Last July, some of America’s top China scholars and former ambassadors wrote an open letter to President Donald Trump and the US Congress, blaming both Washington and Beijing for the deterioration in bilateral relations resulting from the trade war and attendant rhetoric.
They declared that many US actions were “contributing directly to the downward spiral” and that China was “not an economic enemy.”
Their conclusion: while China was admittedly trying to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order, it was “not seeking to overturn vital economic and other components of that order” from which it has benefited for decades. They said fear that China would replace the US as the global leader was exaggerated.
The letter seems jarringly innocent in the face of the biggest economic and health disaster of our time caused by a virus that originated in Wuhan and spread globally because of Chinese acts of commission and omission. China delayed reporting the virus to the world for weeks. And it is now exploiting the disorder.
Barring notable exceptions from the school of skeptics, America’s impressive stable of reigning Sinologists has mostly been quiet since the pandemic and the outbreak of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy of denial, deception and disinformation.
Not much has been heard, especially from the large number of China “believers,” who helped perpetuate the notion China was liberalising, that it was a responsible stakeholder in the international system and an accommodation was not only advisable but necessary, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.
Today, the entire world economy is shut down, hundreds of millions of people are locked indoors and governments are struggling mightily to get a handle on the paralysing situation. The real accounting of the misery inflicted by the pandemic may never be complete.
China refuses to allow an independent investigation of the origin and composition of the virus and won’t share live samples or cooperate in a meaningful way with foreign scientists. It hasn’t explained why it stopped flights from Wuhan to Chinese cities, but not to the outside world.
But what is surprising, even disheartening, is the willingness of many American experts, mainstream press and Democratic Party politicians to promote China’s line, to praise its efficiency in handling the virus and sometimes literally repeat Beijing’s propaganda.
David Shambaugh, considered one of the foremost US scholars on China, wrote on 29 March: “Historians may even look back on the crisis as the transition point from American to Chinese leadership in times of global crises.” He said in America’s absence, the world would remember China for stepping up and sending medical supplies to various countries. Since Shambaugh’s piece, scores of governments have thrown Chinese test kits and protective gear for being faulty.
But it hasn’t stopped Chinese diplomats from making outrageous claims. The French foreign ministry reprimanded China’s ambassador Lu Shaye last month for claiming that France had abandoned its senior citizens and left them to “die from starvation and disease.” China’s mouthpiece, The Global Times, called Australia “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe: sometimes you have to find a rock and scrape it off.”
In India, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson said a petition by NGOs to the UN Human Rights Council for compensation was “eye-catching nonsense.” Yet, Indian newspapers have published Chinese government viewpoint as “analysis” without a counterpoint. The story of China’s undiplomatic conduct is the same across Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States.
But why is the US debate on China where it is? Perhaps, because while the US was skeptical of China until the 1970s and Henry Kissinger had to overcome strong institutional resistance for the opening to Beijing, the softening occurred in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Bush was reluctant to impose harsh sanctions after the Tiananmen Square crackdown despite strong Congressional criticism. He was “tepid” in his response.
When the Congress tried to impose sanctions and link China’s Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to its human rights record, Bush vetoed the bill. “At each stage of the legislative process, human rights groups, Chinese students, and other critics of China favoured conditionality while American corporations, senior foreign statesmen and Hong Kong interests were opposed,” according to Richard C. Bush, who worked on the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time.
Tiananmen continued to haunt US politics. Candidate Bill Clinton famously called the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the “butchers of Beijing” during the 1992 campaign. But the zeitgeist soon shifted with neo-liberalism of the Clinton administration. China was seen as once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity. The US business community persuaded Clinton not to link MFN to human rights, arguing that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and opening up would be jeopardised.
Top academics at the time supported the idea that Deng was a reformer. They became the generation of go-to experts used by columnists and policy makers alike but they were mostly uncritical of China and surprisingly narrow in outlook.
This generation of US scholars studied the post-Tiananmen China and relied heavily on Chinese academics and CCP leaders for their analysis. To a great extent their scholarship was dependent on visas and access. They often ended up writing just what the Chinese wanted to hear. That their writings coincided with the US business sentiment was all for the greater good. Funding for research was aplenty and America’s political leaders were listening to their prescriptions.
The China positive experts focused narrowly on mitigating conflict over Taiwan and cooperating with Beijing on North Korea. The concerns of other countries vis-a-vis China were often overlooked. One casualty was India but even Japan didn’t fare well.
They ignored China’s role in Pakistan and Beijing’s complicity in developing Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Even when asked, they either said the claims were exaggerated or simply refused to engage on the subject. It’s inconceivable they were ignorant because the mainstream US press was regularly reporting on the China-Pakistan nexus in the early 2000s and before.
