On July 22, 2021, the National Committee hosted a virtual program with National Committee President Stephen Orlins to discuss the Biden administration’s China policy in conversation with NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute Founder and Faculty Director Emeritus Jerome Cohen. Mr. Orlins spoke in his personal capacity.
The Closing Window
Stephen A. Orlins
President, National Committee on U.S.-China Relations
July 22, 2021
Today I speak for myself, not the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Indeed some of my board members and some of the Committee’s membership hold different views than I do.
It has been six months since the inauguration and almost nine months since the election. And even before that, President Biden and his team have spent many years thinking about what our China policy should be; so today I want to address where we are and propose some actions the administration should take now to craft a policy that benefits all Americans, especially working class Americans. I will not spend time rehashing the litany of bad, sometimes reprehensible, PRC government decisions, policies, and behaviors relating to its treatment of dissidents and people in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its Taiwan policies, or its unfair economic policies. I am on the record clearly and forcefully criticizing those policies and attributing blame to the Chinese government for the state of the relationship from far before the Trump era. But today I want to talk about the other side of the equation: how U.S. actions have also contributed to the dangerous deterioration of U.S.-China relations and how that affects us as a country and people.
I believe that over the past four years, America’s China policy has been a disaster for average Americans and U.S.-China relations and has often been based on fallacies rather than facts. The Biden Administration needs to forcefully refute some of these foundational fictions such as China interfered in the 2020 elections-it didn’t; Chinese pay the tariffs on imported goods- they don’t; or the bilateral trade deficit reflects the unfair trading relationship between China and the United States-It doesn’t.
These are only a few of the assertions that form the flawed foundation for our current China policy that the Biden Administration inherited and should address.
I must admit I believed President Biden would overturn President Trump’s China policies. During the election campaign I had heard candidate Biden strike what I thought was an appropriate, confident tone when he said the United States is “better positioned than any nation in the world to own the 21st century… Don’t tell me China’s going to own America. It’s not possible.” Instead of demonizing China, he called for America to strengthen itself by addressing domestic issues. He seemed committed to striking a more measured path, one that emphasized working together with China where possible to address global issues such as climate change and nonproliferation. However, since his election, President Biden’s good instincts on China policy have been deflected. In the context of paying immediate attention to battling COVID, restoring domestic economic health and social tranquility, rebuilding our infrastructure, and standing with allies and like-minded nations, the Biden administration has reversed too few of Trump’s China policies.
I understand that President Biden needs all the capital he can get for his domestic agenda, and I realize that there is broad agreement on China policy between the two parties. Nevertheless, we should not let those constraints force us in international economic and security directions that are unsound. Looking back at history, parties and administrations that pursued enlightened domestic policies did not always do so with respect to foreign policy, particularly in Asia. The same administration that championed civil rights sent my classmates to their deaths in Southeast Asia.
The administration points out that sequencing policies in coordination with allies is critical. I agree, but leaving these policies in place punishes working families, promotes racial antagonism, and will sap resources from revitalizing the American economy.
It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines, so let me instead give you my positive agenda for a U.S. policy toward China that will strengthen ties and benefit American families:
First, on the economic front, the administration should immediately revoke Trump’s tariffs. China has indicated it will also end its reciprocal tariffs. America has already lost 300,000 jobs and a family of four is still paying $2,300 annually in extra expenses. With inflation possibly on the horizon it is time to act.
The ongoing delisting of Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges and the expansion of the previous administration’s prohibition on investment in 49 Chinese companies also needs to be revisited. While the Biden administration has correctly emphasized working closely with allies, we are going it alone when it comes to delisting and sanctioning Chinese companies. Where are our European partners and allies? If these companies’ listings in Hong Kong, London, Singapore, and Tokyo remain unchanged, these actions do not harm them. They do, however, have an impact on people’s livelihoods here in New York.
