A Reply to John Pomfret
John Pomfret, “Why the United States doesn’t need to return to a gentler China policy,” Washington Post, July 9, 2012 (in response to the Open Letter)
By Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy (to Chris Nelson, editor of the Nelson Report)
July 12, 2019
I was disappointed to read John Pomfret's negative comments on the Open Letter regarding US China policy. John is a respected China specialist and journalist, but I had difficulty finding a basis for his comments in the letter itself. I cannot speak for the other signers of the letter, but some of my reactions to John's comments are set forth below.
The letter did not call for a kinder, gentler policy towards China. It called for a strong response to China's recent behavior and firm and effective measures to counter the challenges posed by a range of Chinese troubling actions, such as Beijing's failure to live up to its trade commitments and its more aggressive foreign policy. The issue addressed by the letter is not the firmness but rather the effectiveness and potential consequences of the administration's response to these challenges.
In my near-half century in the State Department, I never encountered the view among policy-makers that we had lost an opportunity by not befriending Mao Zedong in the 1940s. I was in China in 1949 when Mao gave his "lean to one side" speech in 1949, and it was one of the texts that I studied in my endeavors to learn Chinese.
The letter did not place the bulk of the blame on the administration for China's behavior. It was Mr. Pomfret who blamed the Obama administration for emboldening China to reach for more, a questionable assertion since the roots of China's greater assertiveness lay in China's rapid economic growth, boosted by the blow to western prestige resulting from the global financial crisis at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
The letter stated frankly that China's rapid economic and military growth had led Beijing toward a more assertive international role. As a letter on US China policy, it did indeed focus on the administration's response to the troublesome aspects of China's behavior. It argued that aspects of this response were fundamentally counterproductive by giving too little attention to forming a common front with our allies and partners in the region and the world in support of our economic and security objectives with respect to China, undermining the economic interests of all nations, exaggerating China's hegemonic capabilities, risking an open-ended arms race, and by ignoring opportunities to work with China in adapting the international system in ways that will make it more sustainable in a changing world.
Whatever the faults of American China policies in the past, they are not attributable to misunderstandings regarding the nature of power in Marxist-Leninist systems. Nor is the term now useable in its traditional form since the nature of Marxism in China has undergone fundamental change with the abandonment of the class basis for the communist party and of class struggle as the engine of change through Jiang Zemin's concept of the Three Represents and Hu Jintao's focus on promoting a harmonious society. If there are China specialists who are not aware that the communist party controls power in China and that China has a Leninist political system, I have not met them.
Nor have I met China-watchers with a so-called "romantic" attachment to China. After decades of rubbing shoulders with China watchers in the US government, I have found the vast bulk of them to be professionally objective in their assessments of China, neither exaggerating its virtues nor its faults. If there is a detectable bias, it would be on the critical side, not on the romantic side. Some of my colleagues have had romantic attachments to their ethnic-Chinese spouses, but in my experience, this has not affected their ability to view China objectively.
It is not a tired chestnut that if you adopt a hostile attitude towards a person or a country, you increase the likelihood of a hostile response. Common sense and human experience support this. In foreign affairs, as in human affairs, some relationships become hostile not because of attitudes but because of irreconcilable clashes of interests. Nevertheless, even hostile relationships can be turned around, as happened with the Nixon-Mao breakthrough in the early 1970s, if common interests emerge and leaders have the skill to see the opportunities and expand the cooperative aspects of the bilateral ties. Hostile attitudes make it more difficult to see and exploit such opportunities. It will not serve US interests if we permit the competitive aspects of the US-China relationship to obscure the areas where our respective interests will be served by cooperation. The Open Letter was drafted in this spirit.
The Golden Rule has little traction in diplomacy and has not been a factor in important relationships marked by high degrees of rivalry, such as with the Soviet Union and China. Positive gestures can help sustain cooperative relationships but cannot substitute for interest-based approaches in dealing with rivals.
Mr. Pomfret provided a laundry list of reasons why the United States should be responding more assertively to Chinese behavior in which he mixed together domestic developments in China of which we disapprove along with Chinese actions directly affecting US economic and security interests. The Chinese could provide a comparable list reflecting their viewpoint. All countries proceed from the assumption that their own behavior is fully justified and that the fault lies with the other party. Arguments about moral equivalence are for moralists. Good diplomacy is aimed at advancing national interests, not at assigning blame.
