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  • Comments on the "Open Letter to the President and Congress on China Policy"
  • Mel Gurtov

The open letter on US China policy below has been signed by over 130 China specialists. I am one of them. The letter is an attempt to move US policy with Beijing onto a more constructive path in dealing, both cooperatively and competitively, at a crucial juncture in the US-China relationship. Tensions and disputes have once again come to predominate, and the optimism that once tended to prevail about the ability of the two governments to overcome obstacles is now largely gone. Quite a few China specialists who would normally associate themselves with engaging China have now joined with the Trump administration in urging a hard line on trade, military, and other issues. The open letter is a timely rejoinder to that trend.

The letter has its critics, among them John Pomfret, longtime commentator on Asian affairs, who writes that it is past time to "bury" the notion that holds China innocent when it comes to assessing responsibility for tensions in US-China relations (Pomfret 2019). He reads the letter as essentially saying "treat China as an enemy and it will become one," and he reverts to Cold War analysis by implying that the letter's authors naïvely ignore China's "Marxist-Leninist system." But both those charges are unfair: while the letter is on the light side in criticizing China's behavior, its essential point is that neither Xi Jinping's domestic repression nor his assertive foreign policy makes China (as President Donald Trump and his National Security Council believe) a threat to US national security, whereas continued mismanagement of relations with China will indeed, and needlessly, create a major enemy.

Trump has a long history of denouncing China for trade practices that he thinks alone account for the large US deficit. Despite his photo-op personal diplomacy with Xi, Trump has been consistent in seeing the "China challenge" as the "China threat," inviting Xi and other Chinese officials to respond in kind. Pomfret portrays Trump as merely seeking "reciprocity" with China, which seems quite at odds with a US policy toward China that promotes arms sales to Taiwan (a $2.2 billion sale being the latest), rejects multilateral trade and arms control agreements, and stokes a trade and investment war. Meantime, collaborative [End Page 737] opportunities with China are being ignored while hostility is embraced, as J. Stapleton Roy, a former career diplomat who served as US ambassador to China, writes in a rebuttal to Pomfret (Nelson 2019). As Roy argues, "Hostile attitudes make it more difficult to see and exploit such opportunities" to advance common interests. No naïveté there, just common sense.

So the open letter seems correct to me in arguing that the balance of responsibility for the tensions rests with Washington. By most accounts, US policymaking, and not just on China, is erratic, disorganized, and strategically unfocused. Frictions with China are more likely to be resolved through diplomacy and cooperation with allies than through insistence on "America First." Wang Jisi's observation is worth noting: "Some US watchers in China, myself included, find the country we have studied for years increasingly unrecognizable and unpredictable." He warned that, compared with crises in relations in previous times, "the current deterioration in relations may prove more permanent" (Wang 2018). The open letter makes a contribution to avoiding a new Cold War in Asia.

"Open Letter to the President and Congress on China Policy: China Is Not an Enemy"

Reprinted from the Washington Post on July 3 (online edition) and July 4 (print edition), 2019

Dear Mr. President and Members of Congress,

We, the undersigned, are members of the U.S. scholarly, foreign policy, military and business community, including many who have focused on Asia throughout our professional careers. We are deeply concerned about the growing deterioration in U.S. relations with China, which we believe does not serve American or global interests. Although we are very troubled by Beijing's recent behavior, which requires a strong response, we also believe that many U.S. actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.

The following seven propositions...


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