One of the critical choices that will shape the 21st century is how the United States responds to a more assertive China. Bilateral trade between the two giants now surpasses that between any other pair of countries. More than 430,000 Chinese now study in the US. And their two militaries often face off in Asian hot spots.
Should the US, for example, respond harshly to China’s technology theft? Should it ban the country’s Confucius Institutes and China-tied student groups on US campuses if they impinge on academic freedom? Should it restrict Chinese investments in US firms if they disable America’s commercial and military advantages?
Sensible answers to such questions can be found in a new report from some two dozen China specialists in the US who had long advocated for constructive engagement with Beijing. They admit a “mood shift” in attitudes toward China among Americans.
Alarmed at the “sharp power” wielded by Communist Party leader Xi Jinping since 2012, these scholars now advocate “constructive vigilance” of China – but not necessarily by pursuing narrow self-interests or relying on fearful demonization of the Chinese.
The report, organized by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society, insists the US and its allies stick to universal principles, in part because China often rejects them. “There is ... a growing body of evidence that the Chinese Communist Party views the American ideals of freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and association as direct challenges to its defense of its own form of one-party rule,” the report states.
The scholars suggest three principles as the best defense to covert or aggressive Chinese behavior: transparency, integrity, and reciprocity.
Transparency is the best protection against China’s attempted manipulation of media, think tanks, college faculty, and government officials. Maintaining the integrity of US institutions, such as schools not compromising in exchanges with Chinese counterparts, is essential.
And with Beijing denying foreign access to China in so many spheres from business to scholarship, the US must insist on a level playing field, or reciprocity. China must not force foreign firms to hand over their technological secrets, for example, and should improve its respect for protection of intellectual property. Treating each other equally will help ensure the US-China relationship is “more stable and thus durable,” the report states.
Big powers often need buffers when they pursue their particular interests. The best buffers are not always defensive weapons, trade tariffs, bans on people exchanges, or regulatory walls. The best vigilance toward China right now may be the US sticking to its ideals.