U.S.-China relations have deteriorated in recent years, and are expected to face a number of difficult challenges across a number of economic, geopolitical, and diplomatic platforms with the incoming Biden administration. Brookings Senior Fellow Jeffrey A. Bader speaks about his time as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the early years of the Obama administration and prospects for the trajectory of U.S.-China relations going forward. This piece originally appeared in the The Wire China.
Jeffrey A. Bader, who served as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the early years of the Obama administration, has spent much of his career in public service. He joined the U.S. State Department in 1977 as a staff assistant to Richard Holbrooke and worked as an assistant U.S. Trade Representative, helping to negotiate the accession of China to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Today, he a senior fellow with the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He is also the author of Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy. The Wire China spoke to Bader about America’s deteriorating relationship with China, and prospects for U.S.-China policy under the Biden administration. What follows is a lightly edited Q&A.
Q: Can we begin with how U.S.-China relations looked after you joined the Obama administration in January 2009, as senior director for East Asian Affairs on the National Security Council?
A: When President Obama came into office in 2009 — and I started after his inauguration — we were, for the most part, inheriting a general framework for dealing with China that went back decades. That framework involved treating China seriously as a major international actor with influence on regional issues and also transnational issues of deep concern to us. There were problems that we thought couldn’t be adequately addressed without China’s participation and support. That meant issues like the North Korean nuclear program, the Iranian nuclear program and climate change — which was very much on President Obama’s mind.
Additionally, we were in a free fall economically. We were four months into the Great Recession. And China was, at the time, contributing about 35 percent of the growth to the global economy, and it was moving up towards becoming the number two economy in the world fairly rapidly. [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson had treated China as a major element in trying to stabilize the economy, beginning in September 2008. [Incoming Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner and President Obama had the same perspective. So if you add up these global issues, these regional issues and the overwhelming economic crisis, that was a foundation for a China policy that looked to work with China and gain Chinese support for things that we were doing to the maximum degree possible. I didn’t encounter many people who disagreed with that. Frankly, I’m sure there were people out on the fringes, but by and large, that did not seem like the time to focus on the next great geo-strategic rival. Now, at the same time, I was certainly aware, and President Obama was certainly aware, like all of us, including Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, that China was posing greater and greater challenges to U.S. interests globally. Accommodation was not an option. What we had to do was seek China’s support and cooperation where we could persuade them that it was in their interest to do so. But we were acutely aware that there were issues that we were going to have to stand firm on; issues that became particularly evident in 2010, when there were a number of steps that the Chinese took, and actions that occurred, that required that we draw some lines. That was the general situation that we faced in 2009 and 2010.
What were these issues that shook things up in 2009 or 2010?
It wasn’t just one thing. North Korea, for instance, was a consuming issue for the administration. The number of NSC [National Security Council] meetings we had on North Korea exceeded all other issues in Asia by orders of magnitude because the North Koreans have a way of grabbing your attention. And in the National Security Council system, the urgent often drives out the important, and that’s what the North Koreans did. In 2010, we had the sinking of the Cheonan [a South Korean navy ship] by what turned out to be a North Korean torpedo from a sub. And the Chinese took a disturbingly ambiguous position, essentially: “Don’t rock the boat; a plague on both your houses; it is important for South Korea to show restraint in the face of the murder of 46 of its sailors, etc.” Really. It was tremendously annoying to the President. And the President [Obama] personally confronted Hu Jintao about that at their bilateral meeting, at the G7 in 2010. And it indicated that we could not rely on China to the degree that we had hoped to take the North Korean threat as seriously as we wanted them to.
So that was one issue. Second, there was the Copenhagen Climate Conference at the end of 2009. And actually President Obama worked very well with the Chinese at the Conference. The Chinese position was still very far from accepting its responsibilities as a global power and the number one emitter of greenhouse gases.
The third issue was that the South China Sea was starting to bubble up. In 2010, we had a confrontation at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi over the expansive Chinese claims in the South China Sea that conflicted with the UN Convention on Law of the Sea provisions, which, of course, escalated considerably in 2011 and 2012. There were concerns on the part of our ASEAN partners about Chinese actions in the South China Sea. I remember our meeting with President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, in which he focused on Chinese gunboat diplomacy in and around the Natuna Islands, thousands of miles from China’s shores and well within Indonesia EEZ. There was considerable anger about the Chinese claims and the way they were implementing them.
