The failure of US policy towards China

A few weeks ago, the US House of Representatives’ Task Force on China released a report which called China “the greatest national and economic security challenge of this generation.”(Executive Summary, p. 1)

How did this happen?

In 1971, when President Richard Nixon announced that he was planning a visit to China, the world was stunned.  Nixon had built his career on fighting the “Red Menace,” and for decades had opposed diplomatic recognition of Mao’s “rogue regime.”   But Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger convinced him to try to drive a wedge between China and Russia, by discussing diplomatic and trade relations during this 1972 visit.

Over the next several decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations generally agreed on a liberal approach to diplomatic policy, based on the theory that “After being welcomed into the international political and economic order, China would play by the rules, open its markets, and privatize its economy. As the country became more prosperous, the Chinese government would respect the rights of its people and liberalize politically.”

The part of the theory about becoming prosperous proved to be correct.  As China began to slowly embrace some elements of the Western system, it raised 850 million people out of poverty, and became the number two economy in the world. 

But the other part of the theory — that China’s prosperity would lead them to become more liberal and play by the rules — didn’t.  It has taken nearly five decades for US policy makers to give up on this idea. 

Instead, economic success has tightened the authoritarian grip of the Chinese Communist Party.  The country shows no signs of adopting Western values.  In fact, China has explicitly rejected the Western model on numerous occasions.  For example, “an internal Communist Party memo known as Document No. 9 has explicitly warned against ‘Western constitutional democracy’ and other ‘universal values’ as stalking-horses meant to weaken, destabilize, and even break up China.”

As a senior Congressional staffer who would prefer to remain anonymous told me recently:  “For several decades, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle spoke enthusiastically about the need to engage China to make China more like us.  But over the years, frustration among lawmakers has grown exponentially because the strategy has simply not worked.  Time and time again we’ve been faced with Chinese theft, underhandedness, and deception.  Even worse, China is using its economic and commercial influence to bring other countries into its orbit and to strengthen its economic and political power.”

One of the things that makes China so hard to deal with is the fact that, as former Wall Street Journal reporter Dinny McMahon put it in his book China’s Great Wall of Debt (p. 11), “China’s economy [is] incredibly opaque… [The government’s] control of information – be it the massaging of data [or] faking it outright – is not the root cause of China’s opacity.  It is merely a symptom.  What makes China so opaque is that its rules are fluid.” 

Why do so many major American companies try to operate in an environment in which the rules change constantly, Chinese companies violate contracts, and steal intellectual property worth hundreds of billions a year in what has been called the “greatest theft in human history”?  The answer is quite simple:    Because 1.4 billion people live there.  No other country in the world offers companies as much potential for revenue growth.

While many US corporations seem to care only about this quarter’s profits, policy makers take a much longer view.  And one of the very few things that most Democrats and Republicans agree on these days is that China poses a significant threat to the US. 

What should we do about it?  Clearly in the past we have misjudged China, so the first step toward an improved foreign policy is to establish a firm foundation of knowledge about China’s approach and intent.  As a country, we need to better understand the many complex interrelated dimensions of the US-China relationship including security, competition, trade, supply chains, artificial intelligence, emerging technologies, cyberwarfare, energy, human rights, and much much more.

How is the US doing when it comes to improved understanding of China?  Badly. 

A few months ago, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published the results of a two year study of China based on hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of reviews of analyst reports.  The quick bottom line, as summarized in a Foreign Affairs article by the Committee’s Chair, is that “What we found was unsettling. Our nation’s intelligence agencies are not ready—not by a long shot.”  According to a redacted summary of their final report, the committee offered 100 classified recommendations and 36 public ones. 

But, if one goes by the statements of our politicians, our current goal seems to be, as US Secretary of State Pompeo put it in a speech last year:  “the United States and its allies must keep China in ‘its proper place.’”  In a 2020 Foreign Affairs article Fareed Zakaria described this as “a patronizing statement that would surely infuriate any Chinese citizen.”

Things are not much better on the other side of the Pacific. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said a few months ago “that the United States is ‘a far cry from the major power it used to be,’ and its leaders are “working to suppress China because they fear China’s growth.’”  Similarly, the state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao recently proclaimed that“America is moving from ‘declining’ to ‘declining faster.’”

On the plus side, at least the rhetoric has been dialed down since the days when Mao Zedong led China from 1949 to 1976. For example, in a speech about nuclear war in 1957, Mao famously said “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.”

Fortunately, since then, Chinese policy has completed “a remarkable shift from a radical agenda of revolution to a conservative concern for stability.” 

So, for those who see every glass as half full, there is some good news:  the Chinese Communist Partyviews Washington “as an obstacle to its goals of preserving its own rule and gaining regional dominance, but it does not believe that the United States or its system of government has to be defeated in order to achieve these aims.”

As Fareed Zakaria summed it up:  “Beijing’s elites know that their country has prospered in a stable, open world. They do not want to destroy that world.”

We don’t either, so that’s a start.  In my next post, I’ll provide a five minute review of what experts say about how a better approach to US-China relations could be formulated in the future.

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