several fundamental strategic questions,” including “whether modern international law should govern regional affairs, as opposed to a return to the ‘historical’ arrangement of a Chinese sphere of influence,” and “whether China can legitimately make expansive sovereignty claims … that impinge on the vital interests of neighboring peoples.”

On Sept. 21, 2015, the eve of Xi Jinping's state visit to Washington, commentator Josh Rogin observed in Bloomberg that the “Xi visit marks a downturn in U.S.-China relations”: "there has been a broad bipartisan consensus throughout several administrations around the strategy of engaging China constructively while [ensuring] … China doesn’t abuse its rising power to violate international norms and threaten U.S. and allied interests … there is now a bipartisan consensus that this balance is out of whack. For different reasons, both Republicans and Democrats want a more assertive U.S. stance.”

There has also been a concomitant decline in positive U.S. public opinion toward China since 2012, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey, when for the first time in four years the percentage of U.S. “unfavorable” views of China matched “favorable” views, each at 40%. Every year since then, U.S. “unfavorable” views have exceeded “favorable” ones. In the most recent 2018 survey, the results were 47% “unfavorable” to 38% “favorable.” Moreover, most Americans view China as a “serious problem” or an “adversary.” In a Pew survey of U.S. views published in January 2017, “65% of respondents saw China as either a “serious problem” (43%) or an “adversary” (22%), while only 31% said China is “not a problem.”

There has also been a notable negative shift in U.S. elite attitudes toward China. In “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations” in the March/April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, former Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner upset China boosters with a frank declaration:

“Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory. All sides of the policy debate erred …. Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected … that reality warrants a clear-eyed rethinking of the United States’ approach to China.”

Even Fareed Zakaria, a liberal Washington Post and CNN commentator, supported a tougher line on trade with China in an April 5, 2018 commentary in the Post titled “Trump is Right: China’s a Trade Cheat.” Zakaria argued that “the Trump administration may not have chosen the wisest course forward -- focusing on steel, slapping on tariffs, alienating key allies, working outside the WTO -- but its frustration is understandable. Previous administrations exerted pressure privately, worked within the system and tried to get allies on board, with limited results. Getting tough on China is a case where I am willing to give Trump’s unconventional methods a try. Nothing else has worked.”

Elizabeth Economy, China expert and director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, surprised many China hands, when she issued a call for reciprocity in U.S. relations with China (“China's New Revolution: the Reign of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2018): “China is eager to restrict opportunities for outsiders to pursue their political and economic interests within its borders, even as it advances its own such interests outside China. Accordingly, it’s time for the Trump administration to take a fresh look at the notion of reciprocity—and do unto China as China does unto the United States.” Economy cited a number of examples:

The Trump Administration could bar China from establishing additional Confucius Institutes and Confucius classrooms in the United States unless China permits more American centers for cultural exchange … on Chinese university campuses. U.S. universities, for their part, could refuse to host Confucius Institutes or forge other partnerships with Chinese institutions if any member of their faculty is banned from travel to China which is what Beijing does to critical scholars … Washington should also consider constraining Chinese investment in the United States in areas that are out of bounds for U.S. businesses in China. For example, PRC news programs in the U.S.

Faulty Assumptions Guided U.S. Policy from the Start

In fact, the basic assumptions and justifications for U.S. policy toward China, however seemingly reasonable, have proven to be wrong and more and more Americans now recognize this:

-- The geostrategic justification for U.S. relations with China -- as a means of dividing China from the Soviet Union/Russia -- was short-sighted and ultimately foolish. China and Russia, under similar authoritarian regimes, are now the closest of allies, hold military joint exercises, vote in concert in the United Nations, and take mutually supportive policy positions on most issues.

-- The anticipated concrete benefits of US-PRC cooperation on key issues are few, if any – whether ending the war in Vietnam sooner, eliminating the North Korean nuclear program, or ensuring peace and security in the South China Sea.

-- The much–touted but misguided argument during the Clinton Administration that expanded economic cooperation and trade would positively transform China proved to be wrong. The underlying motive for this argument was actually pressure from U.S. corporations who wanted to do more business in China. I know this because I was asked to deploy the liberalization argument in written guidance when I was deputy director of Chinese Affairs in the State Department.

-- While bilateral trade and investment with China may have benefitted some U.S. business sectors, it did not benefit the U.S. economy overall, because it led to the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs and possibly trillions of U.S. dollars in IPR theft.

-- Finally, the United States greatly underestimated China’s future belligerence once it was stronger. At the same time, few in the United States anticipated Taiwan’s ability to transform itself into a prosperous and modern democracy.

Not Only Different Values, But Also Different Interests

Most important, U.S. policymakers apparently often forgot that Communist China does not share the same values of democracy, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law, as the United States (and Taiwan) do, and that absent shared values, relations are not built on a firm foundation. Those PRC and U.S. leaders who did recognize that we do not share the same values, nonetheless, often claimed that we shared common interests.

But as long ago as 2010, Tsing Hua University Beijing academic Yan Xuetong (閻学通), a nationalistic analyst who reportedly has the ear of PRC leaders, wrote at Cambridge: “The global importance today of China–US relations is similar to that of US–Soviet relations during the Cold War in being based on conflicting interests rather than common ones ... There are more mutually unfavorable interests than mutually favorable ones between China and the United States.”

The United States has also increasingly recognized that, short of a mutual desire to avoid war, it does not share the same interests as China. The ascension of Xi to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party In November 2012, his subsequent assumption of power for life in 2018, his repressive domestic policies, and aggressive foreign policies have brought this realization into sharper focus for Americans.

The growing U.S. recognition of largely incompatible interests with China and an emerging consensus that U.S. policy toward China has failed has at the same time led to growing support for Taiwan. This shift was apparent in the later stages of the Obama Administration. On Dec. 23, 2016, President Obama signed into law the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, elevating already active bilateral exchange programs to the general or flag officer level and for civilian officials to the level of assistant secretary or above. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress, which has always been more positive toward and supportive of Taiwan, has passed a series of resolutions since 2016 to strengthen U.S. relations with Taiwan.

As much as anyone might like to see a more positive U.S.-China relationship, it remains highly unlikely barring radical changes in China’s policies. As the Chinese in Beijing always liked to tell American visitors when complaining that the United States was the sole source of all bilateral problems: “He who ties the knot must untie it.”

William A. Stanton served from August 1, 2017 to July 31, 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice President for global affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).