There was also the issue of the President meeting with the Dalai Lama in February of 2010 and the Chinese reaction to that, as well as the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, a $6 billion arms sale in the first quarter of 2010. There were very strong Chinese verbal reactions and threats associated with them to U.S. commercial interests.
I’m sure there’s more. It was an assertive year for Chinese diplomacy. I think they were the first indications that Beijing was moving away from Deng Xiaoping’s mantra about prudence and modesty in their international profile. In fact, that mantra and approach came into debate internally in China, and some of that spilled out. It was clear that it was being challenged by some who thought that China’s growing power deserved a different approach. And I think that some of these things I’m describing reflected that rethinking really took full flower under Xi Jinping.
I was working as a journalist in China during President Obama’s first visit in 2009, and my understanding about his first trip to China as president, and subsequent trips, was that Beijing showed a certain assertiveness, and even aggressiveness, in dealing with the President that seemed unusual. Beijing seemed to be more confrontational. Is that true or a misperception? Did you witness that?
I was there in 2009. And I was responsible for much of the substantive and logistical planning for the visit. So I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. It certainly was a very challenging visit. The Chinese, the behavior of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and their protocol department was not what one would have hoped for on many issues. That is, frankly, not surprising to me, having worked on China for decades. I expected nothing else. One example, among many, was that President Obama really was looking to do things that had not been done before in China. The President had made a practice in each of his foreign trips of having a town hall in which he would be on a stage alone with an audience, with lots of students and with free wheeling interaction; and we insisted that it be televised. And, of course, previous presidents hadn’t dealt with the live streaming on the internet of presidential events. And China, guess what, is not England. You know, it was run by a Communist Party that was nervous about direct access to ordinary Chinese by the attractive leader of the world’s leading democracy. That should not be surprising. If you add that all up, you have a package that, from the Chinese perspective, was new and threatening.
So it was not surprising that it was like pulling teeth, on every aspect of arranging the town hall meeting. We wanted a particular streaming service that we thought had the broadest audience. They instead designated another one. We wanted the President to be alone on the stage. They said, “We can’t do that in China. The Vice Chancellor of the University has to introduce him.” We wanted 1,500 or 2,000 people, including unvetted students in the audience. And they reacted in horror, and limited the numbers for whatever reason. And they pushed for some system of vetting questions. We worked very hard with our wonderful [US] Ambassador [to China] Jon Huntsman to come up with a system for questions submitted by bloggers through the internet; questions the Chinese authorities did not see before they were posed to the President. And we did that. There were some questions that they surely did not like at all. We wanted live national television coverage. I think we ended up with Shanghai TV doing the coverage. There was a delay, a tape delay on the streaming service. We backed it up by putting it on whitehouse.gov, which we knew the Chinese could not interfere with.
There was a fight over everything. For someone to leap to the conclusion that we were seeing a new aggressiveness, an imperialist, hegemonist China that was seeking to humiliate the President of the United States was, in my opinion, a crazy narrative to impose on those kinds of events. Now, in fact, what we ended up with was a streaming service that I checked two days later with the U.S. Embassy and we found that 60 million Chinese tuned in. I assume that would have been the world’s record at the time. We ended up with Shanghai TV, which has maybe 200 million potential viewers; it’s not trivial. We ended up with lots of questions and discussions at the event itself. The students were clearly in awe of Obama. It looked like a 15th century Italian religious painting, with their faces glowing in the presence of this man. There was a complete connection. And one or two journalists decided to trash the event, focusing on, “Gee, the Chinese didn’t do everything you wanted. And you accepted their censorship.” Well, I’m sorry. The event wasn’t in London. If we were in London, it would have all gone really well and easily. But that was the whole point. It was in China. It was in an authoritarian country that is repressive. None of us expected the curtains of repression to be lifted for that visit. We just wanted to project as much through it as we could. And we did pretty well. So it depends what perspective you want to take on the thing.
