Shadow Government

Rolling Out the Red Carpet Won’t Make China Play Nice

State honors aren't the solution to Xi's recent bluster.


Are GOP candidates “China bashing?” The claim has been made in outlets such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Bloomberg View. But, despite what the critics may say, it’s an overly dismissive — and slightly lazy — way of describing the Asia policy debate emerging on the Republican side. Here is another way of looking at it.

Apparently it takes a presidential campaign to highlight the gaping disconnect between Washington and the rest of America when it comes to the elite business of foreign policy. The American people consistently view China unfavorably. This attitude has surely been solidified this summer as Beijing has acted more aggressively abroad and repressively at home. It only follows that the people expect their president to push back, but Washington is instead preparing to confer the nation’s highest honors on Chinese President Xi Jinping even as he displays his utter contempt for the United States.

To paraphrase then-candidate Obama, we should not be against all Chinese summits, only dumb ones. Consider the following: Obama had a working summit with Xi in Sunnylands, California in 2013 that was supposed to have addressed China’s aggressive cyber-hacking of the United States. Chinese hacking has resulted in the massive theft of U.S. intellectual property, military secrets, and the private information of millions of government workers. But two years after the summit, China hacked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), arguably its greatest hack of the United States to date.

Also since that meeting, China has engaged in an astonishingly brazen island building campaign in the South China Sea resulting in almost 3,000 acres of newly claimed Chinese territory. This move is no less a change to the territorial status quo than Vladimir Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Indeed it may be more threatening to the United States given how vital the South China Sea is to U.S. prosperity and security. Are we feting Putin anytime soon?

China has not only ramped up its external aggression since the Sunnylands Summit. Beijing has also engaged in its most repressive human rights campaign in decades, targeting human rights activists, religious minorities, and lawyers. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has spent no small amount of money and diplomatic energy supporting a “rule of law” system in China. Now China is destroying any fitful progress that this worthy U.S. investment made. Things in China are so bad that human rights activists, often in favor of more Sino-American engagement, have called for a cancellation of the state visit for Xi, falling on deaf ears in the corridors of power.

The response to what can only be seen as the failure of the last summit? A higher level “state visit” for Xi Jinping. This is another good example of how disconnected Washington must seem from reality. Xi will be treated to the same honors and dignities afforded to his rival in Asia, Shinzo Abe, a staunch US ally and leader of a democratic country. The “head of state” powers of the presidency should not be misused in this fashion, as it devalues the honors conferred on those who deserve them. The White House knows full well that normal engagement through government-to-government channels would continue without state honors.

The upcoming honors have not exactly moderated Xi’s actions. He decided to ramp up his contemptuous behavior in the weeks before the visit. His Mao-chic military parade, celebrating the CCP’s “defeat” of Japan (news to the memory of Americans slogging their way through the Pacific and the Japanese victims of America’s only use of nuclear weapons in history), showcased weapons such as the “Guam Killer” missiles whose purpose is synonymous with its nickname: to target the U.S. territory of Guam where a decent portion of U.S. forces are stationed.

Does China mean to celebrate the end of one war that began with a surprise attack on Hawaii with a reminder that it can do the same to Guam? Xi’s reception with a 21-gun salute in Washington after showing off new missiles in China meant to kill Americans will be all the more unseemly.

During the parade a Chinese flotilla arrived off the coast of Alaska. While troubling, the fact that China is projecting power into the Pacific should be a surprise to no one (except the many experts who for years told us China would only build a military capable of striking Taiwan). The timing, however, is curious. Couldn’t Chinese leaders wait for this show of force until after Xi’s ceremonial meals in Washington? Not if China’s purpose is to show contempt.

What counts for sophisticated analysis nowadays underscores the problem with our approach to China. Unnamed government officials and some analysts reassure us not to worry about these ships. We are told that the Chinese naval task force foray is in fact good. Try and follow this twisted logic: By operating in our territorial waters China will finally learn to accept our naval operations in theirs, which they have spent the last 15 years trying to stop.

