John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”
There are glimmerings of hope among some China watchers that President Trump might have a chance to right America’s very skewed relationship with China. Trump’s skepticism about the benefits of the relationship and his maddening unpredictability have thrown the red mandarins in Beijing off-balance. As such, the new president has an opportunity to halt a decade of drift in U.S. policy towards China.
Last week’s Asia trip by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was a good sign. Not only did Mattis reassure allies, South Korea and Japan, that the United States was not pulling out of Asia, but in a backhanded manner, the gruff, former Marine Corps general also reassured China, announcing that the United States was not planning any precipitous military action in the South China Sea.
Against this backdrop, the United States’ best minds on China will issue a report Tuesday calling on Trump to adopt a far tougher policy on China than the one pursued by any of his predecessors. If America’s policy toward China for the first four decades since normalization in 1979 can be described as benevolent solicitude, this new policy is one of flinty reciprocity.
Called “U.S. Policy Toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration,” the bipartisan report, produced by an 18-member panel which included high-ranking national security, military, trade and diplomatic officials from Democratic and Republican administrations alike, advises Trump to slap more tariffs on those Chinese goods determined to have been dumped on the U.S. market and to deny Chinese firms investment opportunities if U.S. firms are not given equal access in China. And, true to its reciprocity theme, it suggests that Trump press China to stop blocking websites and denying visas to a broad array of Americans, including journalists, academics and think-tank researchers, simply because it fears what they might write. Again, the report notes China has played the United States in this area because while it censors Western writing on China in China, Beijing faces no restrictions getting its message out in the United States. The state-run China Daily runs advertisement sections in American newspapers; China Radio International broadcasts from U.S. radio stations; and Chinese journalists enjoy far greater freedom in America than to do their counterparts in China.
The report says Trump’s first priority should be North Korea and recommends that he pursue a grand bargain with Chinese President Xi Jinping to get Beijing to finally help stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program. If China plays along by implementing tightened U.N. sanctions, the report says, a peace deal could be concluded with Pyongyang under which it is implied that U.S. forces could be withdrawn or at least drawn down from the Korean Peninsula. But if China ignores Trump’s entreaties, the report calls for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system in South Korea and a raft of secondary sanctions on the panoply of Chinese companies that facilitate North Korea’s sanctions busting with the tacit support of the Chinese state.
Co-chaired by the China scholar Orville Schell and Susan Shirk, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego and a former Clinton administration official, the report notes that U.S.-China relations are at “a precarious crossroads.” Since 2008, China has pushed the relationship with the United States dangerously off-balance. Emboldened by the Great Recession, China intensified its unfair trade and investment practices, bolstered its ability to cyberhack U.S. industrial secrets, turned rocks and reefs in the South China Sea into stationary aircraft carriers and bolstered its support for the North Korean regime in direct contradiction to its stated opposition to that country’s nuclear weapons program. Domestically, in part because of its fear that a color revolution would topple its regime, the Chinese Communist Party has launched the most withering crackdown on dissent since the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.
To counter these worrisome trends, the report suggests that Trump make a U-turn and embrace elements of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade pact which he withdrew from on his third day in office. (To appeal to the president’s expansive ego, James McGregor, a longtime leading American businessman in China, has suggested it be renamed the Trump Pacific Partnership.) The report says that the trade pact would serve as an essential road map for the type of economic reforms that the U.S. administration wants China to undertake. The report also calls on the new president to make a second U-turn and not to meddle with the “One China” policy, under which Washington has maintained generally amicable ties with China and Taiwan for the past four decades.
At its core, the report argues that the only way to deal with China is to engage with it because the other option — confronting it — will lead to an adversarial relationship that will roil the Pacific for years to come.
Some China watchers are pleased that Trump definitely has Beijing’s attention. But as one participant on the panel said, “he could cut a deal or he could break all the furniture in the room.”