Is it a misinterpretation of China’s objectives to assume that resolving the trade conflict could play a role in softening its regional aspirations, including its stance toward Hong Kong and Taiwan? In other words, is there any obvious path in which a dovish turn in Washington towards the trade relationship can ease tensions in regional security?
I think those two subjects are largely disconnected. China has a mercantilist trade policy that they have adopted for a set of reasons unrelated to their view toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. There are also people in the United States who understand China’s trade relations and regional political policy to be separate. But if you are more of a China hawk, you could say an assertive stance within Asia stems from the same stew. Analysts, though, can see that Beijing’s mercantilist trade policy has been a long-held strategy, while its more hardline direction in Hong Kong and the South China Sea is of a later vintage. Recent political developments probably have more to do with their growing economic reach in the South China Sea and increased turmoil in Hong Kong. They were spurred by a separate set of policy drivers.
To my mind, this is an example of the need to return to statecraft, meaning apply the tools you have against a specific task. Avoid dogmatism and stigmatizing the Chinese as an adversary or as evil. There are certain things they are doing in which there is a strong basis for mutual collaboration, like trade or educational exchanges. There are other areas in which US interests are at odds with China, including the status quo in Taiwan and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Anytime a country unilaterally tries to change its borders is not helpful for regional stability. But I think we have to make sure we are messaging to Beijing that we have to protect our core interests and we are prepared to pay a price to do so. This is where Trump really fell short. China benefits from the current global trading and political system. The long-term goals of international peace and prosperity that we all share have been enormously beneficial to China. It had a good thirty to forty year run thanks to the World Trade Organization (WTO) process and rules. It is not healthy for China to begin the conversation by claiming the system is intrinsically unfair or China is being treated poorly by the world community. Including that positive narrative is essential to US statecraft. China is not just one participant in the international system. It is now big enough to become a steward of the global order. It has reached a stage of development where it has more to gain from stabilizing than challenging that order. This is not how most Chinese see it. They perceive unfairness toward the country and continue to emphasize the historical inability of a weak China to assert itself. All we are doing, they say, is raising issues everyone else has raised, and yet the world objects to the fact that we can finally stand up for ourselves. They express the narrative of victimhood, that China means no harm and is simply seeking its rightful place in the sun.
What is interesting to me is that all the major powers account for eighty to ninety percent of global GDP and global military size, and yet China is alone in still in the process of defining its international role. China has historically not been part of the European-led international system. They have had so much internal turmoil, destruction, and revolution that it is only in the last few decades that they have become consequential on the global stage. The spotlight is new, both for them and the rest of the world. But everything else we do in diplomacy, almost without exception, is working through normal channels. The only major relation that is still in the process of being defined is China. If I had to leave one insight with the Biden administration, it would be that. Our relations with Europe and our other treaty allies should be quite positive under Biden. As for the more opportunistic powers like Iran and Cuba, there could be trouble. But none of them have the economic heft to change facts on the ground. Only China has the capability to reshape Asia as it sees fit. It bears our attention.
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Ambassador Frank Lavin has held positions in several US administrations, including as US Ambassador to Singapore and Under Secretary for international trade at the US Commerce Department. He is currently a trustee of the Asia Foundation and CEO of Export Now, the largest offshore operator of China e-commerce stores.