Five myths about US-China relations

A magazine featuring US President-elect Donald Trump is seen at a bookstore in Beijing on Dec 12, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

United States-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 Mr Donald Trump. On Dec 2, he took a call from the democratically elected president of Taiwan, breaking decades of precedent. The call raised fears that Mr Trump would take a hard line on China.

But then, unpredictable as ever, the US President-elect announced Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as his pick for ambassador to Beijing. Mr 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.

MYTH NO. 1

TRADE AND ENGAGEMENT WILL SET CHINA FREE

This idea has been a foundational myth of America's engagement with China almost since then US President Richard Nixon went there in 1972; it has been used to justify decades of interaction. On the day China was granted most-favoured-nation trading status in Washington in 1980, Republican Bill Alexander of Arkansas, a supporter of then President Jimmy Carter, told the House: "Seeds of democracy are growing in China."

Flash forward to China's accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and Mr Robert Rubin, treasury secretary under Mr Bill Clinton, assuring Congress that the move would "sow the seeds of freedom for China's 1.2 billion citizens".

The implication was clear: This class of people was going to liberate China.

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 the average citizen 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 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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 swathe of China's economy, while Chinese firms can often invest in those sectors, including energy and telecommunications, overseas.

MYTH NO. 2

TRUMP'S TAIWAN PHONE CALL THREATENED THE STATUS QUO

When Mr Trump took Taiwan's call, the US foreign policy establishment had a minor nervous breakdown. Vox warned of "disarray" in US-China relations. New York magazine raised the spectre of a "diplomatic disaster".

Let us take a deep breath and realise that the "status quo" between Taiwan and the US has been evolving for decades. In exchange for Chinese promises to help ease the US 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.

Since then, however, especially as US presidents have come to understand that China's political system has not moved in a positive direction, successive administrations have worked to better ties with Taiwan. Weapon sales to the island remain robust despite a promise to China in 1982 to slow them. Diplomatic contact has been upgraded. Washington now supports granting Taiwan observer status at a variety of international organisations. Most Taiwanese can come to the US without a visa.

In that sense, Mr Trump's call was a logical continuation of a slowly evolving process of improved relations. The big concern, however, is that China will use the call as an excuse to further bully Taiwan and that Mr Trump will stand by.

MYTH NO. 3

THE U.S. HAS TRIED TO CONTAIN CHINA'S RISE

This is China's version of Myth No. 1, and it undergirds Beijing's official view of the US. It appears in Chinese history textbooks, is repeated ad nauseam on state-run media and is used as a throwaway line in everyday interaction between Chinese and Americans. One recent headline on the Chinese government's news website read, "Containing China: America Has 5 Trump Cards". Enough already.

Any clear-headed look at the history between the two countries reveals that throughout their interaction, save for a short interregnum during the Cold War, the US has been, if anything, the prime foreign enabler of China's rise.

America's open wallets, open society and open universities have been key factors in China's ascent from a Third World backwater to a global economic power. In 2001, the US ushered China into the World Trade Organisation, contributing to a massive boom in Chinese exports. American-trained scientists man Chinese research institutions and American-trained technocrats populate its central bank.

Sure, Americans have done stupid things to justify Chinese misgivings, such as the wrong-headed push against China's establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank last year. But that is small beer. Of course, the CCP, given its paranoia about American values, cannot publicly recognise this fact.

But privately, every party leader since Deng Xiaoping has sent his child to be educated in the US - an acknowledgment that America holds some of the answers to China's quest to become strong and rich.

MYTH NO. 4

CHINA IS KILLING THE U.S. ECONOMY

The notion that China is destined to take over the world was a major theme of this year's US election. "We can't continue to allow China to rape our country," Mr Trump told a crowd in May, claiming that the country is "killing" the US on trade and dominating it on the international market. Mr Trump and many, many others have also argued that China's holding of about US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) in US debt gives it leverage over everything we do.

None of this is really true.

First, the US Treasury's market is enormous, totalling about US$11 trillion, and highly liquid. China holds about as much in Treasury bonds as Japan does. And if China dumped its holdings, it would hurt China as much as the US because a price drop in Treasuries would lower the value of China's investments.

On trade, years of studies have shown that automation is more of a factor than outsourcing to China in the hollowing-out of US manufacturing jobs. That said, certain sectors of the economy, such as furniture-making and textiles, have been hammered by China. As for total competition with the US, Americans tend to overestimate their problems and underestimate those of their competitors.

China is facing a series of looming predicaments: Its corporate debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is one of the highest in the world; if it's not dealt with soon, it could cause a financial crisis.

Its environmental issues are so extreme that some cities, such as Beijing, which is routinely cloaked in a cocktail of dust and smog, have stopped publishing life expectancy statistics.

And finally, China's demographics, born of its former one-child policy, are resulting in a rapidly ageing population and higher labour costs. If productivity does not increase substantially, China's GDP will slow even more.

MYTH NO. 5

CHINA'S ANTI-AMERICAN PROPAGANDA DOESN'T MATTER

When Dr Henry Kissinger went to China on his historic 1971 trip, he complained to then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai about a surge in anti-American propaganda. In a tactic that his successors would repeat, Mr Zhou said the state-run media was just "firing empty cannon" and assured Dr Kissinger that it did not matter.

Wrong.

Attacking America did matter to the communists; it was a centrepiece of their ideology. Four decades later, this remains the case. The occasional official has worried about the US tendency to ignore the avalanche of anti-American claptrap in China's media or US willingness to allow Chinese officials to operate in the US in ways that run counter to its values.

When former US president George H.W. Bush was head of the US Liaison Office in Beijing in late 1974, China sent its first exhibit of archaeological treasures to the US. The Chinese informed US State Department officials that they would not allow reporters from nations that did not have relations with China to attend a news conference planned for the National Gallery of Art.

Instead of ignoring the Chinese demand, the State Department cancelled the briefing. Mr Bush was shocked. "We must not capitulate on matters this fundamental...," he wrote. "We must not permit them to flaunt their way in the United States." The State Department ignored his entreaties.

America's unwillingness to demand reciprocity from China on such fronts has harmed the relationship by effectively rewarding Chinese bad behaviour, which encourages more. An example would be America's openness in granting visas to Chinese journalists and in giving them significant freedom to operate in the US while tolerating the deep restrictions that China places on American reporters working there.

China's leaders have also become comfortable with publicly lambasting the US. In October 2014, Mr Xi praised ultra-nationalist blogger Zhou Xiaoping for spreading what he called "positive energy".

In a particularly notorious essay titled Nine Knockout Blows In America's Cold War Against China, the blogger had savaged the tendency of young Chinese to worship the West and declared that America was treating China and the Chinese in the same way Hitler had treated the Jews.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'Five myths about US-China relations'. Subscribe