I remember that on Obama’s last visit to China (I was long out of government at the time), there was the famous episode with the staircase coming down from the belly of the plane for Obama to deplane rather than his using the moving staircase. Again, huge stories were written. It was as if this was the turning point in great power history; and what this meant when Obama chose to cut it short and just go down, through his own internal staircase. Well, there was a squabble between the Secret Service control officer and the Chinese protocol officer and they couldn’t reach closure. The Secret Service said, “We have to use our own mobile external staircase, and we have to have our own driver on it.” And our embassy officer felt compelled to fight to the death for the Secret Service demand. And the Chinese protocol person thought about every other visit that the Chinese ever have, and thought, “What is this? This is not what we do in China.” And it turns out, the Secret Service kind of made that up. There were plenty of other times when American presidents have gone to China without our own moving staircase. Maybe it was a new demand that the Secret Service was just imposing at the time for new security reasons. I don’t know. It’s all nonsense. And the Chinese, in fact, agreed on the eve of the arrival to the Secret Service demand, but it was too late for people to set it up properly. When somebody somewhere kicked the decision up to a higher level, and they said, “What on earth are we doing?” And they agreed it was too late because Obama’s plane had already landed, so Obama said, “The hell with this. I’m going down the internal staircase.” So what is the grand significance of this? I just, I don’t see it.
It sounds, though, as if Beijing was taking on a different posture, no?
I would say two things. First, it never manifested itself in personal interaction with the President. One last example from that first trip in 2009. You got me started on things I had purged from my memory. There was a joint press conference at the end of the visit. I looked at the schedule about an hour before the event. Here is my non-mea culpa. It was handled by the press people on both sides. So I look at the program and it says press statements by two presidents. No Q&A. I said to myself, “What the hell is this?” That’s the first I’ve heard of it, one hour before the event. So I found Robert Gibbs, and I said, “What is this? And he looked and said, “That can’t be.” So I went up to my Chinese counterpart, the Vice Minister, and I said, “What is this? This is not a press conference.” And he said, “Oh, that’s the way we do things here. And the press people agreed to it.” And it blew my mind. And by then, it was too late. That’s what happened. And it was disgraceful. But when Hu Jintao came to the United States in 2011, I handled that visit. In the logistics run up, the Chinese came to me and said, “Well, the schedule is really tight between the press conference and the next event at 2pm. Why don’t we just skip the questions at the end of the press conference?” And I said, “Over my and your dead body. That’s not going to happen. You claimed in 2009 that’s the way you did things in your country. And this is our country, and, you know, take a hike.” So to me, this is not great power politics. This is the squabbling that goes right with visits now. I’m sorry, I detoured.
Apologies, but are you saying beyond those smaller issues, you did not recognize a change in China’s behavior or posture towards the U.S.? There’s a growing sense now that there were signals of a shift back during the Obama administration…
Well, there was something. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, there was the presentation by Yang Jiechi, which was very confrontational about Chinese rights in the South China Sea, and towards the United States. If you add it all up, you see a China that was, let’s say, less immune to pressure and more confident. And its ability to assert positions with little or no compromise. It was a gradual phenomenon. Certainly in 2010, when we saw this sort of breakout behavior that I mentioned, we were well aware of that and underlying trends. On the other hand, there was a debate within China. There was an article you might remember published by State Councilor Dai Bingguo and posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website that talked about the importance of maintaining Deng Xiaoping’s mantra, taoguang yanghui 韬光养晦 [hide one’s ability and appear to be weak; or hide one’s light under a bushel]. And from private conversations, it was very clear to me that this was not a rote exercise on his part, but was part of a full scale debate within China, and that he was staking out a firm position in the face of an emerging opposition.
What I was feeling at the time was, “That’s a good outcome. But this is clearly going to be revisited. We don’t know when. Maybe, suddenly, maybe gradually.” But certainly we were aware of that. And I was worried about it.
The reason I’ve asked is that going into the transition to Xi Jinping there was talk that Beijing wanted a “new type of great power relationship.” The difference from 2008 to 2016, when President Trump came into office, seemed rather stark. So I assume something happened in those intervening years that made it clear how the relationship was evolving. For instance, there were the cyber attacks…
First, I would just take on the cyber hacking issue for a second. My understanding from my sources is that, in fact, the Obama-Xi Jinping 2015 agreement was effective. The agreement was effective in sharply reducing cyber hacking and theft of corporate intellectual property in 2016. For whatever reason, and I don’t know the answer since I’m no longer in touch with the intelligence community, during the Trump administration that behavior changed. I can speculate as to why but in any case, the agreement was effective for at least some period. This again raises the question, you know, what do you do about unacceptable behavior? Do you just go, “Tsk, tsk”? Do you say that it confirms that they’ve got communist, lying, cheating DNA and there’s nothing we can do about it except become across-the-board enemies? Or, if there are specific problems, you can try to solve or mitigate. I’m obviously very much in the latter camp. And the cyber-hacking is an example of an issue that was addressed with some positive results, and, unfortunately, this hasn’t been permanent for various reasons. Again, we can speculate on the trajectory you talked about. I think that trajectory, what you described is about right.