Maybe many do not realize how condescending this way of thinking is. It assumes that China’s lack of respect for maritime laws has only to do with lack of experience, rather than with China’s own interests and views about how international politics should operate. The assumption is that China can be “normed” into behaving against what it defines as its interests.

Unfortunately this kind of wishful thinking is at the core of our approach to China. The policy is premised on the idea that as China grew richer it would moderate, perhaps even liberalize. This is a sound policy … for South Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. A policy for two relatively small Cold War allies has been awkwardly grafted onto a 21st century Chinese great power competitor.

The main problem with the liberal theory of slow “norm acceptance” by the Chinese Communist Party is that the Chinese Communist Party is not liberal. And it has a very strong conception of its own preferred world order. Reciprocal cordiality on the high seas is not part of the conception. Ruthlessly holding on to power at home and pushing its interests abroad is part of its strategic conception.

Back to the state visit. Does anyone really believe that conferring more prestige on Xi will stop his actions? I think the answer is no. Rather, the visit proceeds because the default setting in American China policy has become a rather unthinking engagement. The bureaucracy will do what it is supposed to do, plan the next summit, the next dialogue and so on until political leaders rethink the policy.

The Obama administration knows that Xi wants this summit only to demonstrate that no matter how he treats the United States, it will treat him with the respect deserved by a great leader. That plays well on CCTV at a time when he is suffering at home politically. If our intention was to boost Xi at home, the summit will surely be successful.

However, the American people know that our China policy is not working. After high-level meetings we get Chinese contempt, aggression, and repression. Our networks are hacked, our security is diminished, our values insulted, and our economic well-being threatened by irresponsible Chinese practices.

Enter some of the GOP candidates, as well as new leaders such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). The generation involved in the opening and normalization to China is passing from the scene. New GOP leaders and their advisors are less tied to protecting the legacy of Cold War China policy and are thus able to face China with less emotion and greater realism. They view China as a great power competitor, a sometime threat, not a partner in winning the Cold War or the next “Asian Tiger” ready to accept the US made international system.

New GOP faces have called for President Obama to do away with the state visit. But that is only the opening salvo in a new way of thinking about China and how it fits into a broader Asia policy.

A new GOP approach to Asia might be called unequal engagement. The underlying assumption is that while the U.S.-China relationship is an important one, Asian friends and allies should get the bulk of our diplomatic engagement.

The first priority, then, is deeper and more intense engagement with our allies and friends. U.S. allies and friends need to see America rid itself of the devastating Obama defense cuts and end sequestration. A consensus is emerging that a successful Asia policy requires a return to the Gates budget of $611 billion and a vigorous shipbuilding program accompanied by diplomacy with our friends to create a permanent U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia.

While Washington gets its own defense house in order, it needs to revamp the bureaucracy to get the best arms and the best training into friendly hands quickly. Finally, as the U.S. and allies bulk up, an allied engagement strategy should include a far more active diplomacy that creates more allied cohesion. This would help resolve the maritime territorial disputes in a manner favorable to the US and allied interests.

Second, few Republicans will support anything but a real free market Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If the agreement smacks of special interest carve outs, it is unlikely to pass. But if it is the promised gold standard in creating an Asian free market, then it must be expanded to Taiwan, South Korea, and other Southeast Asian nations. The agreement has the potential to form the main political-economic structure of US engagement in Asia. This is the argument the GOP leader on the TPP, Paul Ryan, has been making.

Third, leading Republicans all seem to be emphasizing the importance of human rights in China. The link between China’s repression at home and aggression abroad is becoming ever more certain. Moderate the former and the United States is likely to see less of the latter.

Bilateral engagement with China must become more realistic and less grandiose. The United States must stop favoring symbolism over substance and rhetoric over results, including the fruitless search for a slogan to describe an almost indescribable relationship. There may be periodic episodes of cooperation and we will find some common ground on global economic issues, but the idea that China can be convinced to become a responsible power or join a new concert of great powers should be abandoned for the time being as a useless endeavor. Maintaining stability and avoiding conflict should be engagement’s main goal. The leaders of the two countries should meet when our interests require it. The upcoming state visit is the wrong time and wrong venue for a more realistic engagement with China.


Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.