The U.S. And China: Seeking Cooperation, But Finding Confrontation

May 7, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on May 7, 2012.

Beating up on China has become a favorite political pastime. This year Mitt Romney, playing against type—an avatar of corporate America—threatens to be tough on Beijing. This strategy might win a few votes but could end up discouraging reform within the People’s Republic of China.

China’s history is venerable but tragic. Mao Zedong dominated the PRC from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976; his policies led to political chaos, pervasive poverty, and mass death. In contrast, his successors, led by Deng Xiaoping, moved China towards the market. The country remains authoritarian, but personal autonomy, economic freedom, and even civic space have expanded.

U.S. relations with Beijing never have been easy. Throughout the Cold War Washington recognized nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s exile government on the island of Formosa, or Taiwan, as the legitimate government of all China. America and the Communist mainland had only minimal official contact until Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip there. Washington finally switched recognition to the PRC five years later.

The bilateral relationship then was based on containing Soviet power. Now some Americans fear another hostile superpower is being born. Yet despite the headlines, often dominated by conflicts, such as today’s controversy over the status of blind human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng, the U.S.-China relationship is overwhelmingly beneficial for both sides.

Politically the two governments are wary friends rather than bitter enemies. Rather than conduct real or shadow wars against each other Beijing and Washington have regular and routine peaceful contacts. Despite its disquiet over America’s determination to dominate the globe, China often acquiesces to U.S. policy.

Of course, Beijing remains an authoritarian state. Although personal autonomy has greatly expanded, there is no comparable political freedom: the surest way to win a trip to the laogai, or labor camps, is to advocate human rights over party prerogative. For instance, Chen earned official enmity by opposing coerced abortion and sterilization. However, the PRC today is far improved over the Maoist version, and there is at least reason to hope for continuing positive change.

Bilateral economic ties are broad. The PRC’s prosperity has expanded the global economic pie, which is good for Chinese, Americans, and most everyone else. In the PRC hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of immiserating poverty. China’s economic reforms have been one of the most extensive anti‐​poverty programs in human history.

Americans, too, have benefited economically, most directly as consumers and investors, but increasingly as sellers and investees. The PRC also helps finance the U.S. government. The U.S. trade deficit is large, but that figure has little meaning: it is merely an accounting aggregation of private transactions. Moreover, America’s deficit with the rest of Asia has fallen as production has shifted to China.

With Beijing’s economic rise has come a greater international presence. Nevertheless, the U.S. has little to fear so far. China has aided such pariah regimes as Burma, North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe while providing aid and purchasing resources throughout Africa and South America. However, like America during the Cold War, Beijing is learning how hard it is to turn temporary advantage into permanent gain. For example, Burma is moving to the West, North Korea routinely ignores the PRC’s wishes, Sudan has split apart, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is fading. In countries like Zambia we now see the Ugly Chinese instead of the Ugly American.

Even greater alarms have been raised about Chinese military spending. Beijing has become world number two, but a distant number two, devoting an estimated $100 to $150 billion annually to the military, compared to more than $700 billion by the U.S. The PRC is determined to build a competent force, and who can blame it? Since the late 1800s China has been at war (or at least fought battles) with Great Britain, a coalition of Western nations, Japan, South Korea, America, India, Russia, and Vietnam. Beijing has special interest in deterring the U.S. given Washington’s penchant for regime change, regular naval patrols in East Asia, support for Taiwan, constant attempts to “strengthen” East Asian alliances, and persistent talk of containing the PRC. But China is years if not decades away from building a military which could challenge American global primacy and threaten the U.S. homeland.

American policy toward China must reflect this range of complex interests. Washington wants the PRC to liberalize politically, open more economically, support U.S. objectives internationally, and remain militarily vulnerable. It’s an ambitious agenda that isn’t likely to be fulfilled—and certainly not quickly, easily, and under American pressure.

Trade issues remain divisive. Mitt Romney has promised to “begin on Day One by designating China as a currency manipulator,” followed by imposing a variety of “punitive measures,” including “creating a trading bloc open only for nations genuinely committed to free trade.”

No doubt, the Chinese don’t play fair. But what country does? Romney maintains the charming fiction that America is an economic ingénue “genuinely committed to free trade” being gang‐​raped by an ugly world. However, the U.S. maintains a long list of trade restrictions. Moreover, in practice American anti-“dumping” laws are another protectionist barrier used by domestic industries to hamper international competition.

Washington also has consciously followed a weak dollar policy, hoping, just like Beijing, to spur exports worldwide. Moreover, the dollar’s status as a reserve currency allows the U.S. to export inflation. No wonder the Chinese have complained about irresponsible American fiscal policies and reduced their purchase of Treasury securities.