The U.S. financial crisis of 2008 did change assessments in China of the superiority and invincibility of the U.S. system. Certainly it complicated Hank Paulson’s life when he would go to China and try to explain why they needed to open their capital markets. “No, you don’t have all the answers,” they told him very clearly. And he knew that he didn’t have much to say to them about that anymore. So yes, there began a shift in the broader Chinese assessment of the balance of power between the U.S. and China. The Chinese had been in the midst of a military buildup since the 1996 Taiwan Strait tensions. I don’t think that started in 2008, or in 2000; or when Xi Jinping came into power. That was a long term program that acquired momentum and acquired greater visibility once we got into the past decade.
Xi Jinping certainly brought about some early changes. Some were alarming, some less so. For example, the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank was not something that should have been objectionable to the U.S. It was multilateral. It was based on international norms. It was run by a first rate Chinese official familiar with how the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank work. They had gotten 90 other countries to participate. To me, that was a commitment to the global system. Now the Belt and Road Initiative I feel differently about. I wouldn’t call that an imperialist venture the way the Trump administration has described it. It covers a lot of objectives. But it was clearly designed in a unilateral way to increase Chinese influence in many, many countries. And it’s building on China’s great advantage in infrastructure construction. Now, that’s not insidious. It’s a natural behavior for an emerging power with a particular expertise. But it is something that causes problems for the U.S. in its relations with a lot of these countries.
Then, most alarming was the South China Sea dredging, and building the artificial islands and the subsequent militarization of those islands. That is something Xi Jinping basically brought with him and that one, I think, was kind of the alarm bell. That was something that seemed highly risk tolerant, or very unsettling to other claimants and to neighbors. That really went well beyond the kind of normal, incremental, salami slicing. It was kind of a bold statement of “We’re going to dominate this area.” That was a bit of a shock. And that’s when a lot of people, particularly on the security side, began to rethink the relationship and reconsider the balance between China’s potential support on issues and the challenge and threat that they posed in other areas. The Obama administration still worked with them on the Iran nuclear deal. The UN Security Council Permanent Five plus Germany, the Chinese were a part of that negotiation. So the administration never abandoned the notion that China had to be part of the solution to international problems. And they continued making some progress on climate change. But I think that was a turning point.
In your book, Obama and China’s Rise, you write, “A sound China strategy should rest on three pillars: 1) A welcoming approach to China’s emergence, influence and legitimate expanded role…” Before I go on, it seems that the first pillar has been removed, and the U.S. is not exactly welcoming China’s rise. Beijing suggests it is undermining its rise. And now we’re hearing talk of decoupling. Can you address this?
Well, the first sentence you quoted from, if I were recrafting that sentence, partly with the perspective of hindsight, and even if I were re-crafting it at the time and thinking it through more fully, I would have added a phrase at the end; along the lines of, “We welcome China’s rise and its expanding influence as a country that respects and abides by the international rules based order, international law and norms.” That was always my position, and I stated it publicly many times, and it was the Obama administration position. And it was something that was not a secret position. That was something we preached to them about constantly. So it was never an open ended, “Welcome.”
I remember in our first joint press statement with the Chinese that I negotiated in London at the G20 in 2009 the Chinese proposed language that was along the lines of “the U.S. welcomes China’s international global role.” And it was not something they made up, or that I unilaterally decided was acceptable. It was derived from decades of statements by American presidents and officials. And my attitude towards it was that we can accept the statement along those lines so long as you accept a statement that says, “China accepts (or welcomes) the positive and constructive role that the United States plays in the Asia Pacific region.” There’s a quid pro quo.
