Sino-American Relations: A Candid Conversation with Chinese Friends

Sino-American Relations: A Candid Conversation with Chinese Friends

Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
>By video, 9 June 2021

When Professor Wang asked me to speak to you for twenty minutes about US-China relations, I hesitated.  I feared he was asking me to describe and explain current U.S. policy toward China.  But doing so is next to impossible.

I’m sure you have all heard that a camel is what a horse would look like if it were designed by a committee.  That got me thinking.  Only a bunch of bibulous bureaucrats could have come up with anything as ridiculous as a duck-billed platypus.  Any fish perfected by a legislative process would undoubtedly look like a shrimp.  And anyone who has worked on national security affairs knows that if a mouse were built to military specifications, it would be an elephant.

Current American China policy is devised by a committee of bureaucrats and military men under legislative oversight, with everyone posturing themselves to be tough on China.  I can’t even begin to describe the result.

I’m not going to try to explain Chinese foreign policy either.  With this audience, that would be a bit like lecturing 莊則棟 [Zhuāng Zédòng] about ping pong or Einstein about the relationship between mass and energy.  I’ll let others 班门弄斧.[1]

But, as a retired diplomat who spent a fair amount of time trying to build a constructive relationship with China, I can’t help wondering what can be done about current confrontational trends in Sino-American relations.  Both sides are making serious mistakes.  These mistakes may be popular in both countries, but they are a menace to both.   They recall 老子 [Laozi’s] reaction to the meaningless mayhem of the Spring and Autumn period in China.  He observed that, the more states did, the worse things got.  He thought they might do better by doing nothing at all.  无为而无所不为.  I think he may have had a point.

The atmosphere in both countries now ensures that anyone who points out how their own government’s behavior is damaging the national interest must expect to be maligned and ostracized.  And anyone who fails to point out the iniquities of the other side is suspect.  But it is no service to one’s country, or to one’s friends, to remain silent as they make mistakes.  I must be blunt.

China has recently torn an Australia-sized hole in its international reputation.  By responding to foreign criticism with a combination of economic bullying, political insults, and hostage-taking, Beijing has squandered the global admiration its remarkable socioeconomic achievements conferred on it.  Distaste and opposition to China have recently doubled, capturing super majorities in Australia, Canada, south Korea, the U.K., and the United States.  India has been severely alienated.  A valuable strategic opening to the EU has been lost.  Eastern Europeans are turning away from China.  Southeast Asians respect China’s renewed wealth and power but have no confidence in its policies.

It has been said that hegemony – like an infection – generates automatic immune responses.  China is not now a hegemon.  It may not aspire to be one, but it is clearly generating the immune response one would expect if it did.

Analogous U.S. policies in recent years produced analogous results.  Some of these policies are slowly beginning to be corrected by the Biden administration.  I don’t yet see a comparable process of self-correction underway in China.  But such a correction must come if China is to regain the international dignity and prestige it has lost.  And that won’t be easy.

What Joe Nye has called “soft power” – appeal that shapes the preferences of other countries by attracting rather than coercing them – was central to ancient Chinese philosophy.  孟子 [Mencius] argued persuasively that the key to influence abroad is the cultivation of moral excellence, prosperity, and peace at home.  In Nye’s words, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”  Leadership rests on setting an example others are drawn to emulate.  This was what my ancestor,[2] John Winthrop meant when he spoke of making America “a shining city on a hill.”  We in the United States launched our struggle for independence with a declaration premised on “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

These are similar heritages.  But both China and the United States seem to have set them aside.  Both are the worse for this.

As the Trump administration demonstrated, foreign policies based on belligerent declarations aimed at appeasing domestic nationalist passions rather than swaying foreign opinion are not just self-defeating but self-injuring.  Even if done by diplomats, swaggering about for domestic political effect is not diplomacy, the object of which is to persuade foreigners, not one’s compatriots, that what one is advocating is in their interest.  Those who wish China ill are now enjoying watching it strike defiant poses that are popular at home but bring it discredit abroad.  As a student of statecraft, I am appalled.  As someone who wishes Chinese on both the mainland and in Taiwan well, I view what is happening as dangerous.