With the PRC now possessing the world’s second largest economy, Washington has lost any ability to dictate. Instead of name‐​calling and threatening—which the Obama administration also initially engaged in—America’s best approach is negotiation. In fact, progress apparently was made during the recent meetings in Beijing, despite the simultaneous controversy over Chen’s status. For example, China agreed to further open its markets, cut business subsidies, and implement broader economic reforms. More remains to be done, but U.S. threats are unlikely to achieve much.

Whining will be no more effective when it comes to China’s international and military policies. The good news for Washington is that the PRC remains behind and the path forward is anything but smooth. China remains a poor nation with an economy built on pampered state enterprises, bad banks, and a property bubble. A highly distorted demographic future due to the “one child” policy could leave the country old before it is rich. Without the natural release of democracy the PRC looks like a volcano ready to blow: violent protests against abusive local governments are routine, while the public battle surrounding now disgraced party official Bo Xilai demonstrates the national political structure’s fragility. Beijing may surmount all of these challenges, but becoming the next superpower will not be easy.

Still, while the PRC’s trajectory is uncertain, China almost certainly will become a stronger competitor to the U.S. Even so, Beijing does not want conflict. Commerce has brought riches, which have helped satisfy an emerging middle class. Derail the economic gravy train and the unelected Communist Party will lose its legitimacy. Challenge America militarily and risk losing a devastating war. The residents of Zhongnanhai are ambitious, not suicidal.

Anyway, the U.S. would do better to improve its game than complain. Washington’s dominance over the last two or three decades has been unnatural and will inevitably decline. Accommodating rather than resisting change will better preserve American power and influence. Particularly important will be strengthening economic competitiveness and diplomatic skills. Instead of simply issuing demands when it wants something from the PRC, such as support against Iran and North Korea, America will need to persuade Beijing that the policy is in the latter’s interest as well.

As for security, the U.S. and China are bound to have disagreements over the years, but none should threaten vital American interests and thus lead to conflict. Rather than confront militarily a nuclear‐​armed power in its own region over interests which it views as essential, Washington should expect its allies to do much more in their own defense.

Perhaps the toughest challenge will continue to be human rights. Washington long has supported democracy and liberty only in the breach. During the Cold War the U.S. backed a gaggle of thugs since they were anti‐​Communists. Even today Washington cheers democracy activists in the Middle East—except in Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Human rights in Central Asia are a painful afterthought when it comes to U.S. military bases. Anti‐​democratic excesses among friends such as Malaysia, Pakistan, and Singapore are passed by. And grievous human rights problems in Afghanistan and Iraq are embarrassments best ignored.

Still, the fact that Washington often is hypocritical doesn’t change the fact that Beijing remains a tough authoritarian system which sometimes deploys brutal repression. Human rights are universal and Americans should promote liberty when possible. Yet the Chen saga reminds us that principle must be leavened with pragmatism when dealing with other nations.

U.S. power is limited. Washington has found it impossible to compel smaller and weaker, even impoverished, starving states—Burma, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Serbia, Syria—to do its bidding. All of these ignored ever tougher sanctions, several rebuffed military threats, and a couple even resisted military attacks.

America’s ability to compel China to respect human rights is even less. Wei Jingsheng, another courageous Chinese human rights activist, complained: “The Chinese leadership does not fear the United States government; it only fears the loss of its power.” But that is simple reality. War is unthinkable. Sanctions would leave America friendless across Asia and Europe, undermine the weak U.S. economy, and turn Beijing into an active adversary if not enemy. Which leaves diplomacy and publicity.

Admittedly, such steps are of limited effectiveness. Nevertheless, the PRC has much at stake in its relationship with America and thus has an incentive to keep Washington minimally satisfied. China also worries about its international image: beating up on dissidents does not win friends and influence people.

However, the regime faces important countervailing pressures. Gaining and maintaining power are the most important objectives of any authoritarian political system. Weakening the system of repression risks emboldening opposition forces. Moreover, no leader of a rising country with a nationalistic population wants to be seen as genuflecting to the American government. “Appeasement” and “weakness” are charges that can be tossed about with equal enthusiasm in Beijing as in Washington.

The challenge for the U.S. is to push hard, while anticipating Chinese reactions and proposing creative solutions. Although Chen is not yet free, a face‐​saving modus vivendi appears to be in place. Like other Chinese, Chen will leave with his family to “study” abroad; if he never returns to subject himself to Chinese “justice,” so be it.

