Five myths about U.S.-China relations

Source: The Washington Post

John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”

U.S.-China relations have never been easy. No problem in the world can be solved without the pair working together, but working together is hard. The relationship is set for more uncertainty with the election of Donald Trump. On Dec. 2, Trump took a call from the democratically elected president of Taiwan, breaking decades of precedent. The call raised fears that Trump would take a hard line on China. But then, unpredictable as ever, the president-elect announced Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as his pick for ambassador to Beijing. Branstad reportedly has a close personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A little good cop, bad cop, perhaps? Anyway, a whole mythology has emerged about the most consequential relationship in the world. Here are a few myths that could use busting.

Trade and engagement will set China free.

This idea has been a foundational myth of America’s engagement with China almost since President Richard Nixon went there in 1972; it’s been used to justify decades of interaction. On the day China was granted most-favored-nation trading status in Washington in 1980, Rep. Bill Alexander (Ark.), a supporter of President Jimmy Carter, told the House, “Seeds of democracy are growing in China.” Flash forward to China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, and Robert Rubin, former treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, assuring Congress that the move would “sow the seeds of freedom for China’s 1.2 billion citizens.”

So far, this epochal bet has been a bust. China’s economy has become more open over the past few decades, and personal freedom for average citizens has expanded. But China’s one-party state represses dissent even more severely than it did 30 years ago in the run-up to the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square. A slew of internal Communist Party documents indicates that the level of paranoia about American values encroaching on China is at a crescendo. Meanwhile, Western businesses remain banned from investing in a wide swath of China’s economy, while Chinese firms can often invest in those sectors, including energy and telecommunications, overseas.

Trump’s Taiwan phone call threatened the status quo.

When Trump took Taiwan’s call, the U.S. foreign policy establishment had a minor nervous breakdown. Vox warned of “disarray ” in U.S.-China relations. New York magazine raised the specter of a “diplomatic disaster.”

Let’s take a deep breath and realize that the “status quo” between Taiwan and the United States has been evolving for decades. In exchange for Chinese promises to help ease the United States out of Vietnam and counter the Soviet Union, officials from the Nixon and Carter administrations promised China that America would walk away from Taiwan, allowing China to absorb the island of 23 million people, which Beijing views as a renegade province.

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