China and the World

Art of the bad deal?

What does a top expert on Sino-US relations think the Trump era will hold?


Pomfret: US-China expert

It seems odd that no one had thought to do it before, but in his latest book John Pomfret produces a comprehensive history of Sino-American ties, covering a period that spans more than two centuries.

The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom is an authoritative work that should be required reading for most of Donald Trump’s cabinet – although sadly that is probably wishful thinking on our part.

Pomfret says patterns of behaviour repeat themselves across twenty-odd decades of relations between the two countries: “Both sides experience rapturous enchantment begetting hope, followed by disappointment, repulsion and disgust, only to return to fascination again.”

The relationship seems to be returning to one of the darker parts of that cycle, but preventing it from descending from disappointment into revulsion is one of the greater challenges the world faces. As the author puts it: “Today, these two nations face each other – not quite friends, not yet enemies – pursuing parallel quests for power while the world watches.” He adds that no problem of worldwide concern can be solved unless Washington and Beijing find a way to work together.

Pomfret gave a quick-fire interview to WiC in which he touched on areas as varied as Eisenhower’s threats to nuke Mao and how Trump should handle Beijing.

“China and American interests are correlated and similar”. You quote Mao Zedong as saying that in 1944. Does your account of Sino-US relations indicate that this statement is true today?

In some ways, it remains true – if you think about nuclear proliferation, terrorism, medical research and climate change. In other areas – specifically political ideology and even to some extent trade and geopolitical issues (such as North Korea) – the relationship is becoming increasingly fraught.

You say the Sino-US economic relationship is akin to that between a drug dealer and a junkie. You think President Trump would agree?

Not only President Trump, I believe. There has been a sea-change in Washington writ large on America’s relations with China. Increasingly the predominant view is one that contends that China has played the US over the past several decades.

Among the staggering stats in your book is that China has had a trade surplus with the US since 1981. In your view which has benefited more from this: China’s economy or the American consumer?

Both have benefited, but clearly China’s economy has benefited far more, given the significant hit that working men and women in America have taken due to Chinese competition and the inability of the US to retrain those hurt by China’s rise.

You also point out America has educated 2 million Chinese since 1979. How vital has this been to China’s economic renaissance?

Clearly, US education has inspired and educated China’s best and brightest, thousands of whom have returned to China to help spur China’s rise.

President Nixon is quoted as remarking in 1971 “you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be leaders of the world”. Is that broadly what’s happened since Deng Xiaoping gained power?

Yes, Nixon was incredibly prescient on China. He also worried, in one of his last interviews before he died, that in enabling China’s rise the United States had perhaps created “a Frankenstein”.

You say of Chinese cyber crime and the stealing of industrial secrets that it helps Beijing “avoid the challenge of a free society”. Can you explain?

If you swipe a technology from overseas, it means that you don’t need to invent it yourself. As such, you avoid the political dimension of fostering a free society wherein such creativity would be fostered.

You quote Richard Armitage, a senior official in several Republican administrations, as calling the US negotiating strategy with China “teaching the dog to piss on the rug”. Is that an accurate assessment?

In some cases, yes. The US government has often been at pains to downplay areas where Chinese actions ran directly counter to American interests. A recent example would be how the Obama administration treated a panoply of Chinese firms involved in UN sanctions-busting with North Korea. Over the course of the eight years, the US only sanctioned one of those firms.

In the Korean War a US air strike killed Mao’s son. Why do you term that one of America’s most enduring legacies in China?

Not so much an enduring legacy, but perhaps an overlooked one. Killing Mao Anying removed any possibility of Chairman Mao creating a dynasty, similar to the one that unfolded in North Korea. Such speculation obviously falls within the perilous category of historical “what-if-ism,” but it’s nonetheless significant in my view.

Your book points out that in the 1950s President Eisenhower threatened to bomb China with nuclear weapons on eight separate occasions. How serious were these threats?

Eisenhower seemed to understand that using nuclear weapons again was a non-starter. America’s allies in Western Europe and Japan, made it clear that they would not tolerate such an attack. Eisenhower (and Dulles) used the threats mainly to get Beijing’s attention and to lord it over the Chinese that (for the time being) America was a nuclear power and China was not.

Your book offers new perspectives on Chiang Kai-shek. You indicate that he was badly let down by the US in the 1940s, both militarily and economically. Might different US policies have seen Chiang triumph over Mao?

Again, we’re in the realm of historical “what-if-ism” here. What I attempted to do in the book is challenge the argument that the Communist takeover of China was inevitable. That type of historical determinism is, I believe, damaging to a deeper understanding of the time. I think it’s clear from the record that the US, for logical reasons, focused on winning the war in the Pacific and not in China. But that calculation – made because it was easier and fewer American troops would die – had ramifications in China that resulted in further weakening Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. Does that mean if the US had focused its warfighting capabilities in China, then Chiang would have survived as China’s leader? We really can only guess.

You say President Reagan’s China policy was “muddled” and cite Kissinger’s view that it was “a study in almost incomprehensible contradictions”. Could something similar arise during the next four years of the Trump administration?

I think that no matter who had won the presidential election, we would be facing a rocky period in US-China relations.

Across the political spectrum in Washington there is a view that China benefits more than the US from the relationship as it is currently structured. Trump inserts an element of unpredictability into this relationship given his Twitter diplomacy.

If you were given 10 minutes with Trump and advised him on China policy, what would you say?

You have to know what you want from China before you engage it.

Have you read Daniel Bell’s book The China Model? What do you think about his views on China’s meritocratic governance and his belief that system has its advantages over Western democracy?

China’s system is not fixed; it will continue to evolve as China confronts a slowing economy and increasing demands from its increasingly educated population for more personal freedom. What it will look like in 10 years is anybody’s guess. As such, I think that books which herald the coming of a new “model” or “consensus,” while providing food for thought, are premature.

What’s the likelihood that your own book will be translated into Chinese and published in China?

We’re in talks with a publisher. The key issue would be how much they want to remove.

You say at the end of your book that Americans have a hard time acknowledging China’s successes. You also say China often deserves more praise than it gets. Why is that? Does it relate to US media coverage?

I think the American media holds China to higher standards than we do for other countries – such as Indonesia or India, for example – partially because there are systemic differences between America and China, and partially because of the historically high expectations that Americans have had for China and the Chinese.

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