The second area for action is people to people and academic exchanges. The administration restore the Peace Corps and Fulbright Programs and reverse the executive order that ends congressional staff trips under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. The administration should also speed issuance of student visas and restart issuing visas to CCP members and their families. We can facilitate this by allowing the Chinese government to reopen its consulate in Houston as we reopen our consulate in Chengdu. It should also quickly rebuild the CDC and NSF presence in our Beijing embassy.
Additionally, the administration should immediately end the restrictions on Chinese state media in the United States. This media reports on America to Chinese audiences and does not influence discussions of China in America. Before relaxing this restriction, the administration should secure PRC government agreement to allow American journalists back into China under acceptable working conditions.
As for academic exchanges, Attorney General Garland should end the China Initiative. Created by the Trump administration to address a “China threat,” the Initiative at a minimum undermines the Justice Department’s own guidelines that prosecutors should not be influenced by a person’s race or national origin. In addition to serious issues of bias, the Initiative’s chilling effect dissuades top scholars and researchers from coming to and staying in the United States. The weak prosecutions that have thus far resulted from the China Initiative show the costs far exceed the benefits. I urge you to read about the trial of Dr. Anming Hu, a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tennessee, to get a sense of the tragedy this initiative inflicts.
The third area for action is on human rights and international norms. Labeling China a strategic competitor and focusing on destructive confrontation rather than constructive engagement does not help one citizen in Hong Kong, one Uighur in Xinjiang, or one dissident in China. While we should continue to vehemently criticize PRC actions and sanction where necessary, a cooperative relationship will allow us to have more influence affecting policies that are inconsistent with our values.
Additionally, our criticism of China’s violations of international law in thein the South China Sea would be enhanced by our own ratification of UNCLOS.
Fourth, U.S. policy on Taiwan is the root of much of our strategic conflict with China. While the Biden administration has reversed some of the previous administration’s actions, and Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell’s reaffirmation of the One China Policy helped, the visit to Taiwan by the U.S. ambassador to Palau, meetings of chargés d’affaires in Tokyo, two visits by military aircraft to Taiwan, and failure to return the official contact protocol to the pre-Pompeo era undermine those statements. We can and should strengthen our relations with Taiwan without making it more official, with the visit to Taipei of Chris Dodd, James Steinberg, and Richard Armitage, and negotiating additional trade agreements as good examples.
Fifth, the United States should be careful to distinguish between Russia and China. In 2018, then Citizen Biden pointed out that “a long-term partnership, alliance, between Moscow and Beijing in the near term…isn’t in the stars at all.” Yet, by continuing to pursue policies that group them together as joint threats, the United States is only pushing them closer together…
Finally, we should not understate the benefits constructive engagement brought to the American people as we chart a new China policy. I do not agree that the era of constructive engagement was misguided or is over. This view ignores that engagement with China not only improved the lives of the Chinese people, it also helped bind China to the international system leading to its remarkable economic growth that has directly benefited working Americans. It ignores that China has become the largest contributor to global economic growth. It ignores China’s accession to the WTO, UN sanctions on North Korea and Iran, the Iran Accords, the Paris Accords, ending the genocide in Darfur, controlling the Ebola epidemic, leading the global recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, reducing piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and cooperating on joint research by our CDCs in pandemics past. Most importantly, when I first arrived in Asia 50 years ago, we were fighting the last of three wars that led to the deaths of more than 250,000 American soldiers on the battlefields of Asia. Since the era of constructive engagement, not a single American soldier has died on those battlefields.
In 1953, President Eisenhower gave his “Chance for Peace” speech. He warned that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” We should temper what is a normal level of competition with engagement, not exaggerate competition and produce dangerous confrontation. Otherwise, we risk spending hundreds of billions of dollars, inflicting enormous human sacrifice, and foregoing the chance to pursue economic policies that will better serve the needs of American working families. This moment calls for great leadership. If Nixon had polled whether or not he should go to China, or if Carter had polled whether or not he should establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, neither would have acted. Now is the time for bold– and brave – actions. It’s late but not too late.