And they said no, and then we’d squabble for a while until we came out with some language. I can’t remember the particular hedged words we’ve put in there. But that was the linkage that we established in that document. And frankly speaking, the notion that before the current administration that we could stop China’s rise — I have always felt was a nonstarter. And Lee Kuan Yew [the founding prime minister of Singapore] could tell you that and his son Lee Hsien Loong can tell you that. Every senior leader I ever met in Asia could tell you that. Nobody I ever encountered believed the contrary. This was reality. The question was: What would China’s rise look like? What would be its characteristics? And in particular, what would be China’s international behavior? We had lots of questions about China’s internal character. That’s another discussion. But since Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, this relationship has been about China’s international behavior, and trying to shape it, trying to affect it.
And so how do you explain where we are now in the relationship? What has gone wrong?
Well, there are several elements to sound China policies and obviously that shifts over time. But crucial elements are that sort of acceptance and welcoming China’s peaceful rise in conformity with international norms and international law. I said that publicly during the administration numerous times. The hedge was against the risk that China would not evolve, particularly in international behavior, in a way consistent with international norms. And therefore, much of the Obama administration’s Asia policy was focused on building our alliances and strengthening our military in the region. We did that with the South Koreans. We did it with the Japanese. And we did that with ASEAN. So there was the hedge.
There was no notion that it was our role to overthrow the governance system of China and the Communist Party. That was not in discussion during my 30 years in government. So what we have now under the Trump administration, in particular, that last principle has changed. They say that the Chinese conduct in the last few years has changed the challenge that China presents and I highlight a few features.
Number one, they were once an incipient power, and they are now a great power. Once you’re a great power that changes the challenge that you pose to the existing great power. That has nothing inherently to do with the character of the system; it has to do with great power relations throughout history. And, of course, [Harvard professor] Graham Allison and others talk about that. So that’s one. Number two, the South China Sea behavior was the first time in a long time that the Chinese had used the military in order to advance aggressive and illegal claims that threaten other countries and threaten U.S. interests. Third is the profound challenges presented by a Chinese economy, which was once a trivial minor actor, and is now the world’s second largest economy — soon to be the largest economy — with practices that under Zhu Rongji seemed to be on their way towards reform and a market-driven economy; and which Xi Jinping, in many cases, has frozen in his defense of state-owned enterprises and with his strengthening of the role of the Party in the economy. We also have seen the increasing role of ideology in Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping, ideological education and a sort of a doubling down on Marxism-Leninism. Obviously, this includes the internment camps in Xinjiang, and what they’ve done in Hong Kong, the treatment of dissent, and generally much more troubling internal trends than we saw before. You add up those four things and any U.S. administration is going to take a second and third look at China. So the need for a new look was there.
And how has the Trump administration handled China over the past four years?
What’s clear is that the relationship is badly damaged and we’re heading towards a radical decoupling in some areas. I don’t know where to begin. On the one hand, you had Trump, in all of his ignorance about the world in general and about China; a xenophobe who reads nothing, and understands nothing about the way the world works and thinks entirely in transactional terms about the great deals that he can make — or that previous suckers in the White House have not made. And it’s all about the trade balance, where the U.S. has been taken for a ride by the crafty Chinese. I don’t think Trump’s view of China, when he came in, went beyond that. And I doubt that it has gone much beyond that since then. And because Trump was such an outlier within the Republican Party, he couldn’t recruit any normal mainstream Republican heavyweights to key positions. He ended up with many outliers, people who historically would have been regarded as on the fringes of thinking about China. That’s all he could get. And there was kind of a vague balance within the administration for the first two years in which there were people who were pushing a much more confrontational agenda — people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NSC deputy director Matthew Pottinger and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and of course, Peter Navarro. But on the other hand at the beginning you had Gary Cohn and you had Mnuchin throughout. You had the ambiguous role being played by Jared Kushner, who was not a China hawk.
So you had some vague balance, and you had a president whose main concern was just a trade deal. He allowed his hawks who wanted to redefine the relationship a certain amount of room to roam. And they did. But he wouldn’t allow them to go full bore until Covid, and until this election year, when he faced plummeting numbers and was in a deep hole with the big issues against him. He needed an issue. He was being destroyed by his handling of Covid and the economy. And he and his people decided: “China is the problem. Let’s demonize China.” And basically, he turned it over to Secretary Pompeo & Co., who had a view of China. And that is roughly: “China is not a normal country. It is an international outlaw. It is run by a Communist Party that lies, cheats, kills and steals. That is the chief characteristic of China in its international and domestic behavior. That it is in the DNA of the Chinese Communist Party to behave in ways that the United States and the international community can never accept. It is a zero sum existential battle between the forces of light and the forces of evil.”
