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This century’s pressing transnational issues – terrorism, economic crisis, climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence and peace on the Korean peninsula – cannot be solved if the US treats China as an enemy. Illustration: Craig Stephens

As US-China strategic rivalry heats up, don’t forget the successes of engagement

Stephen Orlins says warnings from the Trump administration about China as a strategic competitor ignore the progress that has been made and the benefits trade has brought to the US economy

When I hear discussion that the United States should limit visas to Chinese STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students, I think of Ming Hsieh, who came to America to study engineering at the University of Southern California. After graduation, he invented a high-speed biometric fingerprint system that now supplies the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other agencies.

If the limits now being discussed had been in place when he came to the US, this winner of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, after whom the USC School of Engineering is named, would not have been able to study in the US.

Since 1979, when diplomatic relations were formally established, American leaders and policymakers from both parties have pursued a policy of constructive engagement with China that has fostered robust economic and academic ties, advanced peace in Asia, and brought China into the international community.
Today, however, fear and mistrust on both sides of the US-China relationship are causing some to doubt the very concept of constructive engagement.
The current US National Security Strategy argues that China, along with Russia, is a strategic competitor. Despite the fact that it is America, not China, that has withdrawn from the Paris climate deal, Unesco and the Iran deal, the report brands China a revisionist power. Among other ideas, it proposes tariffs on Chinese goods, the restriction of Chinese investment in the US, limits on Chinese students and large increases in military expenditure.
A girl walks out of the US embassy after a visa interview in Beijing on May 30. The US government plans to shorten the length of visas issued to some Chinese citizens, starting on June 11, the latest action as part of China-US trade friction and Washington’s branding of Beijing as a “strategic competitor”. Photo: Simon Song
While many of these policies are based on exaggerations and distortions, in truth, it is not difficult to see why we are here. Over the past few years, the Chinese government has adopted policies that have alienated even ardent supporters of constructive engagement. In the business and trade realms, we see entire sectors closed to foreign investment, a lack of transparency in rule-making, regulatory enforcement that discriminates against foreigners, stalled third plenum reforms, lack of the rule of law and high tariffs that should have been reduced decades ago.

In the academic space, the denial of visas for those who write negatively about China alienates academics who believe in academic freedom. In the non-profit sector, the introduction of the international NGO management law has made it difficult for even non-controversial non-profit organisations to operate in China.

The blocking of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal sows distrust among Americans who rely on these for news and communications. China’s reclamation and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, in violation of international law, lead believers in the international system to question whether China can be the responsible stakeholder that Robert Zoellick called on it to become in 2005.
In the US, there are those who consistently misconstrue China’s actions and exaggerate China’s impact. For example, claims that America has lost millions of manufacturing jobs to China ignores the fact that automation and technology, along with relocating jobs to Mexico, Canada and other countries, are also important causes of job losses.
The focus on bilateral trade deficits ignores the fact that, in the last 10 years, the ratio of China’s current account surplus to GDP has dropped from 9 per cent to less than 2 per cent. This trend more accurately reflects China’s surplus and trade policies than bilateral trade statistics.
A senior American military official recently said to me, “China’s action in the South China Sea is the equivalent of Russia’s action in Ukraine and Crimea”. I pointed out that more than 10,000 people have died since the crisis between Russia and Ukraine began. Not one has died in the South China Sea. Such an analogy misconstrues China’s policies in the South China Seas.
Constructive engagement has not failed. It simply needs to be rebooted to meet challenges that its founders could never have envisaged. We should also acknowledge its successes. A few years after we engaged with China, American soldiers stopped dying in Asian conflicts. In 1979, when I moved to China, high school or college graduates were assigned jobs by the state and couldn’t get a passport. Now, 120 million Chinese travel abroad annually, generating more than US$33 billion for American businesses in 2016.
China is the third-largest destination for American goods and services and the No 1 purchaser of American agricultural products. Trade with China supports 2.6 million American jobs. China’s burgeoning middle class not only means that its people are living far better lives, it also creates a huge and growing market for American goods and services. US exports to China will rise to more than US$520 billion by 2030.
Chinese investment directly supports over 150,000 American jobs. While China is still not the responsible stakeholder we had hoped it would become by now, it has come a long way. China provides the largest number of UN peacekeepers among the permanent five-member nations of the United Nations; its “ Belt and Road Initiative” and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are providing much needed development financing.
As China becomes more prosperous and powerful, it naturally wields greater influence in the world. This does not make us strategic competitors. It does not make confrontation inevitable. The purpose of constructive engagement was never to make China just like us, but to make China a productive member of the global community.

When China is characterised as a strategic competitor and revisionist power, and we must spend tens or even hundreds of billions to defeat or deter China, I’m reminded of the words of president Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed” – and, we might add today, Americans who suffer from deteriorating infrastructure, and the under-educated who are not prepared for today’s jobs.

This century’s pressing transnational issues – terrorism, economic crisis, climate change, pandemics, the use of artificial intelligence and big data to serve humankind, peace on the Korean peninsula – cannot be solved if we treat China as an enemy. They can only be solved if we work together.

Stephen Orlins is president of the National Committee on US-China Relations. This article is adapted from his speech at the 52nd Annual Meeting of the National Committee on US-China Relations on May 22