When President Trump meets with Chinese President in Xi Jinping today, he has the chance to strike new bargains and even more importantly, set a new tone. Today, China’s success often prompts gloom in the West. Yet it shouldn’t. In fact, it’s what the West has always wanted and reiterating this principle strengthens our hand.
Britain and the United States have long supported the development of a stronger, more prosperous China. This strategy has actually promoted a more peaceable world order in the past, and could serve us far better today than the confrontational approach to China that the president has adopted.
The tale begins with the Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856, the nadir of relations between East and West. With the invention of steamships, the Royal Navy took advantage of China’s weakness to force open its famously closed market. In flowed opium and other products that allowed Western nations to improve their chronic trade disadvantage.
Great Britain did not then colonize the giant nation, an aberrant choice for a Western colonizer. China’s size made it a lot to swallow and Queen Victoria already had a full plate. More importantly, Britain did not want to take China. They wanted to trade with it.
Economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo had articulated theories of free trade that guided British policy away from mercantilism over the course of the 19th century. A functional, sovereign China could be a useful partner.
So instead of creating a closed sphere, Britain devised the Open Door policy. It collected a low tariff from foreign traders in Chinese ports, scrupulously turned the receipts over to the imperial government, and advocated most-favored-nation treaties that encouraged equal access to China for all nations.
This was the beginning of the so-called “Century of Humiliation,” when foreigners meddled in the internal affairs of the Chinese. But with the alternative being a complete loss of sovereignty for China, it wasn’t a bad bargain. The Unequal Treaties, as they are known by historians, bought time for a government struggling to stay on its feet.
At the end of the 19th century, China again came under pressure, this time by France, Germany, Japan and Russia, all seeking exclusive slices of China for themselves. This time it was the United States, a growing power, that stepped up and issued its own “Open Door Notes” in 1899 and 1900. The U.S. advocated a policy of free trade and a guarantee of Chinese sovereignty, reflecting an American tradition of opposition to further European colonization that dated back to the Monroe Doctrine.
The United States went further yet at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921, renouncing the Unequal Treaties with China and organizing a Nine-Power guarantee of sovereignty despite the Chinese government's continuing disarray. The complete loss of autonomy experienced by India and most of Africa never happened in China — until Japan tried to colonize its weak neighbor. In retaliation for British and American resistance to this brutal process, Japan attacked Hawaii and Hong Kong.
After World War II, the United States nominated China for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council with the hope it would stabilize, strengthen and become a great power. Today, that promise is fulfilled.
China has not become a democracy, but this is not something any country may impose on or require of another. Outsiders have hoped for this outcome, of course, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Even so, China has become strong enough to compete economically and defend itself militarily, which is an extraordinary improvement in its ability to serve its people compared with preceding centuries.
So instead of fretting about China’s growing dominance in manufacturing, envying the optimism of its people or initiating a trade war over China’s rule-breaking, Western leaders should parade and take credit for their historical support for China’s success while holding it to its agreements.
All nations act in ways others find objectionable. Unsurprisingly, as the world’s second-largest economy, China has attracted the second greatest number of complaints behind the United States, which has the world’s largest economy.
Today many worry that admitting China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was a mistake. They fret that multilateral institutions are increasingly useless for forcing strong nations like China to follow the rules of international commerce. But the mistake wasn’t admitting China to the WTO. Rather, it has been not using the WTO — and other multinational institutions — enough.
In fact, a recent study by the CATO Institute reveals China’s good record of WTO compliance. Since 2004, 27 formal complaints have been leveled against China. Five cases remain pending and 22 have been resolved. In all but one, where the matter wasn’t pursued, China modified its behavior.
But, since Trump became president, the United States has brought no new complaints against China in the WTO. Instead, the administration has tried to punish China unilaterally. Although this technique is peaceable compared with the 19th century methods employed in the Opium Wars, the impulse is the same: to fix a problem with brute force rather than diplomacy. Today it hurts the economies of both nations.
Despite its enormous size, China is a country with which no Western nation has ever had a major war or needs to. Bully China, and it will bully back. Give respect, get respect.
Under Xi Jinping, China is more authoritarian than it was 10 years ago. That’s a pity, but not our problem to resolve. While progress is halting, only the Chinese can make it.
When they do, we should applaud. Then pull out the rulebook.