As a practical matter, both the character of Beijing’s foreign policy and the quality of political life in mainland China are inextricably connected to the prospects for a modus vivendi between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.  China is divided by an unfinished civil war in which the United States backed the losing side.  Some in Taiwan hope that Beijing will accept the reality of Taiwan’s political separation from the mainland and make it permanent.  No one on the mainland can or will agree to that.  So, the status quo is unsatisfactory to both.

Taiwan long ago abandoned its empty threats to attack the mainland[3] and dismantled its ability to do so.  It is now focused on self-defense and retaliation for any attack on it.  The mainland’s successful efforts to build a capability to take Taiwan by force have drawn the United States and China into an open-ended arms race and dangerous military posturing.  The costs to Taiwan, China, and the United States of a descent into armed conflict would be immense, far outweighing any possible gains.  This makes a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question – the final issue of the Chinese civil war – the only rational objective.

A war over Taiwan could go nuclear.  In simpler times, with the world paying no attention, it took Japan thirty years to pacify Taiwan.   Even if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could take Taiwan without precipitating a war with the United States, it would face no less resistance and much more international condemnation.  One way or another, a war over Taiwan would have no winners.  Such a war must never be fought.

A peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the rest of China can only take place if people in Taiwan see closer association with the mainland as better for them than the ambiguous status quo.  Not so many in Taiwan now do.  Threatening a military assault on them will not induce Taiwanese to seek a shared future with Chinese across the Strait.  The greatly enhanced capabilities of the PLA effectively deter Taiwan from seeking to formalize its de facto autonomy but, if actually deployed, these capabilities would produce disaster for all concerned.  Neither side can safely attempt to change the current situation unilaterally or by force.  To resolve the Taiwan question Beijing must successfully woo the Taiwanese Chinese.

Cross-Strait negotiations about Taiwan’s political relationship to the rest of China must have the potential to produce an outcome acceptable to both Taiwanese identity politics and Chinese nationalism.  To identify as Chinese as well as Taiwanese, as Sichuanese and Hainanese now do, the people of Taiwan must see “Chineseness” as an attribute that inspires pride and confers [面子] “face” vis-à-vis foreigners.  They must also see Chinese nationality as enhancing rather than threatening their personal security and prospects for self-fulfillment.

China’s growing wealth and technological prowess attract Taiwanese to seek closer ties across the Strait.  Rising prestige and international influence for China also have their allure.  So, there is a strong connection between China’s “rejuvenation” and its reunification.  Who in Taiwan with talent would not want to exercise it on a wider stage than a relatively small island or to be denied the prestige of association with a rising China?

But Beijing’s increasingly negative international reputation and rising concerns about its possible use of force against Taiwan both work against this.  Chinese and American policies premised on preparations for war alarm everyone and benefit no one except armaments manufacturers.  And, it must be said, the Chinese government’s increasing reliance on police power rather than moral authority to secure the mainland and its special administrative regions is also greatly reducing the appeal of any form of reunification, no matter how permissive.

It is not for Americans or other foreigners to determine Chinese policies, domestic or foreign, and the Taiwan issue is a bit of both.  But it is entirely proper for those affected by Chinese policies to evaluate and judge the impact on their own interests.  Taiwanese were severely oppressed by the Chinese mainlanders who took possession of the island after 1945.   Japan has always regarded Taiwan as a key part of its strategic perimeter.  Few Americans see Taiwan as a strategic asset, but it has become a part of China that American champions of democracy and the rule of law can and do admire.

Beijing took Taiwan’s history, Japanese strategic interests, and American ideological concerns into account when it declared in 2003 that, after a peaceful reunification, no officials or soldiers from the mainland would be stationed in Taiwan and the island could retain its own way of life, international connections, armed forces, and responsibility for its self-defense.  Were Taiwan to agree to such an arrangement, it might face skepticism but encounter no opposition from any foreign government, including that of the United States.

Foreigners cannot decide for Taiwanese how they should feel about closer association with the mainland.  Beijing alone is in a position to convince Taiwanese that they should seek a more intimate cross-Strait relationship.  Now that China has built a big stick, it needs to speak more softly and lay out more carrots.  棍棒大,诱人的话和胡萝卜要多.  China seeks an end to its civil war and Cold War division.  But seeking to accomplish this by warfare is, as 孟子 [Mencius] put it, like “climbing a tree in search of a fish.”[4]  It is looking for the solution in the wrong place.

