The United States and China Should Start Over

September 29, 2019 | 7:48 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

President Trump’s trade war is demolishing US–China relations. The presidential candidates, Congress and now General Mattis are all lending a hand. Before long the entire economic, social and cultural infrastructure erected after the United States recognized the People’s Republic in 1979 will be a pile of rubble.

It’s unsurprisingly easy work. The US relationship with communist China was never stable. It was built on the shifting sands of Nixon’s geopolitics and Clinton’s corporate commerce. It started to collapse long before Trump entered the White House.

There’s not much interest, in China or the United States, in clearing away the debris and starting anew. There should be. Mutual mistrust and hostility are rising, quickly. The cost of doing nothing could be a war neither nuclear-armed nation can win. At the very least we should be working together to prevent that.

Whatever China might do, there are three things the United States can do to help establish a stable new foundation for US–China relations.

Rethink Engagement

For the last four decades Americans were told engaging China was a means to change it. Many US journalists, politicians and business leaders claimed economic reform would lead to political reform, and if it did not China’s economy would falter.

They were wrong.

China’s economy improved, dramatically. Its communist political system did not. In many ways it is less democratic and more repressive than it was in 1979. Understandably, many Americans now feel engaging China failed.

The last time Americans felt this way was in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party first came to power. Back then, instead of engaging China’s new communist rulers, we refused to recognize their government, embargoed their economy and went home to fight among ourselves about who lost China, as if it were ours to lose.

Responding the same way today would be a mistake. Our first disengagement with China was followed by catastrophic anti-communist wars in Korea and Vietnam. There is nothing to be gained, and much to lose, from reviving a state of cold war in Asia.

There is a better alternative. Americans can to continue to engage China without condoning its form of government or expecting to change it. Engagement creates opportunities for cooperation–on climate change, for example–and can help prevent conflict. It allows ordinary Chinese and Americans to continue to work together even when our governments cannot.

Reject Containment

US economic and military pressure did not contain China in the 1950s and is less likely to succeed today.

The old embargo frustrated US allies while China’s international stature continued to grow. It is difficult to imagine how a similar strategy could succeed in isolating what is now the world’s second largest economy.

Overwhelming US military superiority failed to deter Mao’s China from confronting the United States. Today, while holding military spending to a comparatively low percentage of GDP for four decades, China has closed the gap. Starting a new arms race or threatening to use force is unlikely to deter Xi’s China from confronting the United States, especially over core concerns like Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Many US observers, including Mattis, claim China seeks to reshape the international system in its image. The evidence is slim. There is little in the copious collected works of Chairman Xi and his post-Mao predecessors, written for international or domestic audiences, that suggests China seeks to impose its values or form of government on the rest of the world.

Chinese leaders do want to ensure they can rule their own country as they see fit. That’s a different problem than confronting an expansionist Soviet Union: a problem containment cannot solve.

Face Facts

Commentators in both countries like to describe contemporary US-China relations as a clash of civilizations or an historic contest between rising and falling great powers. There are two serious problems with this perspective.

The first is the presumption of a winner and a loser, which is a recipe for a war between two nuclear-armed nations. The second is that it’s an article of faith more than a matter of factthe twenty-first century equivalent of “domino theory.”

Experience suggests grand theories of international relations are more likely to help precipitate military conflict between the United States and China than to help prevent it. Meeting often and speaking truthfully about our respective complaints is a better strategy for avoiding war.

One important truth is that most Americans cannot abide Chinese communism. We support the Republic of China on Taiwan and the people in the autonomous regions of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang because we don’t want them to suffer what we see as intolerant and oppressive government. We supported the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 for the same reason.

Another important truth is that China’s communist leaders see that support as meddling in their domestic affairs. They have a point. This is why successive generations of Chinese Communist Party leaders have always believed the real aim of both engagement and containment is to undermine their government and weaken China.

Chairman Xi and his Politburo need to understand American antipathy towards their form of government is real and consequential. But Americans and our elected representatives must also recognize that China’s government is not ours to change.

The United States should, for the first time since the People’s Republic was established seventy years ago, build a working relationship with its government based on the China we see in front of us rather than a China we hope to see in the future.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.