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Opinions

Five myths about U.S.-China


relations
By John Pomfret December 9

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.
U.S.Chinarelationshaveneverbeeneasy.Noproblemintheworldcanbesolvedwithoutthepairworkingtogether,but
workingtogetherishard.TherelationshipissetformoreuncertaintywiththeelectionofDonaldTrump.OnDec.2,Trump
tookacallfromthedemocraticallyelectedpresidentofTaiwan,breakingdecadesofprecedent.Thecallraisedfearsthat
TrumpwouldtakeahardlineonChina.Butthen,unpredictableasever,thepresidentelectannouncedIowaGov.Terry
BranstadashispickforambassadortoBeijing.BranstadreportedlyhasaclosepersonalrelationshipwithChinese
PresidentXiJinping.Alittlegoodcop,badcop,perhaps?Anyway,awholemythologyhasemergedaboutthemost
consequentialrelationshipintheworld.Hereareafewmythsthatcouldusebusting.

MYTH NO. 1
Trade and engagement will set China free.
ThisideahasbeenafoundationalmythofAmericasengagementwithChinaalmostsincePresidentRichardNixonwent
therein1972itsbeenusedtojustifydecadesofinteraction.OnthedayChinawasgrantedmostfavorednationtrading
statusinWashingtonin1980,Rep.BillAlexander(Ark.),asupporterofPresidentJimmyCarter,toldtheHouse,Seedsof
democracyaregrowinginChina.FlashforwardtoChinasaccessiontotheWorldTradeOrganizationin2001,andRobert
Rubin,formertreasurysecretaryunderBillClinton,assuringCongressthatthemovewouldsowtheseedsoffreedomfor
Chinas1.2billioncitizens.
Sofar,thisepochalbethasbeenabust.Chinaseconomyhasbecomemoreopenoverthepastfewdecades,andpersonal
freedomforaveragecitizenshasexpanded.ButChinasonepartystaterepressesdissentevenmoreseverelythanitdid30
yearsagointherunuptothe1989crackdownonprodemocracyprotestsaroundTiananmenSquare.Aslewofinternal
CommunistPartydocumentsindicatesthatthelevelofparanoiaaboutAmericanvaluesencroachingonChinaisata
crescendo.Meanwhile,WesternbusinessesremainbannedfrominvestinginawideswathofChinaseconomy,while
Chinesefirmscanofteninvestinthosesectors,includingenergyandtelecommunications,overseas.

MYTH NO. 2
Trumps Taiwan phone call threatened the status quo.

WhenTrumptookTaiwanscall,theU.S.foreignpolicyestablishmenthadaminornervousbreakdown.Voxwarnedof
disarrayinU.S.Chinarelations.NewYorkmagazineraisedthespecterofadiplomaticdisaster.

LetstakeadeepbreathandrealizethatthestatusquobetweenTaiwanandtheUnitedStateshasbeenevolvingfor
decades.InexchangeforChinesepromisestohelpeasetheUnitedStatesoutofVietnamandcountertheSovietUnion,
officialsfromtheNixonandCarteradministrationspromisedChinathatAmericawouldwalkawayfromTaiwan,allowing
Chinatoabsorbtheislandof23millionpeople,whichBeijingviewsasarenegadeprovince.
Sincethen,however,especiallyasU.S.presidentshavecometounderstandthatChinaspoliticalsystemhasnotmovedina
positivedirection,successiveadministrationshaveworkedtobettertieswithTaiwan.Weaponssalestotheislandremain
robustdespiteapromisetoChinain1982toslowthem.Diplomaticcontacthasbeenupgraded.Washingtonnowsupports
grantingTaiwanobserverstatusatavarietyofinternationalorganizations.MostTaiwanesecancometotheUnitedStates
withoutavisa.Inthatsense,Trumpscallwasalogicalcontinuationofaslowlyevolvingprocessofimprovedrelations.The
bigconcern,however,isthatChinawillusethecallasanexcusetofurtherbullyTaiwanandthatTrumpwillstandby.

MYTH NO. 3
The United States has tried to contain Chinas rise.
ThisisChinasversionofMyth1,anditundergirdsBeijingsofficialviewoftheUnitedStates.ItappearsinChinesehistory
textbooks,isrepeatedadnauseamonstaterunmediaandisusedasathrowawaylineineverydayinteractionbetween
ChineseandAmericans.OnerecentheadlineontheChinesegovernmentsnewswebsiteread,ContainingChina:America
Has5TrumpCards.
Enoughalready.Anyclearheadedlookatthehistorybetweenthetwocountriesrevealsthatthroughouttheirinteraction,
saveforashortinterregnumduringtheColdWar,theUnitedStateshasbeen,ifanything,theprimeforeignenablerof
Chinasrise.Americasopenwallets,opensocietyandopenuniversitieshavebeenkeyfactorsinChinasascentfroma
ThirdWorldbackwatertoaglobaleconomicpower.In2001,theUnitedStatesusheredChinaintotheWorldTrade
Organization,contributingtoamassiveboominChineseexports.AmericantrainedscientistsmanChineseresearch
institutions,andAmericantrainedtechnocratspopulateitscentralbank.
Sure,AmericanshavedonestupidthingstojustifyChinesemisgivings,suchasthewrongheadedpushagainstChinas
establishmentoftheAsianInfrastructureInvestmentBankin2015.Butthatissmallbeer.Ofcourse,theChinese
CommunistParty,givenitsparanoiaaboutAmericanvalues,cannotpubliclyrecognizethisfact.Butprivately,everyparty
leadersinceDengXiaopinghassenthischildtobeeducatedintheUnitedStatesanacknowledgmentthatAmericaholds
someoftheanswerstoChinasquesttobecomestrongandrich.

