By Jerome A. Cohen
ChinaFile is usually very good value but this week’s Conversation on American policy toward China is of an especially high quality, and what topic is more important and timely, given the current state?
Perhaps enough ink has already been spilt in response to the brilliantly provocative essay by Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, and I found myself in agreement with all the commentators in the Conversation. Of course, I enthusiastically endorse what Liz Economy and Andy Nathan have written and also particularly benefited from the wise counsel of Lindsey Ford and Robert Daly, whose views I had not heard before. Yet a few additional remarks may be helpful in adding perspective to our dilemma. Therefore, I have chimed in with a comment (attached below with a number of links that might be useful as background).
Best wishes to my blog readers for the Year of the Dog. Hope Springs Eternal!
--------My comment in the ChinaFile Conversation--------
The problem of exaggerated expectations is not a new one for China policy. We only need to recall Franklin Roosevelt’s insistence that the Republic of China (R.O.C.) be accorded permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. I wonder how much more complicated People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) participation in the U.N. might have become if it had not been able to step into the R.O.C.’s Security Council shoes.
I think the hopes that motivated the U.S. effort to initiate a new China policy in the late ’60s and ’70s were more varied and complex than often recognized. There was realpolitik as well as wishful thinking. Have we given enough weight, for example, to the importance of obtaining P.R.C. support to counter the Soviet Union and to ease us out of Vietnam? Many China watchers had broader considerations than those in mind when advocating change, but I don’t recall many of my own colleagues saying that we would create China in our own image. I think, for example, of the memorandum that our Harvard-MIT group submitted to Nixon and Kissinger under the awning of the Kennedy Institute of Politics in November 1968 after many discussions. I also want to excavate my 1971 and 1976 Foreign Affairs articles to see the extent to which convergence was a stated goal. We plainly thought that rapprochement would improve international relations as well as the lives of the Chinese people.
We should not underestimate the extent to which the new policy did effect positive change, certainly in the lives of the Chinese people. Anyone who worked in China in the ’70s and even the ’80s can attest to the enormous progress in social and economic conditions that gradually resulted from the Open Policy. And, after a hiatus of several years following June 4, the renewed and wider engagement proved to be successful in many respects, including education and communication, and many Chinese elites today reflect the enormous progress that has been made, which is why Xi Jinping has to fight so hard against “Western values” and to repress and punish free expression.
We should keep in mind that Xi will eventually pass from the scene, at which time we can expect a reaction against his harsh rule. Many in China today are very unhappy about both the domestic oppression and many aspects of Xi’s foreign policy. The P.R.C.’s response to the Philippine arbitration was extremely controversial within expert circles, just as is the imminent enactment of the new “Supervisory Commission” system of arbitrary detention that will confirm what I call “The Inquisition with Chinese characteristics.”
I favor the measures suggested by so many of the commentators in this discussion to reinvigorate American policy in diplomatic, economic, and military terms and to revive our society. But in doing so we should not foster the misimpression that the P.R.C. will remain frozen in the Xi Jinping mold. I still like Joseph Nye’s admonition to “keep open the possibility of more benign outcomes.” Indeed, we need to do more to stimulate such possibilities by enhancing our competitiveness without, as the phrase goes, being confrontational. Given the situation in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait, this will not be easy.