Proponents of heightening the conflict with China understate the diplomatic successes of recent years.
By Robert B. Zoellick, Wall Street Journal
The U.S. approach toward China now relies on confrontation and accusation. Yet in diplomacy, as in war, the other side gets a vote. On May 22 China will convene two of its annual summits, the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference. The Communist Party will choreograph messages carefully: The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union casts a long shadow in Beijing, and Covid-19 came close to shaking the party’s legitimacy. In Chinese history, diseases, famines and other natural disasters have foretold the end of dynasties.
President Xi Jinping will want the gatherings to herald China’s relative success in handling the virus, its emerging economic recovery, and its role in a global “community of shared interests,” as he has previously called the world order. He needs to moderate Beijing’s propaganda overreach and its emissaries’ heavy-handed responses to critics. Chinese historians recall that past spasms of patriotic and party fervor—the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution—scared the world.
How will the U.S. respond? The proponents of a “New Cold War” have declared their objections to China, but not what they plan to accomplish. When I worked with Secretary of State James Baker during the closing years of the old Cold War, we focused on what we wanted to get done—results, not mere expressions of dissatisfaction.
The New Cold Warriors can’t contain China given its ties throughout the world; other countries won’t join us. Nor can the U.S. break the regime, though the Communist Party’s flaws could open cracks within its own society. The U.S. can impose costs on China, but to what end, and at what price to Americans? After three years of bluster and tariffs, President Trump negotiated a narrow trade deal with China. Even before the pandemic the deal was unlikely to be fulfilled, and now it looks fanciful.
The New Cold Warriors expunge the successes of past U.S. cooperation with China. Beijing was once a wartime enemy, a supplier of proxy foes in North Korea and North Vietnam, and the world’s leading proliferator of missiles and nuclear weapons technology. Beginning in the 1990s, China reversed course and worked with the U.S. to control dangerous weapons. It turned from proliferation partnerships with Iran and North Korea to helping the U.S. thwart their development of nuclear arms. From 2000 to 2018, U.S. diplomacy prodded Beijing to support 182 of the 190 United Nations Security Council resolutions that imposed sanctions on states. China also assisted U.N. peacekeeping and helped Washington end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
China became the largest contributor to global economic growth. Beijing cut its current-account surplus from about 10% of gross domestic product to near zero, which drove world-wide expansion. For 15 years China was the fastest-growing destination for U.S. exports. It stopped manipulating its exchange rate. During the financial crisis, Beijing pushed the largest and quickest stimulus and helped stave off global depression, while cooperating closely with the U.S., the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
China is also a leading innovator in non-fossil-fuel technology, though it is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The U.S. and its allies successfully pressured Beijing to ban sales of elephant ivory, but China still permits illegal trafficking in rare species. This pandemic will likely prompt China to change its treatment of wildlife.
Over the past 50 years, America’s prudent and persistent policy toward Taiwan, combined with Beijing’s reluctant restraint, has enabled democracy to prosper safely.
This doesn’t mean that all is well with China. But it is flat wrong to suggest that working with China has not served U.S. interests. Self-deception will lead to dangerous diplomacy.
The U.S. and its partners face a staggering set of challenges. We need to find medical solutions to Covid-19. We must learn how to protect ourselves against future epidemics more quickly. America also needs a strong recovery, which will require a growing global economy, including China. Washington must anticipate financial weaknesses from mountains of debt and experimental monetary policies. Environmental and energy risks will require international cooperation and innovation. We have begun a huge digital transformation. Terrorists have not retired, and dangerous would-be regional hegemons still seek weapons of mass destruction. And we need to deal with China.
The U.S. strategy to address these challenges must begin with its allies. Europe’s role will be especially vital. Europeans have enjoyed Beijing’s benefits but also have felt China’s heavy hand. Most Europeans do not want to become Chinese tributary states, but they may adopt a benign neutrality toward Beijing. America’s appeal could tip the balance. The New Cold Warriors ignore how Washington led in defining shared objectives with allies during the Cold War—prodding, but also compromising, and combining idealism with pragmatism. America’s European and Indo-Pacific partners know addressing today’s problems will require working with China, even if countries need to develop separate systems in critical areas such as telecommunications.
The U.S. must have the military means to deter aggression against vital interests and allies. America should also promote the cause of freedom, which hasn’t been a Trump priority, and be a steady friend to other free countries. Even with authoritarian competitors such as China, the U.S. should emphasize human aspiration, not name-calling. We want to appeal to the Chinese public, not insult them. The U.S. needs to offer allies and the world an attractive approach, which must include working with China on mutual interests.
Mr. Zoellick is a former World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state.