December 19, 2016 5:50 pm JST
Keith B. Richburg

New China policy may give Trump and the US an early win

Trump's bold moves on China may be one of the few bright spots in his forthcoming presidency

A drone deployed by the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship seen here, was seized by a Chinese naval vessel in international waters on Dec. 16. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

First, Donald Trump as U.S. president-elect received what might have been seen as an innocuous congratulatory telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Then two weeks later, a Chinese naval vessel seized a U.S. navy drone in international waters near the Philippine coast, before later promising to return the purloined device.

Tensions appear to be ratcheting up between the U.S. and China, unnerving neighboring countries and foreign policy experts concerned about the prospect of an all-out conflict in the Pacific. And many are placing the blame squarely on Trump, the novice leader-in-waiting who declared dismissively, after his telephone call with the Taiwanese leader, "I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'One China' policy."

Loath as I am to agree with Trump about almost anything, on this one, he may have a point. Since the start of the U.S.-China detente with President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit in 1972, America has been content to allow Beijing to set the parameters, even the lexicon, of the relationship, with the U.S. often getting little or nothing in return. It may be time to start treating China like any other country -- and that may mean talking tough when needed, and ignoring the fabled thin-skinned sensibilities of Beijing's Communist rulers. 

Here is a case in point; China's leaders habitually insist that American presidents not confer anything that smacks of legitimacy on the democratically elected president of Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province -- despite the fact that the U.S. sells billions of dollars to weapons to Taiwan and is honor-bound to come to the island's defense in the event of a Chinese invasion. This means that Beijing regularly protests when Taiwanese leaders seek State Department permission to make stopover flights in the U.S. en route to South America, or to visit their American alma mater for a commencement address.

But consider; Beijing's rulers gave red carpet treatment to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for genocide and other war crimes by the International Criminal Court, for his role in mass killings in Darfur. Far from arresting Bashir and transferring him to a prison in the Hague where he belongs, China's leaders let him review an honor guard at the ornate Great Hall of the People.

Another case in point: the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is regarded by Beijing's Communist rulers as a dangerous criminal, "a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist plots under the cloak of religion," according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang last June. So when the Dalai Lama visits Washington, to meet with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner President Barack Obama, he is forced to use hidden back entrances to the White House, there are no photo opportunities or press conferences, and he is met in the Map Room, far from the Oval Office where the U.S. president regularly meets distinguished foreign visitors -- all to avoid riling Chinese leaders' prickly sensibilities.

Does Beijing reciprocate, or show any concern about American sensibilities? Hardly. When Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited China in 2012 -- amidst American and Western sanctions over Iran's nuclear program -- the man who called Israel "a rotting corpse" to be "wiped off the map" was given all the trappings accorded any visiting head of state.

New broom, new approach?

Why is it, then, that America's leaders go into such verbal and diplomatic contortions to placate China's rulers, and get so little in return? Is it finally time for a change in tone and approach -- and is Trump the one to bring it?

First, from the U.S. opening to the Communist government in Beijing -- a diplomatic gambit known as "playing the China card" against the Soviet Union during the Cold War -- Americans have been awed by China's size, wary of its future military might, but also mesmerized by its potential as a commercial market. With a population exceeding a billion people, China was seen primarily as a nation where American businesses could sell toothbrushes to a billion needy mouths, and deodorant for two billion armpits.

But U.S. engagement with China has always been premised on a bet that has so far proven wrong -- that as China prospered, with assistance and a friendly hand from the West, it would essentially become more like America, playing by all the established rules of acceptable international behavior. "Washington for years believed that a strong, stable China would be a friendlier China. It didn't turn out that way," said John Pomfret, a former Washington Post colleague and author of "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom," a new book on the history of U.S.-China relations. Washington, he noted, has got the strong China it has been dreaming of, literally since the 1840s. "But it's not a friendlier China at all."

China has long been held to a different standard than other countries because its size and economic potential made it too big to ignore or to anger. What other country could get away with widespread repression, jailing lawyers, journalists, bloggers human rights activists and a Nobel Prize winner, with harassing U.S. Navy ships in international waters, and with raiding the offices of multinational companies on spurious charges, all with impunity?

In late 1988, I visited Burma, where the military regime violently crushed pro-democracy protests that had been sweeping the country, killing and imprisoning thousands and forcing activists to flee into exile. The U.S. in response to the upheaval slapped tough economic sanctions on the country that lasted for more than two decades until Myanmar, as it is now called, launched a democratic transition.

The following year, 1989, when China's People's Liberation Army similarly used violence to crush its own pro-democracy movement, the U.S. briefly suspended high-level contacts -- but President George H.W. Bush secretly sent his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to Beijing a month after the violence to resume dialogue. By December that year, six months after the students were massacred in Tiananmen Square, Scowcroft was back in Beijing toasting his Chinese hosts saying: "My colleagues and I have come here today as friends, to resume our important dialogue on international questions of vital interest to both our nations."

As a correspondent in Southeast Asia at the time, I asked a veteran U.S. ambassador in the region to explain to me the discrepancy -- why the U.S. isolated Burma, while it raced to mend ties with Beijing after similarly brutal crackdowns. The ambassador replied simply and directly: "In Burma, we have the luxury of living up to our principles."

New China policy?

The second, and tougher, question is whether it is time for a new approach to China -- and whether Trump is the one to carry it out.

The president-elect has already promised to get tougher on China's lopsided trade and investment practices that disadvantage foreign companies. He has accused China -- with good reason -- of manipulating its currency. And he has threatened to impose tariffs as high as 45% on Chinese exports. And after his phone conversation with Taiwan's president, first seen by analysts as a novice's mistake, Trump doubled down, and threatened to make the "One China" policy a bargaining chip in future talks over trade issues.

"Trump's new tone on China is actually a logical extension of the realization in America that the bet made on China, by both Democratic and Republican administrations, has not worked out," noted Pomfret.

Trump might find some unlikely allies for a tougher approach. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, for one. Schumer has long advocated a tougher trade line against China, which he has also labeled a currency manipulator that steals American jobs. Schumer sounds a lot like Trump when he says: "We're turning our economy over to the Chinese."

Definitely a new, tougher approach is warranted -- as long as the steps taken are deliberate, and all the potential long-term consequences are thoroughly thought through. There is no reason to stoke a debilitating conflict, which is why the Obama administration's low-key response to the drone seizure seemed just right.

But there are other ways to show toughness without inching toward conflict. That might mean allowing the Dalai Lama to come and go by the front door of the White House, and meeting him in the Oval Office; or speaking with Taiwan's democratically-elected president for more than just a brief telephone call.

In other words, maybe it is time to start treating China like any other country. Trump may not intend it, but with a more realistic China policy, the U.S. could actually start living up to its principles.

Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent and foreign editor, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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