If you read Pompeo’s speeches that comes through very clearly. Pompeo provides the doctrinal and philosophical underpinnings for the views of the other senior administration officials. And you’ve seen the speeches they’ve all given that track with that. It sticks its toe over the line on regime change.
It isn’t well thought out, but it’s not hard to conclude that is what they’re saying: Until the Communist Party ceases to rule China, China will be an existential enemy of the United States, and there is no basis for a cooperative relationship with China, in almost any sphere — and they are seeking to infiltrate and undermine us domestically. Now, there are pieces that bear some resemblance to reality, but it is mostly a caricature. And that is the dominant government approach to China that has driven that tsunami of actions that have been taken by the administration against China in the last six months.
With China’s dramatically plunging favorability ratings in the U.S., derived from administration statements, combined with Covid, combined with economic issues, it’s kind of a freefall. And we end up with, as you said, in the question, this radical decoupling, which is very dangerous. People talk about whether there will or will not or can or cannot be a new Cold War. I think the better way of thinking about the U.S.-China relationship is in terms of radical decoupling, which would be the 21st-century version of the 20th century Cold War. And it has proceeded fairly far already, in the economic realm. It’s well launched in the area of research, scientific cooperation, exchanges, cultural student exchanges and technology and financial flows. There are many more targets out there. And I believe the administration is trying to lock in as many as they can before January 20 so that it will be difficult to roll them back.
There are, of course, some things that need to be done. The technology competition is kind of where the rubber meets the road. That is a competition that, in many respects, truly will be zero sum. Whichever country innovates and develops the major technology platforms of the 21st century, based on artificial intelligence and 5G, is going to have a major advantage in military and biotechnology and aerospace, and in any number of areas based upon preeminence. So that is an area where some degree of decoupling is essential to national security and economic security in the 21st century. On the other hand, you talk to people in Silicon Valley about what the effects would be of radical or complete decoupling, and it quickly becomes clear that that is not in U.S. interest, either. An overwhelming number of people I’ve spoken to believe that there have to be some continuing connections in cooperation; that we can’t have a global “splinternet.” And that we, of course, need continuing contributions by Chinese born scientists and Chinese born researchers and engineers. Silicon Valley is substantially the creation of Asians and Asian visitors. Are we going to stop that?
We’ve gotten to this point because the Chinese in the last few years, they’ve taken steps and they have grown in ways that require a rethinking of our strategy and a rebalancing of, how shall I say, “engagement versus hedging,” if you take those as two opposing poles.
Towards the hedging end, they also require a more candid acknowledgement that this is a great power competition and we are looking at strategic competition as the fundamental framework of the relationship going forward. But the administration has gone way, way beyond that, into dark places that it did not need to go. A different administration, for that matter a different Republican administration, with wise people and experience would not have taken this path or approach.
We have a president-elect, Joe Biden. What needs to be done now? Where do we go from here now that a trade war, economic sanctions and a blame game over Covid-19 has seemingly destroyed trust between the two sides? What would be your advice to the Biden administration?
That’s a huge challenge. There is precisely the risk you say: that Chinese leaders, Chinese society, ordinary Chinese and Chinese analysts will conclude that from the last few years that the U.S. is irredeemably hostile; that the U.S. opposes their taking their rightful place in the world; that the U.S. seeks to damage China’s economy and society; that the attacks on the Communist Party are simply a Trojan horse for this larger effort to a halt China’s deserved rise. There is a huge risk of that. I’m not sure how actions on our part can change those Chinese perceptions. There are related perceptions about the complete dysfunctionality of the United States, which many of us are deeply troubled by as well, that made the U.S. no longer an inspiration around the world. Look, I mean, that’s just the truth. If you look at the Pew polls, and about how the U.S. is regarded, and you look at our incredibly polarized, tribalized political system, complete lack of governance, decaying infrastructure, inequality, racial tensions, the list goes on and on. I know very few Americans who are proud of where we are at this point; friends of the U.S. abroad feel the same way. And Chinese feel the same way: That A) we’re hostile, B) we don’t know what we’re doing; C) we’re giving all of the impressions of being a declining power. Those are three hard perceptions to overcome. You don’t overcome them on January 21 by announcing that these are all wrong and winning an argument with someone about them. And you don’t change those perceptions by suddenly rolling over and being nice to the Chinese and saying, ‘We’re taking back everything that’s happened. You know, it’s our fault. Sorry.’ You don’t do either of those. It’s a process over time. I think the administration has to recognize the China we’re dealing with is, as I say, a strategic competitor. And there are going to be restrictions on aspects of the relationship; that we’re not in the same place as some years ago. There’s going to be a higher degree of friction in the relationship. On the other hand, on economics and trade, I’ve long felt we need a much more assertive approach in terms of China abandoning the privileges that it retains through its WTO accession. Though not called “developing country exceptions,” that is what they were, in fact. China ought to be compelled by a multilateral coalition of advanced countries to accept that it needs to open this market in precisely the ways that advanced economies have done; that they don’t get any breaks. I’ve argued that with the Chinese for years, and I think the only way you do that successfully is with the EU and Japan and Australia and Canada and others collectively making the argument and imposing consequences if they do not.
