Dec 18, 2018 02:51 PM

Q&A: Obama’s Top Asia Adviser Explains Where U.S. Went Wrong on China

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel. Photo: VCG
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel. Photo: VCG

In just under two years of office, President Trump has upended four decades of U.S. foreign policy toward China, throwing out the gentler encouragement for the Middle Kingdom to open up in favor of direct confrontation through a trade war that has rattled global markets. Tension between the world’s most important economies is arguably greater than at any point this century.

Having served in both the Obama and Trump administrations as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Daniel R. Russel is uniquely poised to discuss what has happened to the China-U.S. relationship and what it will take to fix it. Perhaps tellingly, Trump has yet to find an official replacement to take the role.

Russel previously served as special assistant to President Obama and the National Security Council, where he was a key architect in devising the U.S. strategic ‘rebalance’ toward Asia, a move that aimed to strengthen U.S. engagement with the region by bolstering alliances. That strategy now appears to be in tatters.

Now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Daniel shared his thoughts on Sino-U.S. affairs with Caixin.

Caixin: You were one of the key architects behind the U.S. ‘rebalance’ toward the Asia Pacific, a strategy for working more closely with regional stakeholders to ensure stability and adherence to global norms. Has the Trump administration abandoned this approach?

On the surface it could be said that the Trump administration just rebranded the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance’ strategy as the Indo-Pacific strategy, and that it remains largely unchanged. In theory there is still an emphasis on strengthening U.S. alliances with democratic partners, supporting efforts to deter terrorism.

But two years into the Trump administration, any consistency is largely rhetorical. Many important policy positions remain unfilled — including the job I used to have and numerous key ambassadorships. Diplomacy towards the region has been discounted. President Trump made a single maiden visit to the East Asia Summit, but the next year he stayed put, signaling that the “America First” principle is at odds with a rebalance towards the Asia Pacific.

The rebalance was underpinned by the principle that America’s security and strategic interests are inextricably linked to growth in the Asia-Pacific region. It held that a stable, secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific region is vital to the interests of the U.S. and was predicated on the idea that cooperation and competition can co-exist.

In contrast, the Trump administration seems to have taken a more a unilateralist and confrontational approach that is much heavier on the competition aspect and light on cooperation.

Are there any advantages to President Trump’s more confrontational approach compared to the more diplomatic approach of the Obama years?

This is just a thought experiment, but if President Obama had been given a third term, we would still have seen a significant escalation in pressure on China. It would not just be limited to the Trump administration’s policies on trade and on the commercial side, such as intellectual property rights and cyber boundaries, but would extend to other friction points, such as human rights and China’s building of outposts in the South China Sea.

These would have emerged as major problems in the relationship even under President Obama. Many of the Trump administration’s complaints reflect concerns among the broader international community, and I think there’s a continuity and inevitable pushback on China for some of its problematic behavior.

That said, what is radically different in the Trump administration’s approach from that taken by Obama or even by President (George W.) Bush is that previously there was not the aggressive, ad hominem vilification of China. At present, there appears to be a determination to paint China as a strategic rival and in fact an enemy, and I believe this is a profound mistake. It’s one thing to object to and respond to behavior that we believe is inconsistent with international rules and norms, but it is very different to label the Chinese nation as bad and as an enemy.

If we take China as a strategic rival, then we are condemned to live in an era of strategic rivalry. There is a world of difference between competition that brings out the best of both sides and rivalry that brings the worst.

The aggressive and assertive policies of the Trump administration have succeeded in getting China’s attention, and there is some sympathy among other countries about the U.S. response to predatory behavior, such as China’s denial of market access, its unfair and prejudicial treatment of foreign companies, etc. But these are measurable, substantive problems that ought to be dealt with. And indeed, previous administrations tried to deal with these problems, and in some cases reached agreements, such as the deal to stop cyber-enabled economic theft made in 2015 and the U.S.-China agreement on climate change.

But there has been an accumulation of frustration among many stakeholders in the U.S. and elsewhere — among people who have traditionally been advocates for a stronger relationship with China who are frustrated about certain behaviors. But as the Christians say, “hate the sin and not the sinner.” To be adamantly opposed to cybertheft makes sense; to be concerned over forced transfers of technology makes sense. But to vilify China, to condemn it and designate it as an enemy and an outlier is not a recipe for progress or a proper resolution.

Could any positives emerge from the Trump administration’s approach and how does China view it?

In my experience there are many people within the Chinese system who are frustrated with the backtracking on economic reforms and who believe that it’s important for China to adjust to and increasingly adhere to international norms of behavior. This group is hopeful that a very tough line from the U.S. might lead to improvements and might serve as a driver for reforms within China. It is not unusual for officials to take advantage of external pressure and use that as a vehicle for changes that they would like to see initiated.

