◎ Trump’s increasingly hard-nosed policies can steer China away from a course that is leading inevitably to outright conflict with the West.
By Joseph Bosco
President Donald Trump is doing a huge favor for Chinese leader Xi Jinping — and he should keep doing it. His administration’s increasingly hard-nosed policies can steer China away from a course that is leading inevitably to outright conflict with the West.
Avoiding a U.S.-China war would be a genuine win-win outcome, not another of the rhetorical charades that, up to now, have given China virtually all it wants in the economic, diplomatic and military realms — in return for few of the promised economic reforms and none of the anticipated political reform.
The U.S. president and his savvy national security team have made it clear to Beijing that the old ways of doing business are over — no more cheating on currency and trade, stealing American technology, enabling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas, bullying democratic Taiwan, and, potentially, no more human rights outrages — or China will pay an increasingly heavy price, risking even the communist regime’s survival.
Call it a form of geostrategic tough love. Previous U.S. administrations won Beijing’s plaudits (if not actual respect) for their indulgence and concessions despite Beijing’s chicanery and aggression. But, without meaning to, they were setting the Chinese system up for ultimate failure and even self-destruction — like a parent giving a child everything he or she wants without understanding that the real world will demand consequences at some point. (No, China is not America’s child.)
A Communist Party comeuppance may be exactly what the Chinese people themselves want, which would explain Trump’s popular approval in China, possibly more than he enjoys in the United States. It parallels somewhat the admiration of Ronald Reagan among the populations in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who looked to that American president as their hope for liberation from communist tyranny and incompetence. (Some of Reagan’s policies were also more popular in those countries than they were at home.)
The Trump administration has benefited from the maximum pressure test run to get North Korea serious about eliminating its nuclear and missile programs. There are miles still to go to actual denuclearization, but the president is justified in believing the combination of credible military action, escalating economic sanctions, and unprecedented focus on Kim Jong Un’s human rights depredations as rendering the regime unfit to govern, were what moved the Dear Leader to make a fundamental rethink of his situation.
The same motivational elements can be applied to Washington’s overall relationship with Beijing, and the Trump administration has many more cards to play. The Trump-Xi personal rapport may afford some essential face-saving for the kinds of concessions and backing-off that Xi will need to undertake if a catastrophic showdown is to be avoided. But, high-level sweet talk aside, only American clarity of purpose, unyielding will and credible economic, diplomatic and military preparedness will convince Chinese leaders that their 46-year free run is over and change is unavoidable.
One factor that is causing “confusion” in Beijing, according to some Chinese and American scholars, is the sudden absence of a reliable back-channel to the administration. Henry Kissinger, who perfected the backdoor technique for “successful” diplomacy with both the Soviets and the Chinese, still has access to Trump and presumably recommends the same concessionary China policies he has advocated for almost 50 years. (He recently denied he had ever proposed a U.S.-Russia collaboration against China.)
But, for the first time in nine administrations, Kissinger’s advice no longer is heeded on the fundamentals of the U.S.-China relationship. Instead, Trump is crossing diplomatic red lines and doing what was unthinkable in the Kissingerian China world.
This is surprising because Kissinger had carefully cultivated Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and key policy operative, as the special inside contact for top-level U.S.-China communications. But Kushner is preoccupied with Mideast negotiations and a range of other presidential assignments, and the China portfolio has settled in the hands of seasoned officials well-versed on Asia matters.
Another likely go-between China has found highly useful in the past was former Kissinger subordinate Michael Pillsbury, who describes himself as a close, albeit informal, adviser to the president on China policy. Trump recently referred to him as “the leading authority on China,” bringing Pillsbury to comment in a C-Span interview last week, “My fear is that this will cause further jealousy and envy by my fellow China hands.”
Pillsbury now is with the Hudson Institute, where Vice President Mike Pence last week announced a strong administration policy against China’s transgressions. As a Defense Department official, he was a self-described “panda hugger,” a perspective he acknowledges holding for 30 of the 40 years he has been observing China.
But, unlike Kissinger, whose regard for the Chinese Communist Party never has evolved, Pillsbury said he came to conclude belatedly in the past decade that, despite his and others’ “wishful thinking,” China’s reform was not possible. He told C-Span: “I kind of confess I was wrong, and I’m sort of sorry for the advice I gave to a lot of presidents. … We’re moving to a much more antagonistic relationship, with people in America not quite knowing who to believe anymore.”
A caller criticized his light-hearted “oops” demeanor on such a critical subject and he responded, even more jocularly, “That’s why you shouldn’t listen to me now. I might be wrong again. … But there was an element of Chinese deception in all this. We weren’t just stupid. The Chinese more or less promised … free markets [and] elections.”
The president and his clear-eyed national security team should remain steady as they go. For both North Korea and China, pressure on human rights and the specter of regime change offer a non-kinetic way to convey the seriousness of American intentions — a suitable card to be played in the new Cold War environment Beijing has created.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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