The military is a separate set of issues, but it seems to me that people in our military know what they’re doing in terms of maintaining an adequate presence in the western Pacific to defend our interests and the interests of our allies and partners. But the Biden administration also needs to demonstrate that they can take “yes” for an answer. If the Chinese do something that is positive, that we should no longer be engaged in a race to the bottom, on reciprocity. We will whack you on journalists and they will whack us back, and then we will whack and they will whack and same thing on any number of other issues where the Chinese are restrictive. This has been a situation where the U.S. administration has been trying to show that we can be just as restrictive. We can’t win that. There has to be a positive reciprocity cycle rather than negative one. It’s not so easy, but it’s the principles we should aim at with the Chinese. And we should, obviously, take the big transnational issues, which President Biden would be deeply focused on, and make the cooperation on them real. One of the obvious ones is on Covid. It’s absurd that the two most important countries in the world are treating this as one more battle in the Cold War. The fact of the matter is that we’re never going to wipe out Covid unless it’s wiped out globally, and China’s a huge part of it. China’s got some pretty good medical research and scientific capabilities, as they’ve shown in handling this after their screw-up in the first two months. To make this into a new space race is not in anyone’s interest, nor is belittling what China is doing.
I spoke to some doctors out in L.A. during this whole affair who had been on a Zoom call with some Chinese doctors talking about Covid and what they’ve learned. An American doctor told me, “What we learned is that they were terrific. They really had some great ideas, and they had all this experience in dealing with Covid patients. It was really valuable. They know what they’re doing.”
Then they asked me, “Is that what we’re doing as a country with China?” And I said “No. We’re doing the opposite. The reason you were able to do that is you didn’t have anyone on the call from the U.S. government or the Chinese government. That’s why you’re able to have this good conversation.”
What other key issues will President Biden have to find common ground with China?
Climate change. And it’s not just a matter of saying we’re going to cooperate with the Chinese on climate change. The Belt and Road Initiative is still building massive numbers of coal-powered generators all over the world. That’s going to undo whatever progress we make on other aspects, so this isn’t just a “Let’s shake hands and smile at each other.” It’s an issue where we really have to dig in and get the Chinese to turn their nice words into reality. Of course, we need to commit to it. And deliberations on North Korea and Iran. Clearly, President Biden is going to revive the Iran deal in some fashion, and we’re going to need the Chinese on board on that. North Korea is another matter further down the road, but there’s never ultimately going to be a solution to the North Korea nuclear issues unless the Chinese are on board. So President Biden should make clear that these areas where we’re going to work with Beijing are going to be difficult, but we’re not going to say, “You are outside the tent. You’re evil. We’re not going to work with you on these things.”
What about the situation in Hong Kong? A season of protests has given way to a tough new national security law that has effectively redefend the “one country, two systems” framework. How do you see things there?
Hong Kong is going to hang over this relationship for some time. It was not a one-month story with a national security law being imposed on Hong Kong. It’s going to come back over and over and over every time the Hong Kong government or the Chinese arrest a Jimmy Lai or some journalists in Hong Kong — which they’re going to do. Or, every time they get a professor fired from a university, or every time some NGO in Hong Kong tries to work with a foreign NGO, and that’s deemed to be a violation of the national security law. There will be one episode after another in which that issue keeps popping up. And because of everyone’s experience and affection for Hong Kong, it will not be seen as just some obscure corner of Shanxi Province. People understandably will get all riled up in the West every time.
