The United States is justifiably renegotiating its posture toward China after decades of that country manipulating the US on trade, political and cultural fronts, a Hoover scholar says.
Hoover Institution scholar Michael R. Auslin said that since President Richard Nixon opened relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States in the 1970s, the overriding goal of U.S. policymakers has been to integrate China into the global system.
“In doing so, successive US presidents overlooked the ways in which China sought to take advantage of America’s eagerness to establish political, trade, and cultural relations,” said Auslin, the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia who specializes in contemporary and historical US policy in Asia and political and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
Now, China seeks to become dominant in the global economy while refusing to liberalize its own system or play by many international rules. The time is now, Auslin said, for US and world leaders to develop policies to try and moderate the world's most populous country with the second-largest economy.
Auslin said that most estimates place the number of American jobs lost to Chinese manufacturing around 2-3 million. In addition, the massive US trade deficit with China resulted from the low labor cost of manufacturing in China.
“It is becoming clear, as well, that China’s economic success was significantly enabled by infringement of intellectual property rights, outright industrial espionage, and dumping of goods at below market prices. Beijing used part of this new national wealth to dramatically upgrade its military, which it then used to intimidate smaller nations over territorial disputes,” he said.
China has increasingly used trade and aid policies as a means to expand its political influence over recipient nations, including taking collateral such as strategic ports when debtor governments failed to repay their loans, Auslin noted.
“US administrations of both parties failed in any significant way to curb China’s predatory policies; indeed, they rushed to further engage with Beijing and bolster its global stature,” he said.
In doing so, by refusing to accept some moderate risk when China was much weaker and less sure of its international position, prior US administrations ensured that any eventual American reaction would entail greater risk and be seen as potentially highly confrontational, Auslin said.
Changing US policy toward China
President Donald Trump’s approach to China has significantly upended US-Sino relations, Auslin acknowledged.
“Beginning with his campaign trail rhetoric, Trump promised to push back far more vigorously against Beijing’s unfair trading practices and its security encroachment on other nations. He expressed open support for Taiwan, and promised to build up the US military to maintain a credible defense against the Chinese military,” he said.
In trade, after months of ambiguous comments, Trump levied tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods and threatened to raise rates on another $200 billion. “Since Trump entered office, moreover, the US Navy has modestly increased its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and has sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait,” Auslin said.
In addition, the administration announced the formation of a new overseas development investment fund to try and blunt Beijing’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
“It has also engineered the extradition and arrest of a Chinese intelligence officer suspected of attempting to illicitly obtain U.S. aviation trade secrets,” he added.
Chinese leaders have responded to Trump’s moves by alternating bluster with conciliation, Auslin said.
“No Chinese leadership has had to deal with a similarly assertive American president, and there is undoubtedly much concern and perhaps not a little alarm in Beijing,” he said.
While Chinese officials initially seemed confident that Trump would back down, they have realized that his position has only hardened with time and that the administration is in fact expanding the scope of its confrontational approach, the scholar said.
“The Chinese have attempted some level of tit-for-tat responses, such as levying their own tariffs on billions of dollars of U.S. goods and challenging U.S. freedom of navigation operations. Yet they have also seen other countries begin to chip away at their policies, such as by offering alternative aid programs in Eurasia or backing out of Belt and Road projects,” Auslin said.
Global opinion of China
Auslin said that China’s leaders are alarmed that global public opinion is becoming more critical and aware of the unsavory elements of Chinese policy that leaders would prefer to hide.
Above all, world opinion has responded negatively toward the news that Chinese authorities have established massive reeducation camps inside far western Xinjiang province, where up to one million ethnic Uighurs, almost all Muslim, are being detained, he noted.
“Western scholars of China have also begun to criticize the state’s global influence and propaganda operations,” Auslin said.
In particular, he added, the state-sponsored Confucius Institutes on Western college campuses have come under fire for being propaganda arms of the government and aiming to suppress critical views of China.
“Moreover, as the Chinese economy continues to slow down and its stock market declines, the impression around the world that China as an unstoppable economic force may begin to moderate, reducing Beijing’s influence and encouraging other nations to push back against China’s heavy-handed foreign policies,” he said.
While not all these global shifts in policy and opinion can be attributed to Trump’s actions, Auslin said, it’s clear that the current U.S. approach has perhaps fundamentally altered the balance of the US-China relationship.
While long overdue in many ways, it also risks potentially violent reactions by Beijing, he said.
“Yet China’s economic position in the world remains so central that it is hard to imagine a true reordering of the global economy that reduces Beijing’s role,” he said. “Thus, it is most likely that we are entering into an uncertain period where the relationship between Washington and Beijing, and between China and other nations, is renegotiated.”
The United States and China’s trading partners will be seeking a new approach from Beijing that adheres to global norms and international law, and where unfair trading practices, cyberespionage, and military intimidation are abandoned, he said.
Auslin believes that Beijing will not willingly adopt such policies, but is likely to moderate its behavior somewhat, so as to tamp down criticism and not put at risk its broader global position.
“However, President Xi Jinping has staked his reputation on making China a world leader in advanced technology, as well as being a diplomatic heavyweight and military great power. He may believe that his tenure atop the political pyramid in China requires a firm response to the widespread pressure China is facing from Trump and other leaders,” he said.
As these shifts in policy and views continue, it’s likely the US and China will be locked into a “damaging dynamic of worsening relations” in the coming years.
Michael Auslin, Hoover Institution: auslin [at] stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Hoover Institution: (650) 498-5204, cbparker [at] stanford.edu