Former US policymakers offer suggestions for a new China strategy

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A panel of former US policymakers has urged Washington to join a Pacific Rim trade pact abandoned four years ago, pass legislation that would fund technology innovation and bolster educational exchange with China and other countries as part of a raft of measures needed to prevail in an increasingly confrontational relationship with Beijing.

The policymakers, including the former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky, the former US ambassador to China Winston Lord and Evan Medeiros, a former National Security Council official – members of a largely bipartisan informal group called the “Task Force on US-China Policy” – announced their recommendations in an online discussion about their latest white paper, “China’s New Direction: Challenges and Opportunities for US Policy”.

The task force is co-chaired by Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, and Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations.

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“We believe the response to China should be to foster rather than diminish our open attractive and powerful innovation environment and US scientific dynamism,” Barshefsky said.

“The response to China should be to foster rather than diminish our open attractive and powerful innovation environment and US scientific dynamism,” says Charlene Barshefsky, a former United States trade representative. Photo: K.Y. Cheng
“The response to China should be to foster rather than diminish our open attractive and powerful innovation environment and US scientific dynamism,” says Charlene Barshefsky, a former United States trade representative. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

“In addition, the US should increase government funding for [research and development] in critical sectors … increase participation in tech standards bodies to influence the future rules of the road, enact immigration policies that cement the US as the most attractive destination for foreign talents, and work in concert with varying groups of like-minded countries,” she continued, citing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

In the section of the white paper that Barshefsky co-wrote, she said the US Innovation and Competition Act, legislation that earmarks billions of dollars to increase domestic semiconductor manufacturing among other provisions meant to bolster competition with China, “is a good start”. A similar bill in the House of Representatives has cleared a key committee but has not been voted on by the full chamber.

Many of the recommendations align with those of espoused by China hawks in the administration of former president Donald Trump, who withdrew from CPTPP’s precursor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Those include a warning by Medeiros that “the US military presence and the ability to project and sustain military power is very much threatened in East Asia because of the strides China has made”.

Evan Medeiros, a former member of the National Security Council, warns that “the US military presence and the ability to project and sustain military power is very much threatened in East Asia because of the strides China has made”. Photo: Xinhua
Evan Medeiros, a former member of the National Security Council, warns that “the US military presence and the ability to project and sustain military power is very much threatened in East Asia because of the strides China has made”. Photo: Xinhua

Presenting arguments made by, among others, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Thomas Christensen, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under George W Bush, Medeiros said that China’s electronic warfare and space capabilities threaten the ability of US forces in Asia to communicate with each other and with their allies.

Other recommendations, though – particularly those on academic and other cultural exchange with China – run up against measures now in place to protect national security interests, such as a policy to screen out students and researchers who immigration officials suspect may obtain US technology with possible military uses.

Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who is not on the task force, stepped up hard-line rhetoric about Chinese students until the end of his tenure. In December, he accused prestigious schools including Columbia University of cooperating with China in a way that undermined national security.

Lord, who helped pave the way for president Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972 and served as Washington’s envoy to Beijing during the Reagan administration, argued in the report that measures that discourage Chinese students and researchers from coming to the US threaten Washington’s broader policy goals.

Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China, contends that efforts to screen out Chinese students and researchers in the US run counter to broader policy goals. Photo: YouTube
Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China, contends that efforts to screen out Chinese students and researchers in the US run counter to broader policy goals. Photo: YouTube

“Since the ties between the two societies … can help promote better understanding of human rights, the US government and American academic institutions should continue supporting educational exchanges between the two countries, except in those areas of science and technology that are sensitive for military and national security reasons,” Lord said in a section of the report co-written by Schell and Andrew Nathan, a Columbia professor and former member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Otherwise, Chinese students and scholars who wish to study in the US in non-sensitive fields should be made to feel welcome and should receive student or visiting scholar visas without undo hassle.”

The task force also hews to the status quo when it comes to Taiwan, an issue that has been heating up because of increased military activity around the island by China’s air force and reports that Taiwanese officials want to change the name of their mission in Washington from “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” (Tecro) to “Taiwan Representative Office”.

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While Glaser and Christensen call for the US “to support and help reinforce strategies currently being adopted by Taiwan to provide a more dispersed, agile and enduring asymmetric response to a [People’s Liberation Army] invasion”, they also stand against an official declaration of independence by the self-ruled island.

“The US must dissuade Taiwan politicians from making assertions of de jure (legal) sovereign independence from the Chinese nation that could unnecessarily provoke a conflict,” they said in the report. “In the same vein, the [administration of President Joe Biden] and Congress should reject calls in the United States, especially from the Congress, to make the US commitment to Taiwan’s defence unconditional.

“Such a move is unnecessary because the PLA and the PRC leadership already expect and plan for US intervention in most of their major conflict scenarios,” they said. “The credibility of an unconditional commitment could be constantly tested by lower-level PRC military actions in the Taiwan Strait.”

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