US should engage in 'smart competition' with China, say former top officials

The report recommended that America build on its strengths to compete effectively with China while building coalitions to press China to follow international laws and norms. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States risks a breakdown in its relationship with China if it does not pursue negotiated solutions as it pushes back on Chinese actions that contravene international norms, warned a group of China specialists and former top officials in a report on Tuesday (Feb 12).

"The Trump administration is justified in pushing back harder against China's actions, but pushback alone isn't a strategy. It must be accompanied by the articulation of specific goals and how they can be achieved," said the 17 experts comprising the Asia Society's Task Force on US-China Policy.

Their report said the US and China were on a collision course, arising from a negative dynamic of American opinion-makers viewing China as a rising power seeking to unfairly undercut its economic prosperity and threaten its security, while their Chinese counterparts see the US as a declining power seeking to prolong its dominance by unfairly containing its rise.

To keep the US-China relationship from running further off the tracks, the Trump administration should recalibrate its foreign policy course and engage in "smart competition" with China, said the 51-page report, which examined the areas of economics and trade, security, global governance, human rights and overseas influence.

It recommended that America build on its strengths to compete effectively with China while maintaining as much cooperation as possible in areas of common interest while building international coalitions to press China to follow international laws and norms.

"While the United States must never compromise its national interests, neither should it define those interests as always antithetical to China's pursuit of its legitimate economic and security goals… Opposing Chinese influence across the board is neither desirable nor feasible," it said.

"The Trump administration has correctly identified the need for a more forceful response. However, its approach is defective in several respects," it added.

The expert group was chaired by the Asia Society's Centre on US-China Relations director Orville Schell and University of California, San Diego professor Susan Shirk, who was the deputy assistant secretary of state from 1997 to 2000. It included senior officials from the White House, State Department, and Office of the US Trade Representative during the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations.

But Professor Shirk also warned about the dangers of overreacting to perceived Chinese threats, cautioning that some responses in the name of national security already risked threatening American innovativeness and casting a cloud of suspicion over ethnic Chinese in America similar to the anti-Communist red scare of the 1940s and 1950s.

"We should think long and hard about the cost of restrictions on Chinese investments, students coming here, export controls, that could be very self-defeating from the standpoint of America's own innovation ecosystem," she said at the launch of the report in Washington DC.

"The American body politic has a tendency to overreact to external threats, especially something that looks like subversion. I feel that the risk, at this present moment under the Trump administration, is actually a greater risk to the US than what the Chinese are trying to do," she added, citing ideas that had been floated including cutting student visas and restricting Chinese students' access to American laboratories and campuses.

"There is a political tsunami in Washington against the China threat," she said. "This is a point of bipartisan agreement when there are so few others, and the counter-espionage effort really picked up tremendous steam… but there's a tremendous risk that going around trying to get everybody really scared about this will create this great suspicion of all people from China and all ethnic Chinese."

The report also recommended that the US carefully implement newly revised laws that allow it to more closely scrutinise inbound investment from China, and more widely curb exports of critical technologies to China and other countries.

It warned that decoupling the deeply intertwined US and Chinese economies would hurt America's interests, hindering its economy and innovation ecosystem while weakening US alliances if friendly countries believed they must choose between the two countries.

Said Prof Shirk: "If we try to decouple our economies, we would put tremendous pressure on our friends and allies who are trading partners with China and the US... We shouldn't always assume they will always choose the US."

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