Rebooting U.S.-China Trade Ties: “Enter Ye Through the Narrow Gate”



Chris Johnson

Nearly two weeks after the U.S. “Trade Avengers” unleashed during their visit to Beijing what one reasonably could call “trade shock and awe” with a very aggressive—if thoroughly researched and well-crafted—set of demands targeting the yawning U.S. trade deficit with China and the core of that country’s throaty industrial policy, China this week is taking its turn with the visit of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo member and Vice Premier Liu He, President Xi Jinping’s economic point man who is almost universally described as a thoughtful, pragmatic, and mild-mannered policy academic. In the interim, voices from a wide swath of official Washington have sounded the alarm about the dangers of Chinese influence operations and the presence of alleged subversives, while President Trump himself seemed to cast aside these growing concerns by suggesting via Twitter that he would ask the Commerce Department to overturn its action against the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE—long a focus of the U.S. security community for suspected cyber espionage activity and irrefutable violations of U.S. law—in response to protests that reportedly emanated directly from President Xi. With such frenetically sustained action in such a short period of time, the fog of war seems particularly thick at the moment. As such, it seems like a good time to slow down and have a think about how we got here, what actually is going on, and, with a little bit of luck, perhaps think about some ways to craft a viable way forward.

Just like milestone birthdays in one’s personal life, important political anniversaries also can incline the mind toward reflection. Next year, of course, marks the fortieth anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and China. As such, much breath and a lot of ink have been devoted to analyzing the course of the bilateral relationship over that nearly half-century. Although certainly not a universal opinion, it seems fair, if perhaps overly reductionist, to suggest that the general conclusion among a substantial number of U.S. officials, policy analysts, and journalists has been that the consistent U.S. policy emphasis on engagement with China during those forty years was, at the end of the day, a sham. In this rendering, naïve groups of senior policymakers in succeeding U.S. administrations and in most of the U.S. China-watching community were hoodwinked by wily CCP leaders who talked the talk of integrating into the so-called U.S.-led rules-based international order, but all the while they had a secret master plan to instead subvert that order and challenge U.S. primacy throughout the globe. In a slightly less menacing (if no less absurd) version of this narrative, China was, indeed, headed generally toward this hoped for integration under the stewardship of deceased paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his handpicked successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao until Xi Jinping arrived and, through a ruthless consolidation of power, decided instead to change course in what now regularly is referred to in shorthand as Xi’s “authoritarian turn.”

But this conclusion seems utterly wrongheaded when examined in the light of hard facts. On the Chinese side of the equation, for example, Deng Xiaoping may have appeared warm and cuddly when donning his cowboy hat during his famous 1979 visit to the United States, but he could be just as ruthless and grasping as any other authoritarian leader. Deng’s exceptionally courageous and dogged pursuit of the policies of reform and opening certainly are worthy of praise, but they cannot, and therefore should not, be separated from the fact that he was content to sit idly by as Chairman Mao’s loyal lieutenant as Mao decimated his political rivals during the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-59) and the Great Leap Forward (1958-62). Nor should we forget that Deng used every ounce of his massive personal prestige with the People’s Liberation Army to, with steely determination, rally his many reluctant commanders to execute the brutal Tiananmen crackdown of June 4, 1989. Similarly, Xi Jinping is no Jack-in-the-Box-like figure who has pulled a fast one with a sharp directional turn in the last couple of years made all the more stark after his sweeping consolidation of power at last fall’s 19th Party Congress. In fact, it is this author’s contention, as supported by a large body of written work and public commentary, that everything Xi has done over the last five years was abundantly clear, whether explicitly or in embryonic form—from the moment he was introduced to the world as China’s new top leader in the fall of 2012, as encapsulated in his call for his country to pursue the “China Dream” set on a foundation of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This by no means suggests the United States should express support for, or even acquiescence in, Xi’s policies, but only that it should not be reacting with the borderline hysteria that now seems to be gripping Washington.


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The report was originally posted here.