What I would hope all China watchers will do, including Mr. Pomfret, is to look for the most effective ways to manage the challenges posed by China's rise in ways that serve not only US interests but the interests of our friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific region. China's military modernization program must be a major concern for the United States, but Beijing is massively outspending us on the non-military components of its quest for greater regional and global influence. Under these circumstances, neglecting US diplomacy will not serve us well. The Open Letter is aimed at strengthening the diplomatic aspect of our comprehensive national power.
Why the United States doesn’t need to return to a gentler China policy
Near the end of the Vietnam War, American historian Barbara Tuchman came up with a theory on how the United States got into the ill-starred conflict: It was, she said, because of a failure to cultivate Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the 1940s.
Tuchman’s supposition, which she spelled out in an essay in Foreign Affairs in October 1972, argued that had the U.S. government seized the opportunity to befriend Mao during World War II, it could have mellowed Mao’s radicalism and averted the Vietnam and Korean wars. Never mind that Mao was an avowed Marxist-Leninist who idolized Joseph Stalin. Tuchman viewed the Chinese Communists almost as if they were a whiteboard upon which Americans could map out China’s future.
Subsequent work by Chinese and Western historians has debunked the theory. But the impulse behind it remains relevant today because it is indicative of something else: a profoundly paternalistic strain in the U.S. view of China.
I was reminded of this story last week when I read the open letter signed by scores of prominent experts on China. Like Tuchman, they deny agency to the Chinese Communist Party by placing the bulk of the blame for the current crisis in U.S.-China relations at the feet of the Trump administration. The letter nods to China’s misbehavior but focuses far more attention on what it calls the "many U.S. actions” that “are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.”
To be sure, it’s easy to criticize the Trump administration when it comes to China. Pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership weakened U.S. leverage over China. Tariffs are on one day and off the next. And the failure of federal agencies to make their case to the public has sparked fears that Chinese Americans are going to be racially profiled as U.S. law enforcement cracks down on espionage.
But to blame the president for the current crisis with Beijing is redolent of an old view of China that has been around since the days of Christian missionaries. Treat China as an enemy, the tired chestnut goes, and China will become one. Treat China as a friend, and China will become a friend. It’s as if China has no role to play in this drama whatsoever. Can’t we bury that notion once and for all?
The CCP is far more responsible for what happens in China — and for the current crisis with the United States — than any American. Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of President Xi Jinping, China has stopped market-oriented economic reforms, launched a massive crackdown that has resulted in the incarceration of more than 1 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, ramped up efforts to steal Western technology, broken a promise made to a U.S. president not to militarize the South China Sea and tried to export its system abroad. It has squeezed aspirations for democracy in Hong Kong and launched a campaign to undermine the democratic system in Taiwan.
The main fruit of a generally cooperative policy from Washington, at least during the Obama years, has been an emboldened China eager to reach for more.
Last week’s letter continues in this wrongheaded vein by repurposing the tired trope that we should tailor our China policy to support “Chinese leaders who want China to play a constructive role in world affairs.” But all the evidence I have seen from living in China for nearly 20 years indicates that there are no such “Chinese leaders” waiting in the wings. Xi has purged many of them, and others — reading the tea leaves — have changed their tune.
At root, the letter seems to misunderstand the nature of power in a Marxist-Leninist system such as China’s. Many in the American China-watching community have what former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs Kurt Campbell has called a “romantic” attachment to China. They want to be friendly toward China and, in truth, there are millions of everyday Chinese people who feel the same way.
What many of these experts fail to grasp is that the people who run the Chinese Communist Party are of a different ilk. “These guys think and go to school on power on a regular basis,” Campbell noted in a wide-ranging interview last year on the Sinica Podcast. Campbell also had another observation that was unusual for a former official in a Democratic administration: “President Trump has basically received and gotten more Chinese leverage,” he said, “… by this brutal approach than we got by treating China as a partner and with deep respect.”
Indeed, when Trump bellows about China, as he has over and over, he doesn’t blame his “good friend” Xi or previous Chinese leaders for stealing our lunch. He blames past U.S. administrations for allowing it to happen — and he is talking about the very people who signed this letter.
As is often the case, China’s reaction to these types of proposals is telling. China’s state-run media lauded the open letter and cherry-picked some quotes. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry called it “rational and objective.” The China Daily praised it, and it even made the nightly national news.
It’s not clear that Trump is going to be able to carry out his strategy to introduce reciprocity into U.S. relations with China. To accomplish this, the United States is going to need help and, given Trump’s mercurial nature, cooperation with our allies has been scattershot. But the Trump administration is the first one in decades to tell China that the status quo is broken. What China watchers should be doing is building on that insight, and not returning to promises of a kinder, gentler policy that wouldn’t have worked in the 1940s and won’t work today.