"Flies and Barriers": On the China-US Relationship
Photo Credit: Council on Foreign Relations
By Thomas Fingar

"Flies and Barriers": On the China-US Relationship

Dec. 20, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The recent report of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States was not timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening and the restoration of US-China diplomatic relations but it provides “teaching moment” opportunities for reflection on the ways in which China and the United States have managed the challenges of deeper engagement. I hope that the full report will be available in China and urge readers of this commentary to read it and to think about the issues it raises. I had no role in the preparation of the report but concur with the views expressed by Susan Shirk in her dissenting opinion.

One cluster of issues centers on important asymmetries in the US-China relationship. The report describes numerous ways in which Chinese entities interact with institutions and individuals in the United States and correctly notes the almost complete absence of legal and procedural impediments to such interaction. One cannot say the same about China. Four decades into the era of reform and opening, China remains far less open to foreign ideas, interaction, and influence than is the United States. I encourage readers to ask why that is the case and to consider the consequences and implications for China’s future development. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, the concerns raised in the Working Group report represent “flies” that entered the United States through the window of extensive engagement with China. The report calls for dealing with the flies, not closing the window. China seems increasingly determined to prevent the intrusion of foreign “flies” by erecting (or failing to lower) barriers.

American thinking about the ways we interact with other nations is shifting from acceptance of asymmetries to demands for reciprocity and equal treatment.

Asymmetries in access are not limited to the dimensions of US-China relations discussed in this report. The US economy remains far more open to goods, investment, and ownership from China than China is to comparable forms of engagement by Americans. For decades, US laws, policy, and citizens accepted — even fostered — such asymmetries to strengthen our allies and partners. China has benefitted from this asymmetry, as have dozens of other countries. Policies to make our partners and allies stronger and more prosperous were designed to — and did — enhance American security and prosperity, but almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, many Americans understandably ask why we continue to accept such a high degree of inequality. What made sense during the Cold War and before our partners became stronger and more prosperous now seems unfair and unwise. As a result, American thinking about the ways we interact with other nations is shifting from acceptance of asymmetries to demands for reciprocity and equal treatment.

Some Chinese commentaries on the Working Group report have asserted that it reflects waning self-confidence and fear of China’s rise. Such assessments are wrong. Belief that we should receive essentially the same treatment from other countries as they accord to the United States and American citizens, firms, NGOs, and other entities reflects the strength of our commitment to fairness, not fear of competition. The long-held consensus that US policy should treat all countries (except explicit enemies, which China was from 1950 until the late 1960s) equally regardless of how they treated the United States has eroded significantly. That consensus is being replaced by calls for stricter reciprocity and treating other countries in the same way that they treat us. This sentiment is not limited to engagement with China but the Working Group report captures the emerging consensus by noting that Chinese media have far greater access to the United States than American reporters, newspapers, and broadcasts have to Chinese audiences. That is a fact, not an expression of paranoia or lack of confidence. Indeed, readers of this commentary might reflect upon why it is that China seems to lack confidence in the ability of its people to make their own judgments about foreign ideas and compete with foreign firms.

I was in China when the report was published and many Chinese interlocutors depicted its findings and recommendations as “proof” that the United States had abandoned engagement and reverted to containment policies designed to thwart China’s rise. Both their characterization of the report and their assertions about American policy are wrong. None of these interlocutors had read the report (their opinions were based on negative commentary), and I suspect that many would change their assessment if they had a chance to do so. I also suspect that many in China would change their minds about whether the United States is attempting to “contain” China if they had access to more — and more accurate — information about American willingness to acknowledge and manage the “flies” of engagement and Chinese efforts to erect barriers to Western ideas.

This essay's translated Chinese version was published at dunjiaodu.com.

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