At Each Other's Throats, US and China Defy Pragmatism and Compromise

Where it may have been useful for Beijing to encourage strategic trust, it has instead only invoked a sense of unease and even fear.

Early in July, some 95 well known China watchers, academics, former officials, economists, including M. Taylor Favel, Michael D. Swaine, J. Stapleton Roy, Susan A. Thornton and Ezra Vogel wrote an open letter to President Donald Trump and the US Congress expressing their concern over “the growing deterioration in US relations with China” and their belief that US behaviour was majorly contributing to this situation.

This has triggered a debate in policy-making and academic circles over America’s China policy. Neil Bush, son of former President George H.W. Bush criticised the “America first” style of the Trump Administration which he said should stop regarding China as an existential threat.

Well known journalist John Pomfret argued that there is no need for the US to return to its gentler policy.

Also read: China and US Agree To Restart Trade Talks

The letter put forward seven propositions:

1) That China’s “troubling behaviour” — greater domestic repression, increased state control over private firms, failure to live up to trade commitments and its aggressive foreign policy — raised serious challenges for the world. They did warrant “a firm and effective” US response, but the “current approach to China is fundamentally counterproductive.”

2) That China was not an “economic enemy” or an “ existential national security threat” . And that many Chinese officials understood that “a moderate, pragmatic and genuinely cooperative approach with the West served Chia’s interests.” If anything Washington’s adversarial approach weakened the influence of those officials.

3) US efforts to treat China as an enemy and decouple it from the global economy would damage the US international role and reputation. The US could not slow China’s rise “without damaging itself.”

4) The notion that Beijing would replace the US “as the global leader is exaggerated.” It was not clear whether China thought such a role was “necessary of feasible.” The best response to China was to work with allies and partners to create a more open and prosperous world in which China also had  chance to participate.

5) The US was unlikely to maintain its pre-eminence in the Western Pacific. Reasserting full-spectrum military dominance upto China’s borders was not  workable proposition, a better option was to work with allies, maintain “a defensive oriented , area denial capabilities and the ability to frustrate attacks on US or allied territory.”

6) The signatories acknowledged that while Beijing was seeking to weaken the role of western democratic norms in the global order, it was not seeking to “overturn vital economic and other components of that order”. A zero-sum approach towards China’s role, would only encourage China to disengage from the system and “sponsor a divided global order.”

7) A successful US approach “must focus on creating enduring coalitions” and a “realistic appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behaviour”.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

In response, as it were, the website SinoInsider, run by a group of China experts of Chinese or Taiwanese origin,  came up with a counter view. In their open letter to the president they said that it was important for the Trump administration to stay the course and confront “China’s totalitarian expansionism.”  Their central point was that while China was not an enemy of the US, the Communist Party of China (CPC)  most certainly was.

They attacked the “subversive behaviour” of the CPC and said that the Trump administration’s approach had “effectively curbed and even rolled back the CPC’s steady erosion of the global order.”

The history of the CPC indicated that its eventual goal is not co-existence, but domination.

In their view, the Trump administration’s strategies had created conditions that could bring about “tremendous positive change in China for the Chinese people, the US and the world.” In their view, the current US-China conflict was not just a trade or tech war, “but a critical battle of ideology, value systems and morality.”

Not surprisingly, the open letter was praised by China. The Global Times cited an expert to argue that the difference between the letter and the Trump administration’s approach to China was that while the former viewed “China as a competitor, the latter views China as a pure enemy.” While the former advocated “legal and rational” competition, the latter used “reckless, sometimes even illegal methods, to contain China’s developments.”

In response to a question, the official spokesman Geng Shuang said that “we commend the rational and objective views in it.” He went on to elucidate that China and the US were not enemies, cooperation was the only way forward and that China believed that US-China relations would get back on to an even keel. He said that in his view, “objective, rational and pragmatic” voices would eventually prevail “over paranoid, fanatic and zero-sum game views.”

Certainly, the Trump administration’s handling of China has been impetuous and self-defeating. This was manifest in the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that led to the loss of American leverage over China. The handling of the tariff issue, too, seems to be more of a soap opera than a serious negotiation.

Maligning Huawei and scientists and researchers of Chinese origin without offering any substantive proof has been another issue. Perhaps the most pernicious tendency has been to take a unilateral approach, ignoring friends and allies.

Also read: China’s Suppression of Uyghur Muslims Goes Unacknowledged

At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the patterns of Chinese behaviour since the financial crisis of 2008. Whether it was the Sino-Indian border, the South China Sea or the Diayou/Senkaku islands, we have seen greater Chinese assertiveness. The Uighur saga is still playing itself out with a million people put in re-education camps. The difficulties in Hong Kong are a manifestation of this changed situation. It is true that in the wake of the economic crisis, there was a sharp surge as China’s relative power grew, manifested in both economic and military terms. But where it may have been useful for Beijing to encourage strategic trust, it has instead only invoked a sense of unease and even fear.

The debate is likely to remain in the sphere of the media and academics. The Trump administration doesn’t really take expert advice on anything. There are important truths in both points of view, but the trick till now is in them being able to co-exist. However, recent trends suggest a tendency towards brinksmanship defying pragmatism and compromise.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi