Trump urged to take 'wiser' approach with Beijing in open letter from China experts in US

US President Donald Trump meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 29, 2019.
US President Donald Trump meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 29, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - An open letter from 100 well-known experts in America on China critical of Washington's adversarial stance towards Beijing has highlighted - and fuelled - the ongoing debate in the United States over how to deal with China.

The public pushback from moderates was prompted by concern over worsening US-China relations, amid a hardening anti-China line from Trump administration officials and a festering trade war that has spilled over to competition in technology and other arenas.

Their letter was addressed to President Donald Trump and members of Congress, and published in the Washington Post on Wednesday (July 3). Headlined "China is not an enemy", it outlined the authors' problems with the current US approach to China and laid out their tenets for a better foreign policy.

"We are deeply concerned about the growing deterioration in US relations with China, which we believe does not serve American or global interests," said the letter.

"Although we are very troubled by Beijing's recent behaviour, which requires a strong response, we also believe that many US actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations."

The authors included scholars, business leaders and former US ambassadors to China and other Asian countries, as well as former top State Department and military officials, many of whom held posts in or relating to China in the 1990s.

Among them were Mr J. Stapleton Roy, the US ambassador to China from 1991 to 1995, and former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Susan Thornton, who retired last year after 28 years in the State Department.

 
 
 
 

China's troubling behaviour, including its turn to greater domestic repression and more aggressive foreign policy, required a firm and effective US response, but the current approach was "fundamentally counterproductive", they said.

"We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere; nor is China a monolith, or the views of its leaders set in stone," they added.

The letter argued that America's efforts to decouple China from the global economy would end up damaging and isolating America itself, and that Beijing itself had no intention of replacing the US as the global leader.

It also said that Washington's adversarial stance weakened the influence of moderate and pragmatic Chinese officials in favour of assertive nationalists - something that others dispute.

In response to the letter, China watcher Bill Bishop wrote in his Sinocism newsletter that under Chinese President Xi Jinping, "the Chinese side sees restraint as more evidence of US weakness and decline... The non-adversarial approach does not have a great record over the last decade and if anything has emboldened the Chinese side".

There was also no one in Beijing dovish enough, or in a position of enough influence, to push changes based on a different US approach, Mr Bishop argued.

In Beijing, however, the letter was held up by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang and other newspapers as an example of "rational and objective views".

Mr Geng said in a Thursday briefing that prejudices and miscalculations should not sway US-China relations, adding: "It is our belief that objective, rational and pragmatic voices will ultimately triumph over paranoid, fanatic and zero-sum views."

In any case, as the letter's authors themselves acknowledged, no single Washington consensus endorsing an overall adversarial stance towards China existed.

The letter was "a pretty clear indicator that the debate over the future direction of US strategy towards China is far from settled", said Brookings Institution China scholar Ryan Hass, who did not sign the letter, on Twitter.

Hudson Institute Asia-Pacific security chair Patrick Cronin, who was also not one of the 100 authors, wrote: "So much for the myth that there is unity over how to deal with the China challenge."