There is no shortage of officials, companies and Wall Street firms eager for a return to pre-Trump softly-softly policies on China
Sixteen months ago I wrote that China’s DF-21 missiles, J-20 stealth fighters, hypersonic weapons and aircraft carriers had America’s attention, but Beijing might add another awesome weapon to its arsenal: the R-2020.
R-2020? The Restoration 2020. If Beijing waited 16 months and Trump lost the next election, we would see a restoration of the China hands whose policies had created the current difficulties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
A letter was about to come out – placed in a major newspaper and signed by dozens of American Asia specialists, civilian and military – lambasting the Donald Trump administration for its allegedly counterproductive China policy.
Competing foreign policy approaches are nothing new in Washington. Nor are ill-tempered full-page ads in major newspapers. But in the case of that particular letter, one of the approaches to dealing with China could be vetted against 45 years of empirical evidence.
That made for grim findings.
South China Sea
First, the South China Sea was – and still is now – under de facto Chinese control. And the People’s Republic of China had become a military power to be reckoned with – growing stronger as it continues the fastest, largest military build-up in history – despite facing no enemies.
Its military prowess had come to encompass outer space, cyber and sub-surface domains, and technologies that the US had once dominated. Chinese President Xi Jinping had declared the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must be the world’s most powerful military by 2049. Nobody was laughing at him.
Second, China had become an economic powerhouse and predator with worldwide reach – playing by its own rules. It had been aided by US-enabled World Trade Organization entry and by American companies stampeding into the PRC market, regardless of cost or risk.
Besides hollowing out America’s manufacturing base, that had led the US economy to become dangerously dependent on China.
Third, rather than liberalizing, the PRC was a totalitarian state – backed up with advanced technology, some of it American – beyond Orwellian in its totalitarianism. And all this had happened before Donald Trump’s election.
This was not inevitable. Rather it was the result of lovingly-crafted policies by a couple of generations of so-called China hands who were convinced they knew China and how to “manage” its rise.
Signatures on the letter
And they were itching to get back into government positions or positions of influence that abruptly – and, of course, unfairly – had been denied them upon Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. There were hints the restoration movement was gathering speed even before the letter appeared.
A month before its release, retired US diplomat Susan Thornton had delivered a speech in Shanghai telling the audience they would have to wait for the next election before things could be righted between the US and PRC.
Recall that Thornton had nearly become the State Department’s top Asia official in 2018 before tripping over charges of being too soft on China.
Yet, within a year after retiring, she had gone to China and instructed the PRC government in how to foil American policy: Just wait a while and those nasty people who are upsetting you will be gone and replaced by more flexible, nuanced people to whom you were accustomed.