I recently helped organize an open letter to the U.S. president and Congress on why making China an enemy is not in the U.S. interest. The letter, signed by 100 American academics, foreign policy experts, and business leaders including Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus at Harvard University and myself, was published by the Washington Post in early July.
After a long career in the diplomatic service, I am not used to raising objections to U.S. policy in public. But faced with the sudden onset of U.S. hysteria over China, the dramatic negative effects it was having on U.S. interests and the absence of any consideration or public debate of the damaging long-term consequences, something had to be done.
While the Chinese government's actions are often objectionable and its long-term ambitions may run counter to our interests in some areas, as the most populous nation-state and a major, modern economy with a strong central government, modern military, and UNSC permanent membership, China shares many common interests with other powers, despite differences in political systems.
Moreover, it would be a mistake to believe that the United States and other major powers, including Japan, can successfully contain China or cause China to stumble. China faces many challenges and may, indeed, face crises in the future. But such crises will be of her own making, and it is beneath our national character and not in our interests to promote such an outcome.
What we should do is ensure that our future generations can continue to seize opportunities presented by China's modernization and integration into the wider global economy and society.
To do this, we must do everything possible to encourage China's continued reform and opening up and should hope to see China's economy continue to develop and improve its productivity based on market-oriented mechanisms. Market-access for foreign firms, fair enforcement of laws and rules, the use of China's market as a political weapon by the Chinese government and financial/credit liberalization will all be areas to watch.
At the same time, we must insist that China contribute to and abide by consensus-driven international rule-making that has underpinned the stability and prosperity of East Asia and China's unparalleled economic growth in recent decades.
Although many in U.S. political circles currently claim otherwise, China can be moved to change some objectionable behaviors and will respond to diplomatic pressure to contribute to the international system. China does not want to see the destabilization of the current international system, despite its misgivings over some aspects of it.
Pursuing a policy of calibrated constructive engagement to shape norms and interactions and pursue mutual interests and contributions while applying appropriate pressure and deterrence to change or block other actions is the only realistic approach to managing China's rise. The United States and its allies working together have (and must retain) the capability to deter future Chinese aggression and to positively influence China's overall development. There is no question that disengagement will badly weaken these capabilities, to our collective detriment.
Japan, one of several major powers in Northeast Asia, a close neighbor and trading partner of China and a treaty ally of the United States, has more at stake in U.S. policy toward China than almost any other major third country. Some in Japan no doubt take pleasure in seeing the U.S. "get tough" approach to China, even if they are not clear on its objectives.
But policy response is not about what is "tough" or what is "weak." Policy should reflect a sober calculation of interests, responses and counter-responses, aimed at producing a positive (or less negative) future outcome.
There are ample recent and historical examples of "tough," emotionally-seductive policies, often sold by advocates as "easy and low-cost," that resulted in disaster. In the complex world of the 21st century, we must not be so easily seduced; we need to remain focused on the sustainability of our collective long-term future.
(Susan A. Thornton is a retired senior U.S. diplomat with almost 30 years of experience with the State Department in East Asia and Eurasia. Until July 2018, Thornton was acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the department and led East Asia policy including toward China and North Korea. She speaks Russian and Mandarin Chinese.)