The U.S. Should Adopt Reasonable Policies to Calm Relations With Beijing

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Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in a bid to reduce tensions.

Unfortunately, unless the administration changes course, a one-day meeting is unlikely to improve the recently fraught relations between Washington and Beijing. To understand why, it is important to consider the American position over the last several years.  

The U.S. has adopted a policy of confronting China on practically all fronts, seeing anything that Beijing wants as potentially threatening to the United States. It also rejects anything resembling reciprocity, setting standards that it refuses to live up to.

In order to gauge the reasonableness of American positions, the easiest way to begin is to consider how American behavior looks to the rest of the world. Given that the U.S. has no special insight into Beijing or its intentions, if America is an outlier in the degree to which it sees China as a threat, it is likely due to domestic political reasons.

Often, the U.S. sees Chinese aggression against countries that themselves take a more benign view of relations with Beijing. The U.S. has tried to place missiles in East Asian countries that don’t want them. It has sought to prevent Huawei from helping bring 5G to other countries, claiming there is a security threat—but providing no actual evidence supporting the claim. American leaders warn about the dangers of the Belt and Road Initiative, arguing that Chinese loans and investment will make foreign countries dependent, despite the nations supposedly targeted seeing such exchanges as mutually beneficial. Even the EU is unenthusiastic about the American campaign to balance against China. 

In summary, the U.S. opposes China as a national security threat to nations that themselves see the issue differently. It also opposes Chinese investment abroad that does not have a hint of leading to or being associated with current or potential military coercion.

The lack of empathy can also be seen in the American approach to the issue of arms control. 

The New START treaty expires in February 2021. The agreement places limits on strategic nuclear weapons and allows mutual inspections. While Russia would like to extend the treaty, the United States has shown little interest in doing so, arguing that any new agreement must bring in China.

The reason agreements placing limits on nuclear weapons have always been bilateral is because the U.S. and Russia have always had many more nuclear warheads than any other country, with over 6,000 apiece. China, in contrast, has fewer than 300, about the same number as France. China has rejected such talks out of hand, on the reasonable grounds that their arsenal is a fraction of that of the other powers. 

During the Cold War, the two superpowers were able to seek agreements on specific issues, including arms control and European borders. American policy was most successful when it did not demand that the Soviet Union accept a permanently subservient position in the nuclear arms race, nor try to prevent peaceful economic relations between the USSR and the rest of the world. It especially did not seek to place new missiles and weapons systems in areas in which they did not exist before—a move seen as a clear instance of aggression if undertaken by either side, as it was when Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba in 1962 and almost ended human civilization.

With China, the U.S. has taken a different path. It has chosen to see the issues involved through the lens of zero-sum thinking. This causes distrust, and makes it difficult to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs even when they would benefit both sides. American officials have sent the message that the U.S. is out to hurt China and reduce its influence, rather than seeking limited goals that are in the national interest.

The United States cannot simultaneously adopt the lens of great power competition and also seek to calm relations with Beijing. Rather, it should seek discussions on issues of mutual importance, and not create hostilities where they do not need to exist.

Expecting Secretary Pompeo to have achieved significant breakthroughs in a one-day meeting is unrealistic. Rather, the U.S. should find opportunities to set up future summits where the two sides can discuss individual issues like trade and arms control on a piecemeal basis. Whether future talks are successful will to a large extent depend on whether the United States can let go of the idea of Great Power competition, see itself through the eyes of others, and understand the potential benefits of cooperation.

Richard Hanania is a Research Fellow at Defense Priorities and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

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