On Wednesday, the State Department announced that Chinese diplomats inside the United States are now required to notify the U.S. government before visiting state or local officials as well as academic or research institutions. David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Thursday that the goal was not to constrain such interactions but to respond to Beijing’s severe and unfair restrictions on U.S. diplomats inside China.
“We’re not going to say no; we just want to have an idea who they are talking to,” he said. “Our goal is also a relationship with China that is fair and reciprocal with China living up to its many commitments.”
And as a side benefit, the U.S. government will now have far more information about how Chinese government officials are working to spread Chinese influence here. Stilwell said the United States must realize that Beijing has a long-term, deliberate strategy to take advantage of our open systems and manipulate them to advance the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy and ideology.
The Chinese Embassy tweeted that the State Department’s restrictions violate the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and that China imposes no similar restrictions on U.S. diplomats. That’s false. The Chinese government has been violating the rights of U.S. diplomats egregiously for years.
Earlier this year, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a bipartisan report detailing how the Chinese government treats U.S. diplomats and thwarts U.S. public diplomacy in China while expanding CCP influence here.
Chinese officials routinely require and then deny permission for U.S. diplomats to engage with various actors and institutions in China, the report states. U.S. diplomats were often prevented from even visiting American Cultural Centers (ACC), outposts of U.S. public diplomacy funded by U.S. taxpayers.
According to an internal State Department memo, in March 2018 a Chinese foreign affairs officer denied a U.S. diplomat’s visit to an ACC by falsely claiming it was “no longer in existence.” In October 2017, a diplomat arrived at an ACC and the staff “claimed not to have the keys.” The Chinese government thwarted the program so thoroughly, the State Department Inspector General concluded oversight of the $5.1 million program was impossible. The State Department eventually shut it down.
Now, compare that with the approximately $158 million the Chinese Communist Party has spent on establishing about 100 Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses, with no restrictions or monitoring of who visits or what goes on there. Beijing wants its public diplomacy but won’t accept ours.
The State Department’s notification requirement isn’t nearly as onerous as what Beijing puts U.S. diplomats through, but it’s just an opening salvo. Officials told me they plan to apply the principle of reciprocity to as many aspects of U.S.-China relations as they can.
“For too long, the United States has modeled appropriate behavior in the hope that China will change,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the chairman of the Senate committee, said. “As we have learned to our disappointment, China will not change unless it sees its actions have consequences and this news is a positive first step.”
Congress is also focused on reciprocity with China. Last December, Congress passed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018, which President Trump signed into law. It denies access to the United States to Chinese officials who are known to have been involved in restricting Americans’ access to Tibet. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) has been pushing “true reciprocity” in U.S.-China trade and economic relations, something Trump talks about often.
The media space is also ripe for U.S.-China reciprocity. During the Cold War, the United States used reciprocal actions to protest restrictions placed on U.S. journalists in the Soviet Union — and Moscow improved its behavior. Today, the Chinese Communist Party severely restricts U.S. journalists’ activity in China while punishing those who get out of line. Meanwhile, hundreds of Chinese journalists enjoy our free and open media environment.
Reciprocity is not a panacea and doesn’t always apply. We can’t take it so far as to compromise the values that make our open system preferable to China’s model. But as a guiding principle, it’s simple to understand and hard to argue against. Mostly, it’s a way of calling out Beijing’s long pattern of unfair behavior across the board.
This shift toward reciprocity in U.S.-China relations won’t be easy, and Beijing is not going to like it. The Chinese government has been breaking its commitments and getting away with it for so long, it’s reluctant to change. But the best hope of avoiding conflict is to compel Beijing to compete fairly and for us to realize China won’t stop its bad behavior on its own.