This brings me back to 老子 [Laozi] and the merits of standing down policies that invite catastrophe.  Many of these are on the U.S. side of Sino-American relations.  Let me briefly turn to the mistakes I think my own country is making.

I don’t see framing the US-China relationship as competitive as one of these mistakes.  Competition improves the performance of athletes, companies, and countries alike.  It is entirely compatible with peaceful coexistence.  But a rivalry that leaves room for cooperation in theory but not in practice is bound to be fruitless.  And a warlike strategy that focuses on crippling one’s competitor rather than strengthening one’s own competitiveness is likely to end up doing neither or, perhaps, the opposite – strengthening one’s competitor while crippling oneself.

The contest between China and the United States is primarily economic, scientific, and technological.  These arenas, not military rivalry in Asia, will determine the relative positions of each in the global hierarchy.  Yet my country is figuratively “up a tree” in a futile search for a military answer to China’s return to wealth and power.

In its own interests, America needs to make itself more economically, scientifically, and technologically productive.  The Biden administration is off to a slow start in formulating a coherent program, in part because of fiscal constraints and in part because advocates of Hamiltonian industrial policies in America remain outnumbered by devotees of laissez-faire economics.  The accumulated socioeconomic problems that need fixing to promote American competitiveness include:

  • an educational system that tolerates too much mediocrity;
  • worn-out, inefficient infrastructure;
  • a newly minted system of financialized capitalism that promotes inequality and values financial engineering over the real thing;
  • a tax and regulatory structure that bolsters inefficient oligopolies at the expense of the efficiencies of cutthroat capitalism;
  • labor-management antagonism that incentivizes offshoring rather enhancing productivity by automating and retraining existing workforces;
  • a public health system that is uniquely expensive but uniquely restrictive in its coverage of the population;
  • a poorly designed and inadequately financed social-safety net;
  • socioeconomic stress and waste of human potential aggravated by the legacies of slavery and racial injustice;
  • an epidemic of drug addiction; and
  • a broken immigration system.

These problems are the result of decades of distraction by the Cold War, national complacency, and self-indulgence.  China did not cause any of them and can’t fix them.  Americans must do so on our own.  This will require fundamental reforms informed by best practices abroad.  Deng Xiaoping showed that “reform and opening” could revitalize China, despite its far less favorable natural resource endowment, modern economic history, and geopolitical situation than the United States.  America is blessed with great strengths.  With the right policies it can outcompete any other country.

But, as if the structural challenges before the Biden administration it were not enough, it must also deal with the consequences of its predecessor’s misguided policies.  These included trade wars, replacement of multilateralism with bilateral transactionalism, alliance bashing, climate and pandemic denial, inability to end pointless wars or roll back military overextension abroad, and diplomacy-free pressure on Iran and others.  President Biden is being asked to alter course on these issues amidst domestic fiscal fatigue, political incoherence, a plague of conspiracy theories, and the worst relations with both China and Russia in decades.

The steps the administration has taken to rejoin the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization are commendable, but they do not enhance American competitiveness.  To that end, it would be in the interest of the United States to:

  • Get rid of the Trump tariffs and trade quotas, which reduce rather than enhance American competitiveness, raise costs to American manufacturers and consumers, cost jobs, generate inflation, and encourage outsourcing.
  • Return to market-regulated rather than government-managed agricultural trade to restore the reputation of the United States as a reliable supplier of essential commodities.
  • Revive the rules-based trade and investment order of the World Trade Organization and related agreements and reopen America prudently to foreign investment, including from China.

China could take its own initiatives to lay the basis for the subsequent reestablishment of a more normal relationship with the United States.  Given recent improvements in protections for intellectual property in China, China could propose an agreement on reciprocally enforced safeguards.  It could also pursue agreements on the mutual reduction of cyber threats to the two countries.  And it could sponsor a dialogue to address disputes over how to interpret the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other elements of international law.

Both sides could usefully tone down their rhetoric to restore the polite dialogue that is the prerequisite for productive diplomacy and mutually beneficial cooperation and competition.

Professor Wang graciously allotted me twenty minutes.  Time’s up, so I will stop here.

Thank you.


[1] “Show off one’s skills with an axe to the master of all the world’s axemen.”

[2] 10th great grandfather.

[3] 反攻大陆, 反共复国。

[4] 缘木求鱼