We need a better middle road on China. Here's how.
Two recent open letters from academics and policy analysts have staked out positions for the future of U.S.-China relations that seem diametrically opposed. Both camps rehearse older approaches, and neither offers what the United States, China and the world now need from the relationship: both common ground and confrontation, rooted in human values and focused on shared global problems.
The first letter says that "China is not an enemy" and advocates returning to the engagement policy of the past four decades. I signed this letter, whose points are eminently sensible whatever you think of China, because the alternative — demonization of China — is dangerous. But I agree with critics of this approach who argue that for decades "engagement" sidelined human rights in the name of trade, without assuring progress in either.
Nonengagement ("decoupling") is not an option. Just try for one day to avoid anything associated with China (including the U.S. government, of course, since China underwrites more than $1 trillion of our national debt). But business-as-usual engagement has done nothing to prevent appalling abuses within China (high-tech totalitarianism and 3 million indigenous people in concentration camps) and growing bellicosity abroad (weaponized islands in the South China Sea and open threats to Taiwan). Nor has it resolved unequal market access, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft or other trade issues. We must engage, but we need new rules of engagement.
The second letter, calling on President Donald Trump to "Stay the course on China," makes little sense, given the wild incoherence of Trump's China policy. Trump's circle talks tough, but in nasty, counterproductive ways. Former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon has reconvened the Red Scare-era "Committee on the Present Danger"; national security adviser John Bolton sees a "clash of civilizations" with China; State Department Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner says the former Soviet Union was "within the Western family," while China is "a great power competitor that is not Caucasian." The FBI calls China a "whole-of-society threat" and fears Sino-U.S. scholarly exchanges lead to espionage. And Trump political adviser Stephen Miller wants to ban all Chinese student visas. Trumpist China hawks echo the racist xenophobia that is this administration's original sin.
In reality, Trump has been anything but tough on China. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was an act of unilateral disarmament, undermining the U.S. bargaining position and confusing U.S. allies. Trump's withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council allowed China to line up three dozen of the worst rights-abusing countries to publicly endorse Xinjiang concentration camps.
After an attack by thugs on protesters and bystanders, Trump commented that Chinese President Xi Jinping was responding to Hong Kong demonstrations "very responsibly." Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is blocking a bill with bipartisan congressional support to use the Global Magnitsky law to sanction Chinese officials behind the ethnic "transformation" camps. Trump's one assertive policy, his trade war, has produced nothing except economic pain for common Americans and Chinese alike. Trump's China policy is bluster masking appeasement.
The United States' China policy, like our foreign policy generally, needs clearer principles. It also needs sharper tools that target the Chinese Communist Party, unlike the blunt tariffs, demonization and arms buildup that hurt ordinary people while affording little practical leverage.
After Trump, the United States cannot credibly talk about exporting American-style democracy; but it could, if sincere, reconvene allies around a common principle of "human values." This would be an assertive stance, since Xi's Chinese Communist Party has denounced "universal values" as anathema.
A second, corollary principle should be "respect China." Chinese culture underlies East Asia the way the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions suffuse the West. It is just as rich and multifaceted. We need humanistic diversity in our common repertoire of ideas, just as we need Chinese minds and markets to address climate change, global inequality, artificial intelligence automation and other pressing problems.
From this position of informed respect, however, the United States must confront head-on the horrors the Chinese party-state inflicts upon its people. Cyber tools and financial forensics can challenge party oligarchs who offend human norms by exposing their corruption and targeting their vast foreign holdings. Insofar as the Chinese Communist Party behaves like a mafia, confronting it as one affords more precise leverage than commerce taxes or cold war.
U.S. acquiescence to inhumanity like that in Xinjiang encourages the party to export such methods to Hong Kong and beyond; it could lead Xi to risk an attack on Taiwan. Yet decoupling is unrealistic; nor can the world afford for the United States and China to fritter away years waging cold war as the climate warms.
The United States should thus both respectfully engage China and forthrightly confront the Chinese Communist Party, in pursuit of the human values we all share.
James Millward is a professor of history at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
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