US-China Relations:

Dangerous Times Ahead and Some Ways to Avoid them

– By Richard W. Mueller

A recent BBC report documented that Chinese provincial approvals of new coal plants are leading to a 25% gigawatt increase in installed electric power, despite Beijing’s attempts to rein in new construction.

What’s going on?

This report, while focusing on coal plant construction, is another good example of how much President Xi Jinping and the Chinese central government struggle to govern a country of 1.4 billion people in a complex world.

Understanding that governance struggle, combined with wise US policy, will much better inform the US approach to China and more likely avoid potentially dangerous future confrontation.

Many Americans and others choose – and I use that word advisedly – to focus on the growth of China and its many advances in the last four decades. These advances have benefitted the people in terms of income, ability to choose jobs and schools, and travel overseas. They have afforded more freedom in day-to-day lives. They have also benefitted the United States, although some worry about the long-term impact on the US. The contrast is truly striking compared with my own Foreign Service experience serving at the US Liaison Office in Beijing 1976-78.

Americans must also choose to understand better China’s many challenges and the prospect those hurdles will hold back overall development and China’s seeming “relentless advance.”

Doing so will better inform American policy toward China and more likely lead to much better outcomes for both countries.

Governing China: A Difficult Task for the Central Government

Each Chinese province and region has its own set of histories, cultures, priorities, and leadership struggles. Trying to keep all regions going in more or less the same direction is a gargantuan task for Beijing, even in our era of instant communications.

While we often think the Chinese people are unified and focused on common goals, often they aren’t. We just don’t see all the struggles and cleavages behind the scenes.

It would be hard to find a Chinese person not familiar with the historical phrase, “Shan gao, huangdi yuan.” (“The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”) Local and regional leaders historically paid lip service to the emperor in Beijing – today in the form of the Communist Party – and then set their own priorities.

President Xi is well aware also that over the centuries the “empire,” once having come together, later becomes weak and divided. “Recovering” Hong Kong and Macau was a triumph; eventually bringing back Taiwan is thus a “core interest.” Re-gaining the world’s respect for China after two hundred years of foreign invasion is another critical priority. Every day Xi wrestles with the question of how best to govern, not only in foreign policy, but also in how to improve medical systems for all, provide adequate social security, improve education, rein in corruption, deal with climate change, and implement effective environmental policies.

Is Xi fearful that China’s development will stall before China regains its strength and “rightful” place in the world?

Sadly, Xi has chosen to emphasize top down, authoritarian leadership, censorship, and severe restrictions on human rights while attempting to keep the country together and expand its power around the world. It is now clear that Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang are experiencing almost unprecedented oppression. Will Muslim nations push back on China, and, if so, how will China react? How will the US respond as China chips away at Hong Kong’s promised 50 years of “one country, two systems”?

Are America and China on a Collision Course?

From the American perspective, China has taken actions which we must address and confront with hardheaded diplomacy: policies which hamper and restrict US companies from fairly doing business, forced tech transfers, requirements for accepting joint ventures with Chinese firms, cyber stealing of technology, exclusion from the domestic market, mercantilist practices, huge exports of dangerous drugs, and others. China has openly shown its willingness to use military pressure on the US and their neighbors, witness their actions in the South China Sea and a robust space program with potential military applications.

My great concern right now is that the Trump administration does not have a coherent, coordinated strategy for where we realistically want to be in 5-10-20 years and how to get there. Nor has it clearly articulated one to the American people and sought their support for what is currently an openly confrontational set of actions.

A great danger is that negative words and opinions on both sides of the Pacific may well harden and create dangers for another generation or more.

The administration is divided, and that’s dangerous. It needs to articulate its objectives clearly if we have any hope of engaging China productively over the long run. Are we attempting to “contain” China and deliberately weaken it? Are we confronting China everywhere around the world, economically, politically? Are we just flirting with Taiwan or, as the Chinese might interpret, planning a change in the relationship? (Those could be fighting words.) Are we now teaching ourselves to be suspicious of all Chinese, whether visitors or students or even Chinese Americans? The FBI director has made some strong and tendentious statements.

In addition to heavy-handed use of tariffs as a signal of our toughness (even though we are hurting ourselves also), we now understand the administration is getting ready for a huge broadside against China. Will the U.S. official who gives that speech be clear in what we want and suggest ways of building bridges to get there? Will we offer to work together for common goals? Will that person fully speak for the President?

A National Security Council official has already called publicly for “competition” and said it’s not a four letter word. How does the Chinese leadership interpret that? Is the US truly antagonistic toward China as it seems? Or can trust be built?

I support tough diplomacy in service to clearly articulated outcomes, but not “competition” for the sake of what China may see as grandstanding or worse.

Don’t underestimate the potential long-term damage to the United States as well as to China and the rest of the world if we don’t set clear, realistic goals for our foreign policy. We need to use hard-headed negotiations, backed by careful, targeted hardball policies as necessary, to build bridges to get us there.

Do we have the courage to call them collaborative, “win-win” strategies?

I choose to believe it’s possible for the US and China to develop such strategies over the coming months and years. The prerequisite is better understanding on both sides, some patience, an appreciation for our common humanity, and clear goals which both countries feel they can work toward together.

Even though we have legitimate criticisms of Chinese practices, and they have their criticisms of us, we can find a new way forward.

Richard W. Mueller
October 1, 2018

The author was a 32-year career Foreign Service Officer, Minister-Counselor. He served as Deputy Executive Secretary under Secretary of State George Schultz and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs under Secretary Jim Baker. He specialized in Asian and Chinese affairs, serving in Canberra, the American Embassy in Saigon, Taiwan, and Beijing, and retired in 1998 after serving as American Consul General in Hong Kong from 1993-96. He subsequently served as Director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and then for fifteen years was Head of School of three schools, Northfield Mount Hermon School, Hong Kong International School and Shanghai American School. Richard and his wife, Claire, moved to Golden, Colorado in 2016 from Shanghai.