Among the more influential voices in this China circle were Shambaugh, professor at George Washington University quoted earlier, Ken Lieberthal, a former Asia director in the National Security Council (1998-2000), Jonathan Pollack, a former professor at the US Naval War College, and Jeffrey Bader, a principal advisor to former president Barack Obama. Lieberthal, Pollack and Bader signed the open letter to Trump last year.
Also included among them were US State Department luminaries such as Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy who acted like they had the key to the Middle Kingdom. Other countries in China’s neighborhood were either irrelevant or unimportant. They said India’s worries about China were exaggerated because China didn’t even raise South Asia in discussions. Even the department’s South Asia bureau repeated the mantra.
What if it was China’s strategy to isolate itself in the American mind from neighbouring countries and to make Americans think of China as a magical mystery tour worthy in itself? But such was the inclination to accommodate China that skepticism and statecraft were in short supply.
The believers had tremendous influence on Clinton on whose watch China began its long march to dominance by entering the World Trade Organisation. Clinton breezily told a senior Indian diplomat once that China was where the action was and that India was not in the reckoning.
Some elements in the George W. Bush administration also propagated the same thinking. A senior official for East Asia in the Bush Administration opposed the US-India nuclear deal on grounds it would jeopardise US cooperation with China on North Korea.
Such was China’s sway through friendly scholars and policy advisers, the Obama Administration dropped its objection to China providing civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan (the Karachi KANUPP-2 and KANUPP-3), despite warnings from South Asia experts such as Ashley Tellis.
Obama bought the Chinese line that they were grandfathered in an earlier agreement. Apparently, the concession was in exchange for Chinese cooperation in curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme. The decision was made in 2009-10, before Obama’s much-publicised “pivot” to Asia.
What Obama did under the influence of his China advisors, including Jeff Bader, was to negate the benefits his predecessor, Bush, had provided India through the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal. It was a measure of how far Obama went to get China’s cooperation. His administration barely looked at what China was doing inside the US in terms of influence operations or in the wider global competition in Asia and beyond. The “pivot” came when the policy of engagement failed to yield results but it had neither teeth nor bones.
To be sure, there were exceptions during the 1990s and 2000s. Prominent among them are Mike Pillsbury, Bonnie Glaser and Minxin Pei who expressed varying degrees of doubt about Chinese claims. Pillsbury has been advising Trump.
It’s interesting to note that the generation preceding the China positive scholars was generally more skeptical. Some of them watched China from a distance — often from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Perry Link of Princeton University and Andrew Nathan of Columbia University are two key voices.
Link has written about the limitations of scholarship because of a presiding sense of fear of losing access to field work in China. Anything deemed politically sensitive by Beijing — Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, human rights — is taboo.
Over time, these fears are internalised by scholars and start to feel natural, Link writes. To violate them “comes to seem not just politically incorrect but somehow culturally insensitive.” Link has compared Chinese government’s censorial authority to a “giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier” which doesn’t have to move to show its power. The message is silent and constant.
But over the last few years, a new generation of China scholars more questioning of the official line has come to the forefront. None of them signed the open letter last year. These scholars rely on archives and source material in Mandarin. They separate their criticism of the Trump Administration’s handling of the current coronavirus crisis from Chinese actions.
Rush Doshi, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, has written perceptively about China’s aggressive stance being a product of the system rather than a peculiarity of Xi’s rule. “Many aspects of an increasingly assertive Chinese policy that the United States finds disagreeable are not “bugs” introduced by Xi’s unique power consolidation and aggressiveness but enduring “features” of the consensus within the CCP,” he wrote early last year.
Doshi’s views seem far more realistic and rooted in what long-time, non-American China watchers would call lived experience. Others such as Abraham Denmark have written about China’s opportunism during this pandemic to assert control in its periphery.
“Even as it faces devastating losses from the novel coronavirus, the United States cannot afford to act as if geopolitics and competition have been put on hold. If anything, competition for the future of the Indo-Pacific has intensified, and the United States should lead a response,” Denmark wrote with co-authors Siddharth Mohandas and Charles Edel, both former State Department officials.
The rose-tinted glasses are off for the most part and the scholarship seems more grounded in reality. But the question remains — why have so many in the US policy and business establishment bought the notion that China must be accommodated? No other country gets a similar permanent pass.
Why do they repeat Chinese talking points uncritically? The nature of Sinology, the profit motive of corporations and the imbalance of information — Chinese ambassadors can publish their propaganda freely in the world’s top newspapers but no such freedom is allowed to foreigners in the Chinese media — provide only some of the answers.
Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. @seemasirohi. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.
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