More Thoughts on the Open Letter “China is not an enemy”

By Jerome A. Cohen

The Open Letter “China is not an enemy” (Washington Post link) has generated much debate and disagreement since publication. I have been asked why I signed the letter.

I joined this important effort because I am worried that the current toxic anti-PRC atmosphere and confusion in Washington might lead to a major deterioration in Sino-American relations that could have dangerous political, diplomatic, military and economic consequences. I hoped the letter, endorsed by so many able and prominent observers of the world scene, might alert people in America, China and elsewhere to give the current situation higher priority and greater thought. Of course, if writing the letter alone, I might have handled certain issues somewhat differently, but in a large collective effort one has to focus on its main thrust. I think the impact of the letter and the debate it has provoked demonstrates its value.

The four decades of pre-Trump policies by the U.S. and the “Western” democracies toward China succeeded in many ways. Most Chinese are enormously better off today than in 1972 or 1979, as I can attest from personal experience. China has become part of the world in manifest ways that did not exist forty years ago and there is a huge amount of international cooperation. We need to solve many difficult and serious issues between China and the democracies but should address them one by one while getting our own domestic “Western” houses in better order.

I can cite many examples, good and bad, of how China has been influenced by official American conduct in international affairs. For example, China’s disappointing rejection of the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Philippine arbitration decision concerning many issues of proper interpretation of the Convention undoubtedly was influenced by the egregious failure of the United States even to ratify UNCLOS as well as President Reagan’s scorn for the decision of the International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua case in the mid-‘80s. Also, the cynical U.S. resort to secret CIA actions designed to undermine the new Communist Government in China in the 1950s and 1960s had to have an impact on PRC perceptions about how the international relations game is covertly played.

On the other hand, the major post-World War II roles the U.S. played in establishing the main international organizations and shaping their constructive actions has stimulated increasing PRC efforts to emulate these roles and to rival American influence regarding many crucial areas relating to economics, the environment, international security and even those human rights emphasized by Beijing.

I think the U.S. Government should begin to take a more robust approach towards China’s human rights abuse, especially the Xinjiang atrocities the PRC is now committing. Its Xinjiang record warrants the strongest possible denunciations of the PRC and the application of sanctions, including the Global Magnitsky Act, against those who are directly responsible.

In assessing the current situation, we should recognize that the Xi Jinping government confronts many obstacles at home and will eventually be confronted abroad by a policy that may be summarized as containment, competition and cooperation. Moreover, Xi Jinping will not rule forever.