I don’t have an answer how to positively affect things. I’m not sure about the wisdom of the current approach of just throwing in the towel, and saying: “Hong Kong is now just a regular Chinese city, and we’re going to treat it that way.” I am not convinced that’s the right way and the only way to proceed. Carrie Lam’s governance has been dreadful. I’m not in the least disturbed that she’s now sanctioned. That doesn’t trouble me at all. And that’s true of a number of these folks who have behaved disgracefully. But there are still a lot of people and institutions in Hong Kong that need a connection with the outside world or the United States, with the U.K. and with Australia. They’re counting on it. And I’m not sure that we’re answering the call on that. We’re setting ourselves up with an exclusively punitive reaction. I think that punitive steps are necessary. But I don’t think they’re sufficient. I know there are risks if you try to keep open all the lines of engagement with civil society because you’re exposing people to risks in Hong Kong by doing that. They have to make a judgment about whether those risks are acceptable. But we shouldn’t be rebuffing them.
One peculiar thing about the Trump administration’s policy is that I’ve heard from many smart people — people who are hardly fans of President Trump. And they say privately that they welcomed the trade war and the sanctions and the tough rhetoric, or what some termed the payback, if you will, of giving Beijing stronger medicine or pushback. And they say the emergence of China’s so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy signals that under Xi Jinping, Beijing has begun unleashing its own dark forces. They say some of it began even before Trump took office. They say calling out Beijing is long overdue. Others say we are losing people in China with a policy that seems directed against a Chinese people, and not just the Communist Party. What do you say?
First of all, I understand the emotion and the attitude. But I would say that Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner did not take the punitive approach and they got the Chinese to move from a destructively undervalued currency to a properly valued currency, one that has gotten China’s international trade balance pretty close to zero. That was not done through sanctions.
Of course, I have no problem with sanctions on issues where they can hit the right target and have an impact. But I don’t know how many businessmen like the tariffs. I haven’t met many. I don’t think any farmers like the retaliatory tariffs. Most farmers hate them. And most suffered as a result of the tariffs. Farmers have been quiet because we bled the U.S. Treasury in order to keep them happy. But agricultural welfare is not a substitute for an unsound policy.
And businesses that have been subject to the tariffs — you’ve probably seen the lawsuits they’re bringing against the administration. A policy has to be more than an attitude. Listen, any sensible person watching Chinese behavior in the last decade is profoundly disturbed by the evolution of China, and by what’s going on domestically and internationally. That is a challenge we have to take up. Anyone with a pulse should understand that. But that doesn’t mean that you surrender your creative faculties in determining what you’re going to do. In dealing with China, I’ve heard over and over again for decades that we have to be tough. I get it. I’ve never heard anyone say we need to be soft. I agree that we need to be tough. But is there utility in the Trump shock approach to China? Well, this is Trump’s approach to everything. It was not a China-specific approach. He shocked the hell out of our allies by treating relationships as transactional. NATO was on the brink. Canada and Japan are apparently national security threats, judging by Trump trade policies. And he shocked people in the Middle East who thought we were seeking to overthrow the government of Iran. So the approach to China, in my mind, was not a corner of brilliance in an otherwise bleak strategy.
It was just the same. The same toolkit. The same attitude that he brings everywhere, except with China, it was kind of unleashed, in part because he had people in the administration who had decided that they needed a systematic campaign. If we had an administration that had in the last few years decided to impose substantial costs on China for what it has done in Hong Kong, for growing threats in the technology space, and for the South China Sea, I’d be fine. That’s what we should be doing: imposing costs. It should be part of our policy towards China. So I get it that people are pleased to see China rocked back on its heels. There is some value in that.
But let me get back to your question about what the Chinese conclude about the United States and its intention towards China. I’m afraid we’ve done more than rock them back on their heels. I think that’s a good thing. But giving the impression that our objective is to “take you down and not let you play the role in the world that your civilization entitles you to.” I don’t think that’s worth it. It certainly was time for adjustments. I don’t know, though, that it was time for demolition.
With the downward trajectory in [U.S.-China] relations, the incoming ambassador ideally will need to have a visible connection to the president and his senior advisers, familiarity with the range of issues that comprise the relationship, and a future in American politics. The more the ambassador is seen as likely to wield influence in the future on issues affecting China, the higher the cost and risk for Beijing to mistreat him/her.