For me, the implosion of US-China relations in the past few weeks triggers heartburn and alarm. For decades, reporting and traveling around China, I have cheered the changes that brought greater freedoms and prosperity to the Chinese people. Because Deng Xiaoping allowed capitalism to thrive, ordinary lives in China are incomparably better today than the shared poverty and disastrous politics of the Mao era.
Yet now, the United States has a Secretary of State who warns against “China’s virulent strain of communism” and calls on the “free world” to “triumph over this new tyranny.” In his July 23 speech, Mike Pompeo flatly stated that “if we want to have a free 21st century . . . the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it.”
Talk of a “new Cold War” is rampant. The Trump Administration started a tariff war, and China responded. We closed China’s consulate in Houston, citing “illegal spying and influence operations” (what consulate doesn’t engage in espionage?), and Beijing closed ours in Chengdu. Our government has blacklisted Chinese officials, imposed sanctions on Chinese companies, limited the number of Chinese students and journalists in the U.S., and ended the Fulbright program in China. Beijing has responded tit for tat. Now Trump wants to ban TikTok.
Already, coronavirus travel restrictions have cut out visits by Chinese travelers, and Chinese students are flying home. For most Americans, it’s impossible to travel to China; Paul and I had to cancel a long-planned trip in April. As people-to-people exchanges wither away, it becomes easier to demonize what Pompeo once again calls “communist China.” Yes, his bombastic speech is part of Trump’s effort to revive his ailing re-election hopes. But US policy toward China has irreversibly changed.
My biggest fear is that this election-year China-bashing will lead to war. Yes, war. The Vietnam War started with an election-year naval skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin. Now the US Navy is asserting “freedom of navigation” by sailing close to Chinese military installations in the South China Sea. US nuclear missiles in Okinawa and South Korea, just off China’s coast, are aimed at major Chinese cities, and the Trump administration is now planning to deploy more highly mobile long-range, ground-launched cruise missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. Militaries of both countries have been targeting each other in war games. One mistake, or one provocation, could spark a war between these two nuclear-armed nations.
Others fear this, too. Two days after that speech, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, blasted Pompeo for “his misrepresentation of history and his failure to suggest a coherent or viable path forward for managing a relationship that more than any other will define this era.”
In a July 31 essay in the Wall Street Journal, China scholar David Shambaugh warned that “Both sides urgently need to find ways to manage this new Cold War—and to prevent it from getting hot.” Shambaugh, a professor and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University (and also a grad school classmate of mine) writes: “As in the U.S.-Soviet relationship, the two countries need to adopt a framework of detente amid a relationship of rivalry. Even as they compete, they must establish buffers, guardrails and stabilizing mechanisms that can contain their enmity and deter provocative behavior.”
Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who has long criticized China for human rights abuses, recently warned of the need for a more clear-minded US policy toward China, too. “What we need today is governments on both sides that will step back from the brink and seek a new modus vivendi, one that will endure for the next, even more complicated half century. Balance – not all-out nationalistic enmity – is what is called for.”
Other experts are not so balanced.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia professor and adviser to the United Nations on sustainable development, recently wrote that Pompeo’s speech is “extremist, simplistic, and dangerous – and may well put the US on a path to conflict with China.” In an article titled “America’s Unholy Crusade Against China,” he points out that Pompeo is an evangelical Christian with a “crusading mentality.” Sachs criticizes the “hypocrisy” in Pompeo’s accusation that China’s goal is to become the “preeminent military power in the world.” Sachs notes that US military spending is three times that of China; we have 800 military bases overseas and China has one; we have 5,800 nuclear warheads, and China has roughly 320. China has not fought a war outside its borders since 1979, and the US has . . . well you know that story. China supports United Nations processes and agencies, and the Trump administration is pulling out of them. China’s per capita income is one-sixth that of the United States.
But isn’t war inevitable when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power? That’s the “Thucydides Trap,” as defined by Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison. After analyzing history, he says the most likely result is war. To prevent that outcome, though, he recommends careful management of the U.S.-China relationship and deeper mutual understanding.
Reading all of this in summer 2020, I realize that I am now considered guilty of being “nostalgic for the yesteryear of cooperation and engagement.” You bet I am. As I wrote in the epilogue of my new memoir, When the Red Gates Opened: “Engagement with China was very good for the United States and could be again in the future, along with vigilance and investment in our own infrastructure and technology. The way to deal with rising powers is not to try to quash them, but to protect our own strengths and ensure that they have a big stake in keeping the system going. If we want to persuade the Chinese leaders to live by the “rules-based system” we Americans helped create, we need to live by those rules ourselves. Globalism provides opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators around the world, and the United States has always had more of those than any other country.
Today, those words sound quaint and old-fashioned. Even if Trump loses the election, US policy toward China has already turned hostile.
What’s needed, I believe, is more listening and communicating, less waving of fists. War would be terrible for the people of both countries.