Dear President Xi Jinping:
As you welcome President Trump to your country, here’s a bit of advice: Don’t assume you can dodge a crisis in your relations simply by appealing to his vanity. A backlash is brewing against your country in the United States, and it goes well beyond Trump.
You may be deluded by some of Trump’s early efforts to make nice. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work on the relationship, and you may have tried to sweeten the pot by giving a series of trademarks to the Trump family. But Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner don’t run China policy anymore, if they ever did.
Next you turned to John Thornton, the former Goldman Sachs executive, for help with Trump. He set up your April summit with the president at Mar-a-Lago. The reality, though, is that Thornton’s influence is extremely limited.
In the year since Trump was elected, other people in the U.S. government have begun to influence the president. These people — including those on the National Security Council and in the Defense Department — have a far less rosy-eyed view of your country and of the relationship between the United States and China. They want your country to do more on North Korea than your country has ever done. So much so that, unlike the Obama administration, they have begun to sanction Chinese firms for helping North Korea’s economy, and it looks likely that, once the summit is over, they will sanction more. They also want your country to open its markets to American products and to stop forcing American firms to hand over their technology to Chinese firms.
While it is tempting to call the people traditional Republican hawks, they actually mark a break in the long-term, bipartisan positive view of America’s relations with China. They no longer embrace the idea that with time your country will become more liberal like ours. They also no longer abide by the bipartisan consensus that it is America’s responsibility to reassure your country of our good intentions. They are comfortable with making your staff uncomfortable.
That’s the reason national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not fly to China before the summit, despite your government’s pleas. Sources have told me that a recent meeting of the National Security Council appears to have concluded that China is a strategic competitor of the United States. These skeptics are the reason Trump has placed a new emphasis on a strong relationship with Tokyo. As you may have noticed, in barely nine months in office, Trump has spent more time with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, than President Barack Obama did in the years the two overlapped.
The men and women who comprise Trump’s national security team are not the only ones changing their views on China. I have spent the better part of my professional life studying and living in your country. Yet I have never seen my fellow China experts in America more dispirited about the two nations’ relationship and more united in the belief that your country is mostly to blame.
Many of my colleagues, even those from the Democratic Party, are in complete agreement with Trump’s former aide, Stephen K. Bannon, that the United States is in an economic war with China and that Americans have done far too much to facilitate your nation’s rise. Few would publicly admit this, but I believe it is true because many of them have told me so. What’s more, the American business community that once functioned as the ballast in the relations between our two countries no longer supports your nation like it used to. Too many companies have been burned while doing business in China.
So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done? North Korea is the issue that will shape the relations between our two nations for a generation. Your country likes to say it’s America’s problem, but we believe it is yours. For decades, Chinese companies have played a key role in supporting North Korea’s economy and in abetting North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. This must stop. This looming crisis demands creative thinking, and not only on the part of the United States. Otherwise, the options become very bad very quickly. What would you do if Japan went nuclear? Or worse, if a war erupted on your border, not ours?
China also needs to open up its markets to American firms and allow U.S. businesses the same freedom to invest in China that Chinese firms enjoy in the United States. Have you noticed that the U.S. Treasury Department has essentially stopped major Chinese investments from coming into the United States in recent months? Unless you begin to treat our companies more equally, this investment holiday will never end. What’s more, Chinese firms investing in the United States are not required to turn over their key technologies to an American partner. So why should American firms have to do this in China? Your nation has benefited for too long from these unfair rules. It’s time for them to be changed as well.
In closing, Chairman Xi, I’d like to ask you whether your nation still cares about its relations with the United States. Or is your country really committed to removing the United States from the Western Pacific and to replacing the United States as the resident power in Asia? The United States has operated in the Pacific since 1783. It doesn’t have much inclination to leave anytime soon.