The Ironies of a Successful U.S. China Policy
Remarks to the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations
By Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
New York, December 18, 2018
Three days ago, we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s and Deng Xiaoping’s politically courageous decision
The United States sought to change China’s geopolitical position, not
China’s socioeconomic system. Yet our opening to China informed and
enabled major changes in its domestic political economy.
When Washington first reached out to the People’s Republic, it saw China as isolated, vulnerable, and unstable. 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 – geo-economic competitor and that it might displace our influence not just in its region but on the Eurasian landmass and adjacent areas.
When we Americans rediscovered China after decades of enmity
Now that they have graduated from our tutelage and
We sought to counter the Soviet Union by enlisting China
Four decades later, when – as George Kennan had predicted in arguing for containment– the Soviet system finally succumbed to its infirmities, we
In the 20th century, we wanted China to be able to
Instead of finding ways to enlist Chinese power
Americans never imagined that our outreach to
With the sole exception of the first year of the Clinton administration, the impulse to reengineer China’s domestic order was a popular hope born of ideological conviction that never became policy. And when it briefly did become policy, it failed decisively. Americans’ concern for human rights did not disappear but the policy of aggressively bargaining for them was abandoned, leaving only lofty talk and castigation behind it.
The Clinton policy was driven by critics who had consistently argued
that the U.S. government should seek China’s democratization as the
price of cooperation with it. With the Cold War over, they thought it
high time to insist that China change its politics. Now the very same
critics and their intellectual kin proclaim U.S. engagement with China
to have failed because it did not achieve the policy objectives they
espoused but were unable to impose on successive American governments.
It is true that we did not Americanize China. [In 1940, Senator Kenneth Wherry famously declared that “with God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”] Shanghai is not yet “just like Kansas City.” And it is true that Chinese realities have not followed the course predicted by liberal political theory. (One wonders whether it is the theory, not our relationship with China, that needs reconsideration.)
As a result of internal changes in
Still, for the first time, it now faces no global ideological challenge.
Some Americans nostalgic for the simplicities of the Cold War
But it has been more than four decades since China
Once President Clinton’s effort to compel China to adopt Western
standards of human rights had definitively failed, his administration
turned to an effort to incorporate China fully into the American-led
world order. That effort succeeded. China is now a valued member of
the international community and an active participant in its established
systems of governance, including all the Bretton Woods legacy
institutions. It has expanded the world order Americans created, not
contracted or eroded it, by adding institutions like the Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Bank, and other development
funds. These organizations and their capital parallel, supplement,
complement, and cooperate with the World Bank and regional development
banks. They do not compete with them.
From the founding of our republic two hundred and more years ago, we
Americans have seen China as a huge potential export market for our
goods and services. It is now finally on the way to becoming the
world’s largest consumer society. And as it has prospered, China has
become our fastest growing export market. But facts and long-term
considerations be damned! It is too late to head off the populist goon
We began our relationship with the People’s Republic with a trade
surplus. That unexpectedly evolved into a massive trade deficit as our
companies came to see China as an economical source of manufactures for
export to both the United States and other countries. This has kept
consumer prices low and mitigated the increasing inequality of income
distribution in ourcountry.
We are now in a trade war that imperils American consumers and both
Chinese and American manufacturers. As our president is fond of saying,
we will see how that works out. My guess is that we will regret
replacing globalization with mercantilism and orderly dispute resolution
with winner-take-all bilateral bullying.
Mercantilism consists of protectionist policies that aim at government management of trade to maximize exports and minimize imports through high tariffs and import quotas. Mercantilism seeks self-sufficiency and domestic production at the expense of interdependence and comparative advantage.
This was China’s policy under Mao Zedong. It is now America’s policy under Donald Trump. It did not work for China under Mao. Will it work for America under Trump? I see no reason to believe it will.
Global supply chains achieve efficiencies by using comparative
advantage to create transnational assembly lines. Washington is now
employing tariffs to disrupt and destroy these. As the U.S. closes its
market, China is reaffirming its commitment to an expanded role in its
economy for imports.
China has allowed itself to become dependent on America for a
significant part of its food, the top concern of all Chinese governments
throughout history. It relies on high tech U.S. inputs for its most
advanced industries. China has been by far the largest market for
U.S.microchips. It is the only large market outside North America where
U.S. car companies have gained significant market share. And so
The Trump trade war, far from promoting further market opening by
China and greater exports from the United States, is providing the
Chinese with compelling arguments to eliminate their dependence on
American agricultural and industrial products. Can services – in which
we have enjoyed a rising surplus – be far behind?
Seven decades ago, the “greatest generation” of Americans led the way in creating the multilateral institutions that regulate the liberal world order in which we and China have since prospered.
It is the United States, not China, that is attempting to
It is the United States, not China, that exhibits open contempt for the sovereignty of other nations
It is the United States, not China, that is a cobelligerent in an expanding list of horrifyingly
Our independence began with a robust statement of our ideals and a commitment, as John Quincy Adams later put it, to be “the well-wisher
One key objective of the liberal order we Americans created was to make the world safe for continuing
How ironic that it is the Chinese, not Americans,
We have differences with China and some entirely
They do not – indeed must not – constitute a casus belli. Treating them as such will not just cost us dearly.
We have changed China in more ways than we appear to recognize.
In some ways, internationally, under our 45thpresident, it seems we have met the enemy and he is who we used to be.