In short, the Obama administration appears to have handled a difficult situation reasonably well, despite the exaggerated criticism from those like Mitt Romney, who denounced the “day of shame for the Obama administration.” While Chen was in the U.S. embassy Washington had a moral obligation, irrespective of Beijing’s desires, not to turn him over for likely prosecution or persecution. (The situation was different than for Wang Lijun, Bo’s top cop who fell afoul of his political mentor and sought refuge at an American consulate in February; the U.S. owes nothing to those with blood on their hands.) If the Chinese government would not let Chen leave the country, he should have been allowed to stay in the embassy as long as he wished. In fact, after Tiananmen Square the late astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife remained at the U.S. embassy for 13 months before being allowed to depart China.

However, once Chen left the embassy—the exact circumstances remain in dispute—U.S. officials could do little for him. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) proclaimed that Chen’s status was “a test to the United States of whether or not human rights really matter.” The Washington Post editorialized: “the United States must defend him and his family—and not allow business as usual in U.S.-Chinese relations.” If only it was that easy.

Even had the embassy sent someone to the hospital with him, it could not watch over him day and night for the rest of his life. Nor could Washington effectively protest every new sanction imposed by Beijing for every new offense, real or imagined. Washington cannot dictate how another country treats a particular citizen or enforce another government’s promise to treat him a certain way. In fact, in 2006 the Bush administration unsuccessfully pushed for Chen’s release on criminal charges, for which he spent nearly four years in prison. Chen’s apparent change of heart, deciding that he wanted to leave China, was understandable, but left Washington with little leverage. The “study abroad” tactic probably was the best option available.

Nevertheless, there are some who seem prepared to sacrifice the entire bilateral relationship in an attempt to advance human rights. For instance, The Patriot Post, a conservative online publication, lamented that “Obama’s lack of leadership on the world stage has repeatedly left democracy activists around the world at the mercy of their repressive regimes.” Actually, the chief miscreant in such cases is “their repressive regimes.” Anyway, what, one wonders, would the critics have the president do to such governments—including several important American allies—if they resist U.S. pressure? Nuke ‘em?

Human rights cannot become the sum of America’s relationship with China. First, the U.S. has a range of interests at stake. Economic ties are important and involve more than just corporate profits: job creation and economic growth also matter. Beijing also can advance or impede important American geopolitical interests, including nuclear proliferation, international conflict, and human rights—consider issues involving Burma, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan, to name a few.

Most important is the maintenance of peace. One of the most dangerous international moments occurs when a new weltmacht challenges established powers. In the case of Germany two world wars resulted. This history must not be repeated with China. That requires fostering a cooperative rather than confrontational relationship, despite sometimes important differences.

Second, Washington’s human rights pressure may help one person while paradoxically hurting others. Chen apparently will get to leave, but this very public battle may encourage Beijing to crack down more ferociously on other opposition figures—at least to ensure that next time house arrest is not so easily evaded. Already the regime apparently has detained or placed under house arrest some activists who aided Chen’s flight to the embassy. The Financial Times declared this to be “unacceptable,” without suggesting a practical response. Other human rights activists fear that the PRC might target them to discourage further challenges. Warned Liu Feiyue, “after the Chen Guangcheng incident, the situation for us will just become worse and worse.”

Moreover, it is difficult to gauge the impact of Washington’s high‐​profile involvement on the leadership dynamic within Zhongnanhai. For instance, Bo Xilai’s fall appeared to embolden more pragmatic reformers. Indeed, one of Bo’s allies thought to face increased pressure is Zhou Yongkang, a hard‐​liner in charge of internal security. Yet the Chen imbroglio may have dealt a nationalist trump card to him and others like him. The official Chinese media has been busily bashing America for interfering in Chinese affairs.

This doesn’t mean Chen did anything wrong. To the contrary, the villain is an authoritarian state that fears its own people. However, in responding U.S. officials have an obligation to consider more than any particular case in front of them. Finding the right balance is rarely likely to be easy. Washington will do best if it practices its own ideals—for instance, Chinese citizens have noticed when American officials act with humility, contra Chinese political elites—and gets its own economic house in order.

Much is at stake in the evolving relationship between the globe’s superpower and the likely next superpower. The PRC is not an inevitable adversary, but much could go wrong between two great nations. Washington and Beijing together must prevent that from happening. To the contrary, both countries could do much working together to promote economic growth, advance geopolitical stability, and confront global problems. And—hopefully, some day—together promote respect for the life and dignity of every human being. As Bob Fu of the China Aid Association put it, “China will move toward the ‘right side of history’ only when it recognizes that people like Chen are its strength, not its enemy.”

About the Author