MYTH NO. 4
China is killing the U.S. economy.
ThenotionthatChinaisdestinedtotakeovertheworldwasamajorthemeofthiselection.Wecantcontinuetoallow
Chinatorapeourcountry,TrumptoldacrowdinMay,claimingthatthecountryiskillingtheUnitedStatesontradeand

dominatingusontheinternationalmarket.Trumpandmany,manyothershavealsoarguedthatChinasholdingofabout
$1trillioninU.S.debtgivesitleverageovereverythingwedo.

Noneofthisisreallytrue.First,theU.S.Treasurysmarketisenormous,totalingabout$11trillion,andhighlyliquid.China
holdsaboutasmuchinTreasurybondsasJapandoes.AndifChinadumpeditsholdings,itwouldhurtChinaasmuchasthe
UnitedStates,becauseapricedropinTreasuryswouldlowerthevalueofChinasinvestments.
Ontrade,yearsofstudieshaveshownthatautomationismoreofafactorthanoutsourcingtoChinainthehollowingoutof
U.S.manufacturingjobs.Thatsaid,certainsectorsoftheeconomy,suchasfurnituremakingandtextiles,havebeen
hammeredbyChina.AsfortotalcompetitionwiththeUnitedStates,Americanstendtooverestimateourproblemsand
underestimatethoseofourcompetitors.Chinaisfacingaseriesofloomingpredicaments:ItscorporatedebttoGDPratio
isoneofthehighestintheworldifitsnotdealtwithsoon,itcouldcauseafinancialcrisis.Itsenvironmentalissuesareso
extremethatsomecities,suchasBeijing,whichisroutinelycloakedinacocktailofdustandsmog,havestoppedpublishing
lifeexpectancystatistics.Andfinally,Chinasdemographics,bornofitsformeronechildpolicy,areresultinginarapidly
agingpopulationandhigherlaborcosts.Ifproductivitydoesnotincreasesubstantially,Chinasgrossdomesticproductwill
slowevenmore.

MYTH NO. 5
Chinas anti-American propaganda doesnt matter.
WhenHenryKissingerwenttoChinaonhishistoric1971trip,hecomplainedtoPremierZhouEnlaiaboutasurgeinanti
Americanpropaganda.Inatacticthathissuccessorswouldrepeat,Zhousaidthestaterunmediawasjustfiringempty
cannonsandassuredKissingerthatitdidnotmatter.
Wrong.AttackingAmericadidmattertothecommunistsitwasacenterpieceoftheirideology.Fourdecadeslater,this
remainsthecase.TheoccasionalofficialhasworriedabouttheU.S.tendencytoignoretheavalancheofantiAmerican
claptrapinChinasmediaorourwillingnesstoallowChineseofficialstooperateintheUnitedStatesinwaysthatrun
countertoourvalues.WhenGeorgeH.W.BushwastheheadoftheU.S.LiaisonOfficeinBeijinginlate1974,thePeoples
RepublicsentitsfirstexhibitofarchaeologicaltreasurestotheUnitedStates.TheChineseinformedStateDepartment
officialsthattheywouldnotallowreportersfromnationsthatdidnothaverelationswithChinatoattendanews
conferenceplannedfortheNationalGalleryofArt.InsteadofignoringtheChinesedemand,theStateDepartmentcanceled
thebriefing.Bushwasshocked.Wemustnotcapitulateonmattersthisfundamental,hewrote....Wemustnotpermit
themtoflaunttheirwayintheUnitedStates.Stateignoredhisentreaties.
AmericasunwillingnesstodemandreciprocityfromChinaonsuchfrontshasharmedtherelationshipbyeffectively
rewardingChinesebadbehavior,whichencouragesmore.AnexamplewouldbeAmericasopennessingrantingvisasto
Chinesejournalists,andingivingthemsignificantfreedomtooperateintheUnitedStates,whiletoleratingthedeep
restrictionsChinaplacesonAmericanreportersworkingthere.
ChinasleadershavealsobecomecomfortablewithpubliclylambastingtheUnitedStates.InOctober2014,President
JinpingpraisedultranationalistbloggerZhouXiaopingforspreadingwhathecalledpositiveenergy.Inaparticularly
notoriousessaytitledNineKnockoutBlowsinAmericasColdWarAgainstChina,Zhouhadsavagedthetendencyof

youngChinesetoworshiptheWestanddeclaredthatAmericawastreatingChinaandtheChineseinthesamewayHitler
hadtreatedtheJews.

Twitter:@JEPomfret
Fivemythsisaweeklyfeaturechallengingeverythingyouthinkyouknow.Youcancheckoutpreviousmyths,readmore
fromOutlookorfollowourupdatesonFacebookandTwitter.

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. Follow @JEPomfret

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