BEIJING — Four decades after the United States and China formalized full diplomatic relations with a burst of optimism, the current period is marked by suspicion, trade war machinations and military tensions.
Despite the “great respect” President Trump voiced for Chinese President Xi Jinping in the State of the Union address Tuesday, the bilateral relationship generates international anxiety, even fear. Administration officials are now preparing for discussions between the two leaders later this month.
“I don’t think relations have been as strained for 40 years,” Chas W. Freeman Jr. said during an interview. He is a retired Foreign Service officer and longtime China hand who was intimately involved with the establishment of diplomatic relations. Reflecting that strain during a recent visit to China organized by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), one worried young woman asked me whether Americans hate the Chinese. A thoughtful middle-aged man fretted about the possibility of a hot war stemming from complaints by the United States over missiles stationed on artificial islands built by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Amid this angst over war — trade and/or shooting — we talked with Freeman about his key role in the establishment of U.S.-China relations, the current state of that relationship and what he has called China’s “bumptious return to wealth and power.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of full relations between the two nations. Relations were formalized Jan. 1, 1979, within days of China announcing its economic “reform and opening up” under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. That radically changed and quickly developed the country into what is today the world’s second-largest economy. It’s knocking loudly on Uncle Sam’s door.
Despite the concurrent opening of diplomatic relations and opening of China’s economy to capitalism, the events were not linked. In fact, the U.S. government was caught unawares by China’s turn to private enterprise, or “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as the Chinese like to say.
“Nobody took it seriously” among U.S. officials, said Freeman, now a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
U.S. intelligence had no clue about China’s dramatic turn?
“Absolutely not,” he answered.
Freeman’s experience with China precedes diplomatic relations. He wrote briefing papers for a secret trip to China by Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, in July 1971. That trip, as described in an Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training article, had cloak-and-dagger intrigue — secret flights, special CIA briefcases, body doubles and phony ailments. Kissinger’s venture led to Nixon’s famous trip to China in February 1972. Freeman was the principal interpreter. The trip revived ties but not full diplomatic relations. Later, Freeman was the State Department’s director for Chinese affairs and the U.S. charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission in Beijing. He was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
He continues to write and speak frequently about international issues, including China, talking with a spice and bluntness that are a welcome contrast to normal diplomatic niceties and evasions.
His talk at the Carter Center in Atlanta last month had this ominous title: “Are the United States and China Headed for War?” His colorful but scary answer: “Our two countries are mentally constipated and flirting not so much with a trade war as with a drift toward a real war provoked by mutual disregard of core and vital interests.”
Freeman is no fan of Trump’s policies toward China or his advisers.
He names national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as among the “neoconservatives who now infest the Trump administration.” Referring to them, but not naming them, in remarks to the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations in December, Freeman said that “some Americans nostalgic for the simplicities of the Cold War suffer from enemy deprivation syndrome. They are in earnest search of a hostile ideology against which to orient themselves and see China as the answer to their distress.”
But on the busy streets of Beijing, among the architectural marvels of Shanghai and even in the Anhui province villages of Xiaoxihe and Zongpu, China’s ideology doesn’t look hostile. It looks like a dynamic marketplace. The operating philosophy seems to be: Don’t criticize the political leadership, don’t talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, but feel free to make and spend as much money as you can.
Over the 40 years of this economic opening, China’s gross domestic product doubled every eight years, growing at an average rate of 9.5 percent, according to data released during a Beijing briefing with National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) officials and NABJ members.
Driven by domestic demand and innovation, “Chinese per capita disposable income grew 22.8 times, while people living in poverty in rural areas decreased by 740 million,” the NDRC data says. “China has established the world’s largest social security safety net.”
But various officials were quick to acknowledge China’s need and its efforts to raise more of its huge population from poverty.
China’s robust growth places its U.S. relationship in a far different context than 40 years ago.
“When Washington first reached out to the People’s Republic, it saw China as isolated, vulnerable and unstable,” Freeman said in a New York speech a week before Christmas. “We now confront a globally connected and relatively wealthy China with very strong capitalist characteristics. Our concerns about Chinese weakness have given way to worries that China may have become a formidable — perhaps overwhelming — geoeconomic competitor and that it might displace our influence not just in its region but on the Eurasian landmass and adjacent areas.”
“The Trump trade war” breeds antagonism, Freeman said, and “imperils American consumers and both Chinese and American manufacturers.”
“Every governor in the country is trying to go over there and sell things or attract Chinese investment,” Freeman said by phone. “Washington is trying to stop the Chinese investment.”
“Trump, whatever he is,” Freeman added, “is not a statesman.”