Illustration: Craig Stephens
Stephen Orlins
Stephen Orlins

How the US can craft a bold and positive China agenda that benefits all Americans

  • Revoke tariffs, revisit curbs on Chinese people, companies and media, engage constructively on human rights and international norms, fine-tune Taiwan policy – and ditch confrontation
  • The US should not understate the benefits that constructive engagement brought to the American people

As we await the Biden administration’s China policy review, I want to address where US China policy stands and propose actions the administration should take to craft a policy that benefits all Americans.

I will not spend time rehashing the litany of bad, sometimes reprehensible, Chinese government decisions, policies and behaviours relating to its treatment of dissidents and people in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its Taiwan policies or its unfair economic policies. I am on the record forcefully criticising those policies and attributing blame to the Chinese government for the state of the relationship from far before the Trump era.
Over the past four years, America’s China policy has been a disaster for average Americans and US-China relations. It has often been based on fallacies rather than facts.
The Biden administration needs to forcefully refute some of these foundational fictions, such as China interfered in the 2020 elections – it didn’t; Chinese pay the tariffs on imported goods – they don’t; or the bilateral trade deficit reflects the unfair trading relationship between China and the United States – it doesn’t.
Envelopes containing ballots are shown at a voting center in San Francisco on November 1, 2020. A US intelligence report published in March this year concluded that China did not interfere in the 2020 US presidential election. Photo: AP

It’s easy to criticise from the sidelines, so here is my positive agenda for a US policy towards China that will strengthen ties and benefit American families.

On the economic front, the administration should immediately revoke Trump’s tariffs. China has indicated it will end its reciprocal tariffs. America has already lost 300,000 jobs and a family of four is still paying US$2,300 annually in extra expenses. With inflation possibly on the horizon, it is time to act.
The delisting of Chinese companies from US stock exchanges and the investment prohibition on 59 Chinese companies also needs to be revisited. While the Biden administration has emphasised working with allies, we work alone when it comes to delisting and sanctioning Chinese companies.

If these companies’ listings in Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Tokyo remain unchanged, these actions do not harm them. They do, however, have an impact on people’s livelihoods here in New York.

The administration should restore the Peace Corps and Fulbright programmes and reverse the executive order that ends congressional staff trips to China. The administration should also speed up the issuance of student visas and restart issuing visas to Communist Party members and their families.
We can facilitate this by allowing the Chinese government to reopen its consulate in Houston as the US reopens its consulate in Chengdu. The US should also quickly rebuild the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Science Foundation presence in its Beijing embassy.
Additionally, the administration should end restrictions on Chinese state media in the US, which reports on America to Chinese audiences and does not influence discussions of China in America. Before acting, the administration should secure Chinese government agreement to allow American journalists back into China under acceptable working conditions.

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Attorney General Merrick Garland should end the China Initiative. At a minimum, it undermines the Justice Department’s guidelines that prosecutors should not be influenced by a person’s race or national origin.

Additionally, the initiative’s chilling effect dissuades top scholars and researchers from coming to and staying in the US. The weak prosecutions that have so far resulted from the China Initiative show the costs far exceed the benefits.

The third area for action is on human rights and international norms. Labelling China a strategic competitor and focusing on destructive confrontation rather than constructive engagement does not help the citizens of Hong Kong, Uygurs in Xinjiang, or dissidents in China.

While the US should continue to vehemently criticise Beijing’s actions and sanction where necessary, a cooperative relationship will allow it to have more influence affecting policies that are inconsistent with American values.


China claims improved living standards and ethnic equality in Xinjiang while ignoring allegations

China claims improved living standards and ethnic equality in Xinjiang while ignoring allegations

Additionally, US criticism of China’s violations of international law in the South China Sea would be enhanced by its long overdue ratification of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Fourth, US policy on Taiwan is the root of much of its strategic conflict with China. While the Biden administration has reversed some of the previous administration’s actions, and Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell’s reaffirmation of the one-China policy helped, the visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to Palau, meetings of chargés d’affaires in Tokyo, visits by military aircraft to Taiwan, and failure to return the official contact protocol to the pre-Pompeo era undermine those statements.
The US should strengthen its relations with Taiwan without making it more official, with the visit to Taipei of Chris Dodd, James Steinberg and Richard Armitage, and the negotiating of additional trade agreements as good examples.
Finally, we should not understate the benefits that constructive engagement brought to the American people. Engagement with China improved the lives of the Chinese people and helped bind China to the international system, leading to its remarkable economic growth which has directly benefited working Americans.
Engagement led to China becoming the largest contributor to global economic growth, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, UN sanctions on North Korea and Iran, the Iran accord, the Paris accord, ending the genocide in Darfur, controlling the Ebola epidemic, leading the global recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, reducing piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and cooperating on joint research by the CDC in pandemics past.

Most importantly, when I first arrived in Asia 50 years ago, we were fighting the last of three wars that led to the deaths of more than 250,000 American soldiers in Asia. Since the era of constructive engagement, not a single American soldier has died on those battlefields.

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President Dwight Eisenhower warned that: “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.”

We should temper what is a normal level of competition with engagement, not exaggerate competition into confrontation. Otherwise, we risk spending hundreds of billions of dollars, inflicting enormous human sacrifice, and foregoing the chance to pursue economic policies that will better serve the needs of American working families. This moment calls for great leadership.

If Richard Nixon had polled whether he should go to China, or if Jimmy Carter had polled whether he should establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, neither would have acted. Now is the time for bold – and brave – actions. It’s late but not too late.

Stephen A. Orlins is president of the National Committee on US-China Relations. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the National Committee. This is adapted from a speech delivered virtually at a public programme hosted by the National Committee on July 22 and moderated by Jerome A. Cohen. A video and transcript of the full speech are available