When I was in China a few weeks ago I heard a joke about the two men who have done the most to advance economic reform in the country — one is Deng Xiaoping and the other is Donald Trump. But the sense I got from the trip about attitudes towards America more broadly is that the U.S. is hostile to China and is seek to impede its growth while keeping China down and humiliating it. The U.S. is complaining, particularly on trade issues, but the U.S. is not demonstrating a willingness to offer solutions.

There’s a sense that the U.S. is an implacably hostile power that wants to benefit or flourish at China’s expense — that sees an incompatibility with a strong and prosperous China. This perception appears to be gaining ground. I very much worry about the emergence of a next generation of leaders in China who are convinced that the U.S. is hostile to it, that see the U.S. as a rival. Living in such a zero-sum world is extraordinarily dangerous.

This combative approach of threatening China, of imposing sanctions and challenging it across the board, while appearing to be uninterested in solutions or in compromise, takes us in a direction that is very harmful, both to U.S. interests and to global interests. Without U.S.-China cooperation it’s very difficult to imagine how the world can address the major challenges it faces, whether it’s climate change, the risk of violent extremism, whether it’s pandemics and diseases, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, or whether it’s poverty alleviation, development and economic prosperity. I worry that the downstream effect of both “America First” and the punitive tariff approach the U.S. is currently taking might be harmful to our national interests.

Do you see any way out, or are China and the U.S. going to be locked in hostilities for the foreseeable future?

There is an opportunity for the Chinese leadership to screen out the tone of the criticism that is coming from Washington, but at the same time to listen to the substance of what China’s many friends in the U.S. and elsewhere are saying. What they have been saying for a long time now, without any sense that it’s registering, is that it’s not fair for China as a prosperous and powerful nation to continue to claim the special benefits of a developing country notwithstanding the fact that there are still hundreds of millions of people stuck in poverty.

The nation as a whole is extraordinarily wealthy, has benefited from the international trading system, and it’s not fair for China to exploit the access and openness of the West and the U.S. in particular, while simultaneously imposing unreasonable and discriminatory regulations and tariffs and nontariff barriers that impede the ability of foreign and U.S. companies to operate on the same basic terms in China. It’s unfair and unjust that China should impose such draconian restrictions on foreign NGO organizations, on foreign journalists and media. It’s not fair that foreign academics should be subject to loyalty tests, and visas to be denied if scholars write articles that Beijing isn’t happy with.

The double standards that China’s friends have identified over the years, and the behavior that many of China’s neighbors perceive as bullying, such as over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, have created friction. So has the perceived disregard for the rule of law and for good governance, which is manifest in the heavy debt burdens that are incurred in connection with major infrastructure projects by China in the developing world. All of this of real concern for China’s friends in the U.S. and worldwide.

There is a growing consensus that the advice and criticism from foreign friends have fallen on deaf ears. In a way, there’s something of a perfect storm right now where the strong supporters of good relations with China have become frustrated at the same time that a populist and nationalist government has taken office in the U.S., and that storm is creating tremendous tensions in the bilateral relationship.

The most recent flashpoint in China-U.S. tensions was Canada’s detention of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, which has angered many Chinese citizens. What would you say to them?

If I were a Chinese citizen, I would be concerned that the international reputation of major Chinese tech companies is so negative, and this can’t be explained by merely pointing a finger at the U.S. The Trump administration and many countries worldwide have expressed great concern about the risks that Chinese technology, information and media companies represent to the intellectual property and national security of their country.

That said, I think it’s very unfortunate for President Trump to imply with a recent tweet that the resolution of the legal case regarding Huawei’s CFO could be settled as part of a trade deal. That’s plain wrong because legal issues are legal issues, trade issues are trade issues, and it’s been a point of pride for a long time in the U.S. that we don’t allow the law to be bent to accommodate political objectives. That is what the rule of law is supposed to prevent. I think this signal from Trump is an outlier which is unfortunate and is contrary to the very strong commitment from U.S. law enforcement and the justice department to prevent politics to enter into criminal activities.

What should the U.S. do differently?

I think the most important thing the U.S. side could do is to differentiate between China and the specific behavior that we believe is unjustified, unfair or contrary to international law. We should differentiate between this behavior, and China itself as a nation, and its people, whom we should respect.

I heard Obama say again and again, both in public and in private, that he welcomed the rise of a stable and prosperous China, and he believed that the U.S. has the ability to compete. But his concerns were twofold. He was concerned about areas where China was erecting barriers to competition and to the theft of IP and so on. Second, he wasn’t concerned about a strong China, but a weak and unstable China. That scenario was truly a risk for the world.

From our side I think the U.S. should act from the premise that we should be supportive of China’s prosperity, its stability, and be friendly towards China and its people. At the same time, we need to be tough in opposing unfair and objectional behavior. For its part, China’s words need to be matched with action. It has said again and again that it doesn’t undertake cybertheft to gain technology, or that it doesn’t restrict foreign investment activities, but the facts say otherwise.

I think there’s a real urgency for China to restore its credibility, to win back the faith and confidence of many sectors, not only in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world, which have become disillusioned with China’s failures to live up to its promise and its words.

Contact reporter David Kirton (

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